Politics » Politics Feature

The Swinging Door

Memphis city government begins the transition to a new election year, while Shelby County government achieves a measure of harmony.

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As one election, a national one, finally heads to an end (with votes still being counted here and there), the next process of electoral transition is underway, locally.

This week, an abbreviated one because of the Thanksgiving holiday, sees the beginning of turnover on the Memphis City Council. Of the body's 13 available seats, three will be spoken for during the next few weeks. Those are the ones that were scheduled for vacating as of August 2nd, when three council members — Bill Morrison in District 1, Edmund Ford Jr. in District 6, and Janis Fullilove in Super District 8, Position 2 —  won elections for positions in Shelby County government.

Jeff Warren - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Jeff Warren

At the Flyer's press time on Tuesday, the first of these seats — that of Morrison, who was elected Probate Court clerk — was due for reappointment that evening by vote of council. The applicants were Paul Boyd, Mauricio Calvo, Faye Morrison, Tierra Holloway, Rhonda Logan, Danielle Schonbaum, and Lonnie Treadway.

The seats currently held by Ford and Fullilove will be filled next. Fullilove, now Juvenile Court clerk, has announced her resignation, effective November 23rd, and Ford's resignation will take effect two days later, on November 25th. Applicants for either seat must submit proof of their residency, a resume, a letter of interest, a sworn affidavit, and a nominating petition with 25 signatures of registered voters in the relevant district.

Registration packets for the two seats will be available as of noon next Monday, November 26th, and the deadline for filing applications is Thursday, December 13th. The council is expected to vote on filling the two seats at its meeting on December 18th.

The seats held by Morrison, Ford, and Fullilove became points of controversy following the August 2nd election, when local activists insisted in vain that the council members resign their positions soon enough to permit the inclusion of their vacated seats on the November 6th election ballot. Instead, the three members chose to continue occupying their council seats for nearly the full 90 days post-election that the city charter permitted — a fact making it necessary to fill the seats by appointment and giving the remaining council members the say-so over replacing the departing members.

Ford, now a member of the Shelby County Commission, was even deputized by commission chair Van Turner to serve as a de facto liaison between the two local legislative bodies.

The councilman's forthcoming resignation is not the only change on his horizon. He was named financial literacy coordinator for Memphis Public Libraries last week, and, as he informed his fellow commission members on Monday, Ford's employment as a teacher in the Shelby County Schools system would end on Wednesday of this week — a fact permitting him to vote without recusal on an issue affecting school funding.

Ultimately, all 13 council seats, including the three being filled between now and year's end, will be up for grabs in the 2019 city election scheduled for next October. At least one seat, the one for Super District 9, Position 3, now held by Councilman Reid Hedgepeth, has already drawn a challenger.

Seeking the seat will be Jeff Warren, a physician who served on the old Memphis City Schools board that went out of existence with the merger of Memphis and Shelby County systems. Warren was a member of the Memphis board minority that resisted the crucial vote of December 20, 2010, to surrender the MCS charter.

"I believe we are on the verge of turning a corner in Memphis," Warren said in announcing his candidacy. "We  have had many recent successes, despite our long-term challenges. We have been pushing educational growth and do not need to let up. Mayor Strickland will continue to need support and advice to increase job growth."

• The county commission acted decisively on a number of matters at its Monday meeting. Especially noteworthy were a vote on authorizing a TIF (tax increment financing project) for a forthcoming Lakeland Commons development and a vote resolving a holdover schism regarding the ongoing opioid crisis between former county Mayor Mark Luttrell and the commission that expired with the August 2nd election.

There were several aspects to the divide between Luttrell and the commission, who engaged in a more or less continuous power struggle, but the opioid matter was the matter with the most relevance to the community at large.

The disagreement arose last year when then commission chair Heidi Shafer, supported by other commission members, availed herself of clauses in the county charter that, she argued, allowed her to contract for legal action against various parties, including physicians and pharmaceutical companies, involved in the over-distribution of opioids in Shelby County.

Shafer's action arose from her conviction, shared by former chair Terry Roland and a majority of other members, that opioid abuse had become rampant to the point of causing serious damage to Shelby Countians and that the Luttrell administration had been slow in pursuing remedial action.

Unsurprisingly, Luttrell disagreed and, putting forth his own plan of action, insisted that the county charter left the authority for pursuing legal remedies entirely in his hands.

What ensued was a back-and-forth between the two branches of county government that required several hearings in Chancery Court and would not be fully resolved until agreement on coordinated action was reached between new Mayor Lee Harris and the new commission, culminating in the vote on Monday, authorizing a settlement.

Shafer, who would receive several testimonials of appreciation from commission members, was present for the vote and expressed her pleasure that no more intramural acrimony would be occurring and "we can concentrate on dealing with the bad guys."

The Lakeland matter, involving a $48 million development at the site of an abandoned remainder mall, drew attendees from both sides of the recently concluded municipal election in Lakeland, with Mayor-elect Mike Cunningham and supporters asking the commission for a delay of two weeks on approving the TIF, giving the new administration time to acquaint itself with the details of a project that had been strongly favored by the administration of outgoing Mayor Wyatt Bunker.

The commission approved the TIF 9-2, after noting that authority for continuing with the project would still rest with the Lakeland city government.

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