Separation of Powers

The shape of things to come at the Memphis City Council.


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Last week's consideration of the gay rights ordinance by the Memphis City Council pushed several of the players into prominent roles. Like they say, you can't tell the players without a program.

The silent hero. Causes love converts. Reid Hedgepeth, by one media account, "rocketed himself into the city's annals on civil rights" by the way he "eloquently deconstructed" the opposition to the gay rights ordinance. While civil rights legends back in the day were fiery orators who took to the streets and pulpits, Hedgepeth took to the internet. His launching pad to the city's annals was an email he wrote and sent to members of the media after the vote. During the live debate on the vote, Hedgepeth was silent, giving new meaning to the phrase "mailing it in."

The drama queen. Nobody makes a more passionate speech than council member Janis Fullilove, who reached new oratorical heights last week in defense of gay rights. A crowd pleaser, and a nice distraction from legal problems that had her in the news.

The expert witness from across the mall. Generally speaking, city council members and county commissioners stay in their own yards. Mayors are occasionally invited to speak on the other side of the mall, but even that is rare. Steve Mulroy is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Memphis law school. He is also a member of the county commission. Last week, Mulroy showed up at the city council meeting and was invited to give his view of the charter question, which — surprise! — was different from the opinions of city council attorney Allan Wade and Memphis city attorney Herman Morris Jr. As some council members pointed out, Mulroy also happened to be a supporter of the gay rights ordinance. And as Morris pointed out, he (Morris) has an actual client.

The T-shirt gallery. If your group doesn't have a T-shirt, you ain't nothin'. Public meetings are starting to look like rock concerts. Making the grade in fine form lately were supporters of the gay rights ordinance, police and firemen, AFSCME, Stand For Children, and the Memphis Education Association. The more the better. Signs recommended.

The man upstairs. Mayor A C Wharton picks his spots. Last week, to the chagrin of some members of the council, he was nowhere to be seen when the gay rights ordinance came up. He was represented by chief administrative officer George Little. Wharton did, however, make some very nice remarks at the demolition of the Lone Star Cement silos.

The referendum option. "Let the people decide" is the most direct form of democracy. Prepare a ballot question, schedule it for the next election, and let it be voted up or down. Used sparingly, it has its merits. Overused, it leads to ballot bloat, voter fatigue, mischief, and a sneaking suspicion that elected officials are trying to pass the hot potato and get off the hook. In recent years, Memphians have voted on the city charter, annexation, and surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. This year, a proposed local sales tax increase was headed for a Memphis referendum until the county commission trumped it. Last week, some members of the city council suggested that the gay rights ordinance should also go to a referendum, because it amounts to a charter change.

The judicial review option. A corollary to the referendum option that boots the ultimate decision to someone else, in this case the state court (the withdrawal of city funds for schools, still unresolved after four years) or federal court (municipal school districts). City attorney Morris predicted that a gay rights ordinance would lead to a lawsuit. Expensive and time-consuming.

The busy attorney. The city council's attorney is the man or woman who sits in on meetings and offers occasional advice when asked. Usually a low-profile person, but not so much lately. Allan Wade is representing the city in federal court in the municipal schools lawsuit in addition to his bimonthly council sessions and other cases in his private practice. Since the city school board charter surrender in 2010, Wade has gotten more speaking time than most council members.

The silent protest. Wanda Halbert is usually one of the council's most talkative members, but she passed on the 7-5 vote on the gay rights ordinance. Halbert did, however, ask some questions before the vote to the attorneys, which led her to decide that some of her colleagues were pulling a fast one, or even two fast ones. She suggested it's time for the council to review its policies and procedures, because "this is really getting agitating."

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