Opinion » Viewpoint

Voting in a Haze

Confusion reigned over ballot initiatives 360 and 361.

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Elections are volatile and based on incomplete information under any and all circumstances. Nowhere has this been more obvious than in the various critiques disseminated by opponents of proposed ordinances 360 and 361. Here, on the eve of voting in Shelby County, was a paragraph in an impassioned e-mail sent out by the usually reliable Joe Saino, proprietor of memphiswatchdog.org:

"So what it boils down to is that the County Commission wants to give themselves and the county mayor more term limits going from two four-year terms to three four-year terms. Then they want to add the Sheriff, Trustee, Assessor, Register, and Clerk in Article VIII and make them County Charter officers and no longer Constitutional officers. This will give them the ability to have control over these five offices, which they do not have as of now because they are Constitutional officers."

This accusation, leveled at Ordinance 360, is incomplete and misleading in one aspect and dead wrong in another. As is spelled out in the language of the full ordinance, neither current mayor A C Wharton nor any member of the commission that adopted this ballot resolution qualify for a change in the limits currently imposed on them by a 1994 countywide resolution.

That vote of the people was overwhelmingly for a two-term limit — for the offices of mayor and commissioner. But it specified no limits of any kind upon the various other countywide offices that are elected at four-year intervals. What 360 does is extend the concept of limits uniformly across the span of county officialdom.

As Commissioner Steve Mulroy explained this week in what was the last of several information sessions on the two ballot ordinances, the goal of term-limit uniformity was one specifically requested during the commission's deliberations by Wharton, on the premise that, for budgetary and other reasons, no one county officer should have an institutional advantage over others, based on the differing limits — or lack of them — enjoyed by that official.

As for the elevation of 1994's two-term limit to one of three terms, Mulroy offered his listeners the technical explanation that voters had never before had the opportunity to express themselves on the lengthier term. Anybody who was present during the wrangling that attended the several commission deliberations that resulted in Ordinance 360 can attest to an even simpler reality: that three terms proved the only acceptable compromise capable of drawing the requisite nine votes from a commission that included diehard opponents of any term limits at all and equally firm supporters of a two-term limit.

As for Saino's implication that the commission had decided to terminate the constitutional nature of five offices — sheriff, trustee, assessor, county clerk, and register — to the ends of a power grab of its own: That couldn't be more wrong. Saino's tireless activity on behalf of governmental transparency is to be commended, but in this case, he's looking in the wrong direction for a culprit.

The constitutional nature of the five offices in question was ended not by the County Commission, nor by any elected administrator or elected body. It was the state Supreme Court which did the deed in January 2007, when it issued a ruling invalidating the constitutionality of the offices and requiring that both Knox County, which was in a similar fix, and Shelby County redefine several offices by county charter.

It was either that or see them cease to be. And that prospect was not only politically impossible, it would have produced chaos both in local government and in society at large. No sheriff? No tax collector? No assessor of property values? The mind boggles.

And that's the reality, as opposed to the myth of power-mad county commissioners. Did the commission build in marginally more controls over the offices than had existed beforehand? Well ... yes, especially over their right to petition the courts for more public money. One of the paradoxes of this week's public meeting was that several of the opponents of Ordinance 360 complained that it imposed too much in the way of term limits over such offices as that of trustee, whose late proprietor, Bob Patterson, came in for much praise.

It remains debatable whether, as Saino and fellow citizen-at-large John Lunt argued at this week's meeting, Ordinances 360 and 361 impose too high a hurdle on the public's right of review. A controversial aspect of Ordinance 361 sets the amount of signatures necessary to initiate a recall referendum at 15 percent of the county's registered voters.

Too high? Opponents of the provision during the commission's own debates called it too low.

In any case, if 360 and 361 don't make it this week, the commission will have to come up with substitutes for the November ballot, in which case the wrangling can begin anew.

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