In 1961 there actually was a Board of Commissioners — five white men, four of whom ran specific departments of the city (Finance & Institutions, Public Works, Fire & Police, etc.) and one of whom, a governmental co-equal, served as a largely ceremonial mayor in one of the weakest weak-mayor systems ever devised. It was so long ago that one of the commissioners, in charge of Public Works, had been Henry Loeb. Yes, that Henry Loeb, who would serve as a mayor in that system as well as the one that followed, and was regarded at the time as a young-buck liberal.
The commission system of government — in which the elected commissioners functioned as division heads, much as the elected clerks in the Shelby County governmental system do today — was ultimately found unsatisfactory and ill-suited to the needs of Memphis. It was scrapped in 1967 in favor of a wholly different system — the current mayor-council form in which a strong mayor is counter-pointed by a separately elected body of 13 council members, who function as pure legislators, not division heads.
Just why Coordinator Mark Goins up there in Nashville should expect definitive action regarding a current school issue from a defunct body of departmental overseers in a long-lost governmental system for a mid-20th Century incarnation of Memphis is a mystery. It is a little bit like expecting the Crown Ministers of England to pass judgment on a bill that has passed the American Senate and is on its way to the House of Representatives.
There is no longer any Board of Commissioners of the City of Memphis, any more than there is a George III still attempting to govern a group of colonies on the American eastern seaboard.
But there we have it — a judgment, however odd and based on phantoms of the past — that will certainly derail the expected citywide referendum on the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter that the MCS board voted for so dramatically on December 20.
Before this latest bombshell, Bill Giannini, the Shelby County Election Commission chairman, had confided that February 15 was the likely referendum date that he and the Commission would be announcing on Wednesday, January 5. Goins’ letter to Giannini the same day scotched that prospect, and Giannini said Wednesday that a charter-surrender referendum was “off the calendar” for February, and maybe for the foreseeable future.
That means, short of a definitive court order, nothing doing on the referendum front — regardless of opinions advanced by attorneys for the Memphis City Council and for the City of Memphis that the proposed election does not require action by the council, and regardless of signed petitions for a referendum presented by City Councilman Shea Flinn, who turned up at the Election Commission’s Wednesday meeting to make the case for a petition.
It also means that, in the battle of “nuclear options,” MCS has been deprived of its first-strike capability, while Shelby County Schools and SCS’ sympathizers in the showdown still maintain theirs. The General Assembly convenes next week, and, even with the expected two-week legislative recess that will follow, proponents of special-school-district legislation will have ample time to make and expedite their move. Bills that would further hamstring MCS’ merger effort — like the one from state Senator Brian Kelsey calling for a de facto state takeover of the MCS system in the event of a charter surrender — have already been filed.
As recently as Tuesday, the initiative in the showdown between the two school systems seemed wholly to lie with MCS. The press conference held that day in the Hall of Mayors by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, in which the two mayors had offered their services in easing whatever transition might be developing, had in effect nullified the sky-is-falling-chaos-is-coming rhetoric of the day before from SCS Board president David Pickler and SCS superintendent John Aitken.
The mayors will doubtless be heard from again (though their right to intervene has been challenged on division-of-powers grounds by — of all people — Shelby County Commission chairman Sidney Chism, who had been a strong supporter of MCS’ December 20 vote for a referendum).
Skeptical sorts will disbelieve protestations from Giannini and Goins that their decisions of this week were objective and unbiased and not part of an overall scheme, in tandem with Pickler, to subvert the proposed charter-surrender referendum and facilitate the SCS alternative. But, whether or not they went looking for a rabbit in the hat, they found one, and supporters of the referendum and the cause of school consolidation will clearly have to fashion some magic of their own.