The Shelby County Board of Commissioners continues blindly on a path to hire its own lawyer and undermine the intention of the charter of Shelby County Government, which set out to ensure a strong mayor form of government and clear lines of responsibility between administrative and legislative branches.

Mayor Mark Luttrell rightly vetoed this aberration of the Charter and the commissioners have now overridden his veto.  Meanwhile, he has – again rightly – refused to sign a contract for a lawyer for the board of commissioners to be hired because it violates the charter.

As a result, we’re sure the board of commissioners, driven by the belief that somehow they are fixing the checks and balances in county government, will file a lawsuit asking a court to force him to hire a lawyer.  Of course, what the commissioners are actually doing is perverting the checks and balances incorporated into the Shelby County Charter.

Legal Opinion Shopping

The commissioners have used some letters from members of the 1984 charter commission to justify its point of view and suggest that the commission intended for the board of commissioners to hire its own lawyer.  It is largely wishful thinking, because other people (both members and staff) deeply involved in the 1984 process cannot remember these kinds of conversations about giving the board of commissioners the power to hire its own lawyer.

In fact, other members of the Charter Commission have said flatly that there was no intent to provide the board of commissioners with such power.

Clearly, the chief complaint by the board of commissioners against the county attorney is that he is appointed by the mayor, not withstanding the fact that the county attorney must also be approved by the board of commissioners.  Another complaint appears to be that the Shelby County Attorney does not bend his rulings to blindly support whatever the commissioners want to do –  for that matter, it’s the same thing the county attorney does with the mayor’s administration.

After all, the law is the law, and it should apply to everyone in Shelby County Government equally and impartially.   More to the point, if there is an object lesson for county government, it is the confusion and complications that have been caused over the years after Memphis City Council got its own lawyer and dueling legal opinions and egos became regular features of City Hall discussions.

It’s The 1974 Restructure Act, Not the 1984 Charter, That Matters

Back to the letters from a few of the 1984 charter commission members, they merely obfuscate the point that it’s the 1974 Shelby County Restructure Act that’s the relevant document.

To understand this, consider the comments by Jimmie Covington, veteran reporter and expert on government:

“There is something incorrect with all of these comments (from charter commission members supporting the hiring of an attorney by the board of commissioners).  The wording relating to a special counsel for the commission, the powers of the county attorney and the roles of the commission (then the county court) and the county mayor was not drafted by the 1984 home rule charter commission.

“It was drafted for the County Government Restructure Act of 1974, approved by the General Assembly and then by the county’s voters before the county’s mayor-county court (now commission) form of government went into effect on Jan. 1, 1976.

“The restructure act was folded into the charter by the charter commission virtually intact before it was submitted to and approved by voters in 1984.

“The thrust of the charter commission was to bring home rule to the county and allow the commission to pass ordinances so that the county would not have to return to the legislature and seek private acts for many of the measures it wanted to adopt. The charter did not change the structure of the government or the relationships among the branches of government.

“I believe the meetings of the charter commission were recorded so it would be easy to check and see if the charter commission had any discussions on the topics that the former charter commission members bring up.  Even if they did have discussions, there was no change from the wording of the restructure act on these matters.

“The restructure act was developed within county government and with the county’s legislative delegation.   There was no charter commission or citizen’s committee involved and no recordings that would allow a review of what the intent of the wording might have been when the wording was drafted. Many of the people involved in the restructure effort are now deceased.”


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