Opinion » Editorial

Local Government 101



As the week began, the Memphis City Council — primed to take on the controversial and potentially transformative issue of school funding — stood ready to become a laboratory of sorts for political scientists, be they local or visitors from Mars. The Shelby County Commission,

which has spent the last several weeks completing proposed charter changes for the August election ballot, already has been. The commission's deliberations were originally necessitated by an East Tennessee judicial finding that nullified the constitutional status of five local officials — sheriff, trustee, assessor, county clerk, and register — and required that these offices be redefined in the county charter.

The desire of some commissioners — and, no doubt, Mayor A C Wharton — to make these offices appointive quickly ran afoul of a prevailing feeling among both Democratic and Republican commissioners to keep them subject to election. And, for the most part, the existing prerogatives of all five offices were maintained. Where change seemed inevitable was in the realm of term limits, and it appeared for a while that the five offices would be subjected to the same two-term (eight-year) limitations imposed on the county mayor and the commissioners themselves by a 1994 referendum.

But that's where the fun began. In essence, the commission's Democrats, led by longtime political broker Sidney Chism, began to coalesce around the idea that limitations on tenure for the five offices, if they had to exist at all, should be extended to three full terms, or 12 years. Not all Democrats were on board to begin with, but as Chism — who originally wanted no term limits at all — kept persisting, he developed some momentum for the three-term concept. Meanwhile, Republicans tried to hold firm to the two-term limit. The showdown was a classic illustration of the two parties' divergent points of view on the role of government. As deliberations wore on, the commission considered and rejected an endless series of variations and compromises, with Republican Mike Carpenter and Democrat Steve Mulroy performing in what has become their accepted role as devisers of compromise.

In the end, during a marathon session last week, it was two Republican commissioners, George Flinn and Joyce Avery, and one hold-out Democrat, J.W. Gibson, who came off their support of the two-term limit for the express purpose of ensuring there could be a ballot initiative in August. As things stand, not only — pending voter approval — are the five redefined offices to get a three-term limit; so are the mayor and the commissioners. Score one for Chism. But he may have overreached himself when, during the third reading of the ballot resolution on Monday, he voiced an animated objection to a proviso for recalling officials. The battle lines hardened again, and, for a long while, it appeared that the ballot resolution might be in jeopardy. But this time it was Chism who had to yield, as a bipartisan consensus emerged in favor of the status quo.

It was more complicated than that, of course, and we recommend that students of horse-trading secure copies of Monday's rather busy transcript. In the end, the commission debate was a textbook case of how government should work, and we recommend it as a model for the Memphis City Council in its own deliberations this week and thereafter.

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