Politics » Politics Feature

Sealing the Deal

The County Commission backs into a new ordinance for the November ballot.

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I'm off to the two national conventions. But first:

What hath Henri Brooks wrought? And then unwrought?

Or maybe those questions should be posed in reverse order. In any case, what the outspoken and influential county commissioner from District 2, Position 2, did at the very beginning of Monday's meeting of the Shelby County Commission was abstain from voting on the second reading of an ordinance to redefine five countywide offices.

And a good two hours later, what Brooks did was decide she could vote on that ordinance after all, giving it enough votes finally for the required super-majority of nine and putting it on the way to a third reading and final passage. All of which means that Shelby County voters will have a chance to approve the newly re-created and freshly chartered offices of sheriff, trustee, assessor, county clerk, and register on the November ballot.

What happened in between was that the 13 commissioners were forced into yet another vexing and acrimonious recap of all the various dissents and counterarguments that had kept the commission from coming to agreement on what to do about the five offices, which in essence had seen their constitutionality invalidated by the state Supreme Court in January 2007.

That act, a spinoff of the court's ruling on similar positions in Knox County, forced the commission to re-create the offices under the county charter. A first compromise effort, which came after literally months of frenzied disagreement, was put on the August ballot as Ordinance 360 and was narrowly rejected, though a companion measure, Ordinance 361, passed handily.

After the defeat of Ordinance 360, presumably because of a controversial term-limits provision — a maximum of three four-years terms for the five officials, plus the mayor and commissioners — the commission bit the bullet last week and forged two new ordinances for November. One would merely re-create the five positions, and the other would impose limits of two four-year terms on the officials.

The second reading on Monday was expected to be routine — though, given the cantankerousness that has prevailed in previous discussions, nobody could be 100 per cent certain. And, sure enough, Brooks' demurrer left the first resolution short by a vote and put the second one in jeopardy.

The capsule version of what happened next: Every argument for and against limits of two four-year terms, limits of three four-year terms, and there being no limits at all was hauled out of storage, dusted off, and given another hearing — though, as before, agreement proved elusive.

At one point, Commissioner George Flinn seemed to have come up with a compromise that would have let Shelby Countians vote on one ordinance that re-created the five jobs with limits of three four-year terms, accompanied by another resolution limiting the offices to two four-year terms that superseded the first resolution in that respect.

A majority of the commission seemed ready to vote approval, but the moment of epiphany dissipated when it came to actual voting. Flinn's motion failed, as did another variant, offered by Commissioner Mike Ritz, that located the two-term provision in the first proposed ordinance and a three-term provision in the second or "trump" ordinance.

Then, for reasons as unexplained as was her original abstention, Brooks proposed a re-vote on the original first ordinance, simply re-creating the five positions, and, since she voted for it this time, it got the necessary nine. Following that, so did the original second resolution, with its provision for limits on the five officials of two four-year terms.

Not everybody liked the outcome, but most commissioners acknowledged afterward that the two ordinances, submitted to the voters in November as referenda, had good chances for passage.

• In other significant actions, the commission rejected a proposal for outsourcing food services for the division of corrections to a private corporation and approved a long-pending salary adjustment upward for sheriff's deputies at or below the rank of lieutenant.

Though both votes flowed across party lines, each reflected the enhanced power of the Democratic electorate — both on the commission, where Democrats now own a majority and District 5's Steve Mulroy has often provided a swing vote on politically contentious matters, and in the county at large, where the August 7th election results tilted decisively toward Democratic demographics.

• Thursday is the filing deadline for Scott McCormick's vacated District 9, Position 1, City Council seat. See memphisflyer.com for updates on this and other political matters.

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