Politics » Politics Feature


As post-August 5th recriminations continue, the consolidation controversy heats up.



As a challenge to the results of the countywide election of August 5th continues (see below), controversy is building over an election yet to come — the consolidation referendum on the November 2nd ballot.

Two meetings were held on the subject Monday night. First was a late afternoon meeting at Riverdale Elementary School sponsored by a newly formed anti-consolidation group called Save Shelby Now. Among the attendees were several prominent local officials opposed to the consolidation movement — among them Germantown mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, Shelby County commissioner-elect Chris Thomas, and county school board president David Pickler.

A would-be attendee was former Collierville mayor Linda Kerley, who came to the meeting, as she put it, in her role as a member of the Metro Charter Commission, which prepared the ballot referendum. "As I do at church, I sat on the last row," Kerley said. "I was not there as a proponent but to answer questions about the charter if there were any."

But the opportunity never came. Jon Crisp, chairman of Save Shelby Now, informed Kerley that the meeting was just for opponents and asked her to leave. Kerley protested that the meeting was being held in a public building and involved public officials and therefore might be in conflict with the state Sunshine Law.

Pickler, who had assisted the group in locating its event at Riverdale, said he concurred with Kerley that she had a right to attend, but after a heated discussion arose about taking the meeting outside, Kerley finally left voluntarily.

She would later sit in the audience at a second meeting — this one a forum on consolidation sponsored by Leadership Germantown. Goldsworthy would be at that one, too, as one of two panelists opposing the referendum — the other being activist Tom Guleff. Panelists making the case for consolidation were Memphis city councilman Jim Strickland and former councilman Jack Sammons, on behalf of the Rebuild Government organization.

The discussion, held before an audience that was overwhelmingly disposed against consolidation, ranged across the breadth and width of the proposed charter, but question cards solicited from attendees showed that one subject above all is still a major preoccupation with charter opponents — the issue of school consolidation.

Though the charter expressly prohibits a merger between the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, there is still concern over the possibility. One of the audience cards put it this way: "If the charter can be changed by amendment with 2/3 vote and Memphis-dominated representatives have the votes to do so, doesn't this make the school consolidation a future possibility?"

Beyond the question of whether a public referendum on any such change might be called for, Strickland contended that consolidation of school systems was something that only the two school boards could achieve by mutual agreement. The only other means by which school consolidation could be achieved was through one of the boards surrendering its charter, he said.

Murmurs from the audience indicated that many of its members weren't convinced, and their concern seemed to grow when panelists were asked about another issue — that of school funding, which is not spoken to in the proposed charter.

Goldsworthy filled the breach with her assertion that it would therefore be the sole responsibility of the entity referred to in the charter as the "General Services District" (the entirety of what is now Shelby County), with the "Urban Services District" (Memphis as currently incorporated) off the hook.

"Single-source funding," a much-talked-about subject, would be accomplished by default, Goldsworthy said. Pickler, an attendee at the forum, said there was "no doubt" on the subject — citing an opinion he said he had received from then Shelby County attorney Brian Kuhn late last year. Pickler said Kuhn's opinion had cited a previous one to that effect by state attorney general Robert Cooper.

• The losing slate of countywide Democrat candidates in the August 5th general election still hasn't thrown in the towel. All the candidates save for outgoing interim mayor Joe Ford are now parties to an amended lawsuit in Chancery Court seeking to overturn the election results as "incurably uncertain."

A hearing on an Election Commission motion for summary dismissal of the suit will be held on September 17th.

Meanwhile, swearing-in ceremonies for the winners certified by the commission were scheduled to take place on Wednesday, the statutory date for the beginning of new county terms, in the Cannon Center.

Contention between the litigants and representatives of the Election Commission goes on amid an atmosphere of mounting distrust. The litigants, represented by outgoing county trustee Regina Morrison Newman, herself one of the candidates involved in the suit, maintain they are being stonewalled in their continuing request for access to ballot records.

An indication of the gap now separating the two sides is a claim made in a recent post by one of the litigants' outside consultants, Bev Harris of Seattle, Washington. Writing on her advocacy organization's website, blackboxvoting.org, Harris seems to have settled on District Attorney General Bill Gibbons as one of the villains of the piece.

As Harris tells it: "There is a county district attorney that needs closer scrutiny from the world at large. His name is William Gibbons. Quite a puller of strings in the Memphis power structure. Ruthless. Everyone I talk to behind the scenes is scared of retribution from Gibbons. As I understand it, the intimidation factor, announcing the arrest of a couple people for voting twice four years ago, plastering the media with this just days before the election, came from Gibbons' office.

"Then, as you see, the expresspollbooks (e-pollbooks) were coded to wrongfully reject thousands of voters who were told 'you have already voted.' This, in combination with the media push touting arrests for voting twice, created voter intimidation. The records needed to identify which voters and how many were disenfranchised were stonewalled, altered, redacted, refused, etc."

Ironically, Gibbons himself was one of the voters identified incorrectly on August 5th as having already voted because of the incorrect early-voting data — from the May 5th primary election season, says the Election Commission — fed into the electronic poll book (EPB) for election day.

Gibbons would go on, like apparently thousands of other voters, to fill out a "fail-safe" affidavit, after which he was allowed to vote on one of the county's Diebold voting machines.

Apropos Harris' charges, Gibbons released a statement which said in part: "When the Election Commission refers a matter to us regarding possible voter fraud, if, upon review, we feel there is a possibility of any criminal conduct, we refer it to the TBI for investigation. After we receive the results of the TBI's investigation, we decide whether there is sufficient proof to move forward with prosecution. Sometimes we move forward, and sometimes we do not, depending upon whether we feel we have sufficient proof.

"No one should feel intimidated by prosecutions for voter fraud, unless, of course, that person either has or is contemplating engaging in such conduct."

• Ironically, given the prominence in the local annals of controversy of duplicate voting issues, one of Memphis' native sons, former congressman Harold Ford Jr., was up until this week a registered voter in both Tennessee and New York, where Ford now resides.

After the situation was brought to the attention of state attorney general Tre Hargett, Ford will likely be purged from the ranks of Tennessee voters, or so Blake Fontenay, a spokesperson for Hargett, has indicated.

The status of Harold Ford Sr., also a former Memphis congressman, now living in Florida, is apparently different. Ford Sr. has not sought to vote in Florida; therefore, his Tennessee registration is still good.

• Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike McWherter, already basking in the aura of two prominent Democrats — current governor Phil Bredesen, who has endorsed him, and father Ned McWherter, who served as governor from 1987 to 1995 — will get another boost on September 9th, when former President Bill Clinton will come to Nashville on his behalf.

• The Hall of Mayors at City Hall has been the occasion for many a standing-room-only occasion, and last week's celebration of the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women suffrage, was one such.

The event — moderated by Adrienne Pakis-Gillon and co-sponsored by a consortium of women's organizations and Memphis mayor A C Wharton — drew a who's who of local luminaries and officials. One of the highlights came when women in local public office were formally recognized. Standing side by side, they formed a line that stretched from one side of the largish room to the other.

Shelby County commissioner Mike Carpenter was presented the first annual Harry Burn Award, named for the young Tennesseean who cast the deciding vote for the 19th Amendment in the Tennessee legislature in 1920, thereby completing the process of ratification.

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