In 2008, Memphis voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum that limited city office-holders — including city council and the mayor — to two four-year terms. In that same election, voters also overwhelmingly passed a measure to institute instant runoff (ranked choice) voting in future elections.
Earlier this year, the current council, some of them looking at looming term limits, decided to try and end-run the voters' will by putting three confusingly worded referenda on the November ballot that would have, if passed, extended term limits and eliminated instant runoff voting.
Thankfully, in the November election, voters saw through the power grab and overwhelmingly crushed the council's attempt to deceive the public, reaffirming that they wanted to keep two-term limits and instant runoff voting.
But the council wasn't through with its shenanigans. In the August county elections, three term-limited council members — Janis Fullilove, Edmund Ford Jr., and Bill Morrison — ran for county offices and won, leaving three seats on the 13-member council to be filled. The ethical thing for them to have done at that point would have been to resign their council seats, giving voters in those three districts a chance to select their new council representatives in the then-forthcoming November election.
But noooooo. All three councilmembers chose to take the full 90-day period allowed by law for them to resign. This meant two things: All three office-holders would draw two salaries for 90 days (Sweet!); and their replacements would be selected by the remaining council members, rather than by the voters in their districts.
Morrison, of District 1, was the first to resign, and last Tuesday, the council tried to fill his seat, needing votes from seven of the 12 remaining members in order to do it. After several hours and dozens of votes, they gave up and decided to try again next Tuesday, December 4th. The six black council members, minus council Chairman Berlin Boyd, supported Rhonda Logan, a Raleigh community activist. The white male country club caucus favored a fellow named Lonnie Treadaway — and therein lies a bit of a mystery.
If you haven't heard of Treadaway, there's a reason: He just moved here. He bought a house in District 1 in July, after moving from Senatobia, Mississippi, where, as recently as May 2017, he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for alderman.
District 1 is a majority-black area comprised primarily of Raleigh and Berclair. The city of Memphis is two-thirds African-American and votes heavily Democratic. So why would anyone think a white Republican who moved to town five months ago from Mississippi would be a suitable representative on the Memphis City Council? Precisely because he's a white Republican would be the correct answer. And if you think Treadaway moved into the less-than-luxe Raleigh neighborhood for any other reason than to try to fill a soon-to-be-vacant council seat, I've got a good deal on a storefront lease in Raleigh Springs Mall for you. The Treadaway gambit was in the works way before last Tuesday's vote.
Next Tuesday, it gets even more interesting, as the resignations of Fullilove and Ford will be in effect, leaving just 10 council members to pick three vacant seats. Obtaining the needed seven votes on anything from these folks will involve serious deal-making. Will Treadaway win a seat in next week's council poker game? Who knows? I wouldn't be shocked. If I lived in District 1, I would be outraged.
I do know this: Democracy isn't supposed to work like this. Incumbents aren't supposed to be able to appoint their friends to public office. City council members shouldn't gain office as the result of deal-making between their soon-to-be colleagues. Elected officials are supposed to be — wait for it — elected.