Still No Consensus: The County Commission’s Long and Winding Road on Redistricting



Even as Memphis city government finds itself locked in a high-stakes struggle with a suburban/state government agenda, and as public attention begins inevitably to turn in that direction, the Shelby County Commission continues to be mired in a dispute over redistricting that seems no closer to resolution than ever.

It took the better part of two hours on Wednesday, and immersion in a stupefying amount of both detail and rancor, but the Commission’s general government committee did manage two votes — one of 6-6 on redistricting map 3C, which posits 4 three-member districts and 1 single-member district; and another of 6-4 with 2 abstentions on 2J, a map dividing Shelby County into 13 single-member districts.

That translated into a “fail” for 3C and a provisional “pass” for 2J, although for either plan to succeed requires a series of two majority votes (at least 7 supporters) and a final super-majority of 9.

In one version or another, both plans have been there before — as has a variant plan with 6 two-member districts and 1 single-member district.

And, though at various time several of the major questions about all of the plans had seemed to be answered, all of them were called back up again in a meandering and often bitter debate.

For whatever reason, citizen attorney Keith Kyles seems to regard his opinions from the commission dock to be interesting and keeps offering them. For whatever reason, Justin Ford, the youngest Commission member and until recently the quietest, seems to believe that he can infuse new life into 3C by sheer willpower (or windpower), and, though he keeps denying he’s involved in a personal vendetta with Commissioner Walter Bailey, he cannot let a meeting go by without assailing Bailey, a single-member advocate, as a “hypocrite.”

(Some clue as to that obsession may have emerged Wednesday with Ford’s chastising of Bailey for not singling him out as a young black leader.)

And Commissioner Mike Ritz, who famously takes an arsenal of fine-tooth combs to Commission matters, will apparently never be satisfied with the exact arrangement of precincts along the East Memphis-suburban rim.

And these are just a few of the tics that materialize regularly in Commission debate on a redistricting which was to have been settled at year’s end and may yet drag on for another year, though Chancellor Arnold Goldin now has the option of recalling the case into his court, where a suit from three commissioners — Bailey, Terry Roland, and Ritz — put it back in December.

Absent from Wednesday’s deliberations was Commissioner James Harvey, who — perhaps lucky for him — missed much of the ongoing fracas over the last couple of months because of business in North Carolina but has belatedly signaled his loyalty to the single-member-district concept.

Some clue to a possible breaking of the deadlock came with the decision on Wednesday by Commissioners Heidi Shafer and Chris Thomas to abstain from voting on 2J, the single-member-district format. Is it possible that one or both of them (each of whom has long been committed to the large, multi-member-district format) sees some handwriting on the wall?

At least two members of the commission announced Wednesday that nothing could move them from their positions — Roland from his attachment to single-member districts and Ford, who made this curious vow: “I will not stop, I will continue to bring 3C. I’m going to fight for this map until it has no more life in it.”

All Commission members — along with Josh Whitehead of the Office of Planning and Development, who keeps turning out new variations of the basic maps as members keep tweaking them — are committed to appropriate African-American representation (figured at a rough 60 percent figure in keeping with the county’s demography) and acknowledgement of suburban growth (shooting for an ideal of four suburban members).

Although racial and political factors are far from absent in the present lineups, there are blacks and whites and Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the argument. Which is to say, personal requirements seem to be predominating.

Whatever eventually happens, and however long it takes, it is hard to disagree with Commissioner Bailey’s assessment Wednesday that the Commission was “back at Square One” and is involved in “utter futility and a waste of time.”

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