Opinion » Viewpoint

Restoring Balance Between the Shelby County Commission and the Mayor

Shelby County Commission efforts to assert itself vis-à-vis the county mayor conform with the county charter.


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The 2014 Shelby County election ushered in many first-time county commissioners to serve as the people's representatives. It was the first full election under the single-member district division. Only five of the 13 commissioners had served a full previous term. So, while the changeover offers plenty of opportunity for positive change, it also creates a deficit in institutional knowledge.

Heidi Shafer
  • Heidi Shafer

Previous large commission turnovers were somewhat mitigated by county attorneys who had years of service in the Shelby County Attorney's offices. This time, however, a new county attorney was appointed by the mayor from outside Shelby County, creating opportunities for positive change along with a lack of practical historical knowledge.

The commission and mayor's office are currently struggling over what powers appropriately belong to each according to the charter, and how to best serve the people who elected us.

Commissions in previous years have allowed the mayoral administration to borrow some of the commission's powers, as it did when EDGE was created in 2010, and allowed mayoral contracting up to $100,000 during Mayor Wharton's term. The commission is evaluating which of those powers should be taken back. 

We have been reviewing the Shelby County Charter for a clearer understanding of its mandates.

First, the charter proclaims: "The Legislature is given broad legislative powers inclusive of the rights to adopt County ordinances and is so constructed as to be truly representative of all the people of Shelby County." And this: "The legislative power includes all lawful authority [my emphasis] to adopt ordinances and resolutions governing the operation of government or regulating the conduct and affairs of the residents of the county, to adopt the county budget, to fix the county tax rate, to make appropriations of county funds for all legal purposes, and to exercise all other authority of a legislative nature which is vested in the county by the Constitution, general statutes, or special, local or private acts of the General Assembly or this charter."

Second, the commission may "adopt any ordinance or resolution [again, my emphasis] which is not in conflict with the Constitution or general laws of the state of Tennessee, or charter."

Third, "The legislative branch is vested with all other powers of the county not specifically, or by necessary implication, vested in some other official of the county by the Constitution or by statute not inconsistent with this charter". The mayor is given no similar provision.

The charter also lays out clear responsibility for the commission to order "such special audits as deemed necessary," to establish purchasing policies, and to be the sole power to grant franchises, borrow money, and issue bonds. No county property or interests can be sold without express validation of the commission. The commission also sets its own budget.

All resolutions and ordinances become effective with or without a signature from the executive branch, unless the mayor chooses to veto. The commission can then override an executive veto with a majority plus one vote (unless the vote originally required a two-thirds majority to pass).

The commission has the power of approval and consent of all nominations by the mayor for any board, commission, agency, authority, chief administrative officer, county attorney, public defender, or divorce referee.

What are the duties of the county mayor? The mayor is charged with seeing that all resolutions and ordinances of the board of county commissioners are faithfully executed. He or she is to present the consolidated county budget to the commission, which has full rights to modify or amend. The mayor is also compelled to "take such other executive and administrative actions as are required by this charter or may be prescribed by the board of county commissioners."

I am a believer in the separation of powers and of intra-governmental cooperation, when it doesn't compromise the voice of the people.

But the charter makes it clear that the commission is the legal designee and guardian of that voice. The ongoing efforts of my colleagues and me to restore and safeguard the authority of the commission vis-à-vis the mayor should be seen in that light.

Heidi Shafer is a second-term member of the Shelby County Commission.

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