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It is the 30th anniversary of the Shelby County Home Rule Charter, which, for three decades, has served county government well.

The charter went into effect September 1, 1986, following its approval two years earlier by 64% of the voters after a charter commission, comprised of 11 citizens, carefully calibrated the roles and responsibilities of the executive and legislative branches.

That 1986 home rule charter followed by 10 years the restructure of county government to address the overlapping and confusing responsibilities of the two branches of county government.  The major problem with the old government structure was that the legislative and executive branches’ authorities were muddled, unclear, and conflicting.

After deliberation and study, it was decided by the home rule charter commission that county government would work best with a “strong mayor” form of government.

Piecemeal Tinkering

There has nothing since that decision was made that undercuts its wisdom.

That’s why for us, it is nothing short of political malpractice for a politically motivated group of commissioners to be willing to throw a wrench in this structure out of political pique.

It’s one thing for commissioners to be intent on sticking their fingers in Mayor Mark Luttrell’s eye with changes to the county charter, but in truth, the eye with the finger in it belongs to the voters.  After all, it was the tens of thousands of county voters who endorsed at the polls this approach to government.

But here’s the thing: whether you believe the board of commissioners are right or wrong, this is not the way to evaluate and make changes to the charter.  The best course of action would be for the establishment of a charter commission of citizens to consider any and all suggestions for changing its provisions, to evaluate the pros and cons of each, and to make a formal recommendation to the public.

If the board of commissioners is now going to make piecemeal changes to the county’s charter for their own political ends, it violates precedent and abandons the mature judgement that voters are right to expect from their legislative body.

Damage To Their Own Government

It is the latest move by some commissioners to continue a scorched earth approach to their petulant fight with the executive branch which was fueled by their wish to have their own attorney who will rubber stamp their agenda.  As we have previously written, Mr. Luttrell was correct in refusing to go along to get along, allowing the commissioners to hire their own lawyer.

The appointment of attorneys, according to the charter, is clearly within the authority of the mayor, but in explaining why they are entitled to their own lawyer, some commissioners have grandiosely described the board of commissioners as the center of the county government universe rather than as one of two carefully balanced branches.

In unilaterally making changes to the county charter without the advice of a charter commission, the board of commissioners are pursuing a clear political agenda without a clear rationale for changing 30 years of precedent in pursuit of their belief in their own precedence in the county structure.

Thankfully, after all of the sound and fury about attorneys and grenades lobbed at the county administration for months and proposals for a number of changes to the charter, in the end, it only resulted in one – about limiting the power of county mayors to fire the Shelby County Attorney by requiring commissioners’ concurrence.

But the fact that the damage to the executive branch was much less than what they had hoped for does not excuse their politically-motivated tinkering with the charter.

A Wise Decision

It’s worth remembering how historic the charter was and what the stakes were.  It’s laid out in its introduction:

“It is appropriate that, after over 180 years of existence, the County replace the present structure of County government, as it has evolved, with a totally responsive, responsible and modern structure. The Charter Commission presents a government not only for the 1980’s but for the increasingly complex challenges faced by an urban type of county government for the 21st century, with the opportunity for the people of this County to make local county governmental changes in Shelby County, rather than in Nashville.”

It also said a highlight of the charter was to provide “for segregation of the County’s legislative, executive, and judicial functions.  The heart of the Charter is a strong elected executive, accountable to all the voters, who has the power to veto ordinances and resolutions, and both the responsibility and the means at hand with which to operate an effective and efficient county government.” (Italics are ours.)  The language in this paragraph was taken verbatim from a legal report by the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

Then, there is Section 3.02 of the charter: “The county mayor shall be the head of the executive branch of Shelby County government, responsible for the exercising of all executive and administrative functions of the county government and shall be the chief fiscal officer of the county.”  And Section 3.08(2) deals with the legal department: “The county attorney shall act as chief counsel to the Shelby County government, and he shall act as legal advisor to the county mayor, the county commission, and to all departments, officers and officials of the Shelby County government and shall perform such other duties as may [be] required.”

Strange Times

The commissioners have a special reason to appreciate the well-crafted charter.  When a lawsuit was filed in 1989 challenging the provision for commissioners to be paid $16,500 rather than the previous $6,000, the Supreme Court of Tennessee upheld the pay raise.  In all of the discussion about changes in the charter, there has been no suggestion about reducing commissioner’s paychecks.

All in all, these are strange days in Shelby County Government, where its legislative body was only a decade ago pointed to as a model for decorum and effectiveness.  It’s now deteriorating so much that Memphis City Council is held in higher esteem (and it’s traditionally had the lowest approval ratings in our community).

These days, that august county body’s reputation is demeaned by constant personality conflicts and political tugs of war, punctuated by outbursts of over-the-top comments, walk-outs from a meeting, threats of fisticuffs, complaints that information is being withheld (although they have the power to convene any process to ferret out the facts), and stinging personal insults directed at each other and Mayor Luttrell, regularly by members of his own political party.

It creates a discouraging mixture of ego, angst, and antagonism that shows no signs of waning.  What’s lost in the tone of this debate is that from the public’s point of view, nobody really wins.  In an environment like the one created by the board of commissioners, in the end, everyone’s negatives go up, but especially its own.

At this point, the ball seems to be in the board of commissioner’s court, and whether Shelby County Government lives up to its founding vision of a strong mayor form of government now depends on whether the commissioners have the maturity to change their behavior to take a respectful view of their own government’s history.


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