Politics » Politics Feature

Party Parity?

That was the one potential controversy in the ho-hum municipal referenda; county commission coalescing around new tax rate.



In elections which would not formally conclude until several hours after our print deadline on Tuesday, the six incorporated municipalities of outer Shelby County successfully took a second crack at authorizing separate municipal school systems for themselves.

Once again, the municipalities, bound to the new Shelby County unified school system for at least the coming school year, are Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, and Millington.

In advance, there had been very little suspense as to how things would turn out and not much doubt that the referenda would be approved. The results confirmed expectations.


Germantown: 7,500, yes; 545, no.

Collierville: 8,060, yes; 505, no.

Bartlett: 7,033, yes; 664, no.

Arlington: 1,935, yes; 130, no.

Lakeland: 1,582, yes; 234, no.

If there was any surprise associated with the suburban referenda, it was the fact of a drastic falloff in turnout this year from what was the case when the first referenda were held in 2012. Indications were that a diminished pattern of early voting, which ended last week, would likely turn out to be the case in Tuesday's final voting as well.

Robert Meyers, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission, suggested several reasons for the lower turnout pattern. "Most people see these elections as a rerun of last year, there is little doubt about the outcome, and, frankly, there's some voter fatigue on the issue."

Though exact numbers were not available, it appeared that early voting in several of the municipalities was something like a third to a half what it had been a year ago, when referenda were held based on a 2012 state law later ruled constitutional. That legislation had attempted to limit eligibility for such referenda to Shelby County. A new law, enabling new special school districts statewide, was approved in the 2013 session of the General Assembly.


• The fact of foregone conclusions did not preclude controversy, however. Norma Lester, one of two Democrats on the five-member Election Commission, has a beef regarding the conduct of the municipal elections — namely, what she refers to as "the inability or refusal of the commission to maintain party balance across all avenues of election operations."

In an to her largely Democratic network sent a day or two before the July 16th conclusion of municipal voting, she holds that "out of the 41 precincts in the municipal elections, 32 have Republican officers in charge."

Continuing, she cites and discounts some of the explanations she's received: "[T]ry to recruit from within the precinct, lot of folks don't want to be officers, being an officer is a hard job, want experienced officers, maybe too far to travel, etc, etc, etc ... ."

"Certainly there is a possibility of some truth to these statements, but it is extremely hard for me to accept that it only applies to Democrats, especially to the extent of such a vast disparity. ... The law is clear that party balance is to be maintained as close as possible and we have a right to expect compliance."

Lester notes that she has "met with the Democratic Party executive committee and chair of the Democratic legislative caucus seeking assistance in recruiting Democrats in those areas or those previously assigned and not retained" and volunteers to serve as a contact for such persons.

Commission chairman Meyers, a Republican, responds that the commission makes every effort to ensure compliance with state law, requiring a balance between Republicans and Democrats at each poll.

Meyers says there are normally six officials at each poll — an officer of election, three judges, a registrar, and a machine operator. In rare cases, he says, a single individual may serve as both registrar and machine operator.

"In fact," said Meyers, on Election Day "there is a balance at all polls." He said that the three officials designated as judges, who arbitrate specific cases that may arise, are divided on a 2-to-1 basis, partywise, and that many more Democrats served as election judges during the suburban elections than did Republicans.

That's the fact he offered to offset Lester's complaint about an apparent disproportion favoring Republicans for the officer-of-election position, the ranking one at a polling place.

Meyers said the assignment of election officials was made by the office of  Election Commission administrator Rich Holden, from a pool of applicants approved by the commission — the two Democratic commissioners approving Democratic applicants and the three Republicans signing off on GOP applicants. 

"One problem we have is that both parties, historically, have failed to provide an adequate number of names" — a fact, he said, that complicated the task of making assignments.

That might account for the apparent disproportion at the officer-of-election position, Meyers indicated, and in any case, the disproportion of election judges went the other way. 

He further suggested that the limited geography of this week's referenda affected the availability and distribution of poll officials. "During normal county-wide elections, it is much easier for us to maintain a perfect balance at all positions," he said.

Lester and Meyers differ on one other particular.

In her memorandum, Lester appealed to Democratic volunteers for future elections and stressed, "you are not required to reside in the area" directly affected by the election. Meyers suggested that too much recruitment of outsiders "could be a problem as well."


• As members of the Shelby County Commission prepared to meet for their normal committee sessions on Wednesday, item number one on the agenda was that of the county tax rate for fiscal 2013-14.

Scheduled to be taken up by the commission's budget committee, the tax-rate issue experienced a surprise unraveling last week when, on third and final reading of county mayor Mark Luttrell's proposed $4.38 tax rate, two commission Democrats who had previously supported that rate defected and voted no, along with five of the commission's Republicans (all save outgoing chairman Mike Ritz).

The two Democrats were Justin Ford and new chairman-elect James Harvey, whose announced conversion to the ranks of tax-rate opponents may have influenced chairmanship voting, which took place the same day. A third Democrat, Sidney Chism, has consistently abstained from voting for the tax rate, out of concern for conflict-of-interest charges lodged against him by Commissioner Terry Roland, a GOP opponent of the proposed tax rate.

Roland has made an issue of the fact that Chism's day-care center is the recipient of some county funds and that Chism had previously not disclosed that circumstance.

If even one of those three Democrats had voted yes last week, along with Chairman Ritz and fellow Democrats Walter Bailey, Melvin Burgess, Henri Brooks, and Steve Mulroy, it was generally supposed that Republican commissioner Steve Basar was a yes vote in reserve.

Basar and what would appear to be a solid majority of commissioners, including all of those who voted for Luttrell's tax-rate proposal last week and defectors Ford and Harvey, are thought to be cohering behind a substitute tax-rate proposal of $4.32, the amount of the county's certified tax rate as determined by the state.

The certified tax rate is a technical figure representing the rate necessary to raise the same amount of revenue as the previous year. The 2012-13 rate, which preceded a new county-wide property assessment that reflected dramatically lowered values, was $4.02.

Ritz, who will remain at the commission's helm until Harvey begins his one-year term in September, said he thinks the commission will enact the $4.32 rate on the expectation that no funds will be cut from the currently approved education budget and that an anticipated $9.6 million reduction will come entirely from the county's general fund. That would leave intact the 6-cent increase in Luttrell's budget for school funding, expected to generate an additional $20 million for the newly merged city-county school system.

"We can live with that," said Billy Orgel, chairman of the Shelby County Unified School Board.

Ritz said that, if necessary, the commission might hold special meetings in advance of its next scheduled public meeting next Monday in order to expedite passage of a new tax-rate formula.

For the record, the commission has already approved an operating budget of some $1.2 billion, which includes approximately $388 million for the schools. The total school budget, which draws on county, state, federal, and foundation sources, also totals almost $1.2 billion.

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