Metro Charter Commission Meeting – 12/17/09

Last night, the Metro Charter Commission met for the fourth time. From looking at the agenda one might conclude that it was going to be a barn burner with topics such as the fate of the two school districts, annexation, and Constitutional officers on the agenda. While the meeting was interesting, a barn burner it wasn’t. In fact, many of the “big fights” surrounding these issues are kind of moot based on opinions from the State Attorney General and County Attorney. Of course, these are just opinions. There’s still a possibility of litigation to actually “settle” these issues, but that seems unlikely at this point. So without further ado, here’s what happened.

The first item on the agenda, after the normal opening business, was a presentation by Brian Stephens and Darrell Cobbins of Rebuild Government. This consisted, primarily, of informing the Commission about the mission of the group and a rundown of the activities that the group has planned going forward. I wrote about the organization, which launched Monday here.

There were some questions for the group, one of which is a question I’ve been asked about 20 times since Monday. Commissioner and Millington Mayor Richard Hodges asked where the funding for this organization came from. Stephens replied that the early fundraising efforts had come from the business community, but that as the organization continues on it’s mission it will be soliciting donations from philanthropic organizations and individuals.

The second question/comment came from Commissioner and former Collierville Mayor Linda Kerley. Kerley was concerned that the information given out to the public by the group be as accurate as possible and reflect the intent of the Commission. Stephens replied that Rebuild Government would accept any and all information from the Commission and work to ensure that the both the information distributed and the intent was as comprehensive as possible.

This presentation was followed by a statement by Memphis Mayor AC Wharton on the issues of the Metro Charter and schools.

The crux of his message was that because of the way that both the Shelby Co. Schools and the Memphis City Schools are established, that neither “body politic” could be forced to come together by any other entity. “…not gonna have a shotgun wedding.”, was the quote that perhaps most captured the sentiment of his message.

The Mayor’s comments were followed by some quick business about the Commissions task forces. I hope to have a list of all the task forces, their Chairmen, and members soon.

From there, things got a little interesting…but just for a second. Commissioner and City Councilman Jim Strickland put forth a motion to exclude the topic of schools from the entire purview of Metro Charter Commission discussions. Waiting in the wings was County Attorney Brian Kuhn, with testimony, an opinion and State Attorney General opinion on the state’s school provisions in regard to the formation of a Metro style government. This motion was tabled until after Kuhn’s testimony.

County Attorney Brian Kuhn then started laying out his opinion, backed up by a State Attorney General’s opinion on what powers and responsibilities the Metro Charter Commission had in regard to the schools. As Mayor Wharton noted, because of the way the Shelby Co. and Memphis City schools are organized, two separately chartered organizations with separate legislative bodies, the Charter Commission has no right or duty to try and merge the two districts. According to his testimony, the only thing that the Charter Commission must do, is set forth the manner in which the two school districts are to be funded.

But even the funding issue has a twist. According to Kuhn, a measure that may come up this spring in the State Legislature would allow taxing authority to school boards. Such a move would allow the Charter Commission to establish a process by which the two individual entities could tax constituents according to the needs of each district. This would eliminate one area of disagreement and fade some of the heat off of the resulting Metro Council or Commission, but would also increase the profile and importance of the boards for both Memphis and Shelby Co. schools.

At this point, Commissioner and City Councilman Strickland amended his motion to only deal with the issue of funding. The motion was approved unanimously.

Next, County Attorney Brian Kuhn talked to the Commission about Constitutional Officers, or officials that the state mandates every County have. In the opinion he provided to the Commission, Kuhn lays out in great detail the officers that must remain and what options the Commission have in front of them. According to the opinion, Sherriff, Trustee, Register, County Clerk and Assessor of Property are all mandated by the state. However, the duties of these offices are not. The Charter Commission can decide to define the duties for each of these offices as they see fit.

Kuhn noted that in Davidson Co., for instance, the Sherriff was only responsible for the jails and courts. Also in Davidson, the Trustee only collects the taxes, an appointed official deals with investments and warrants (checks).

This will likely be one of the more lively and possibly contentious discussions in upcoming Commission meetings.

A discussion about the County and City government functions was largely tabled until a later meeting. As I noted in my post about last meeting, both function very differently, and with new administrations in both the City and the County, it is possible that some areas will be a moving target for the Commission, and the staff that seeks to help provide them the details of both.

Kelly Rayne also gave a presentation on the current annexation plans and what will happen to them should the citizens of the Memphis and Shelby Co. decide to form a Metro government. On page 12 of the document is a map that describes the current annexation arrangement between the cities located in Shelby Co. If I’m understanding correctly, the resulting Metro government will either inherit Memphis’ current annexation areas, or will have to be given via the new charter, those areas. This, however, is a question that will likely be referred to the County Attorney, or the State Attorney General.

Finally, the Commission spent some time on how to best deal with media interviews and Task Force scheduling going forward. Due to the holiday, the task force issue will be primarily dealt with after the holidays. Task Force meetings will be announced at the next Charter Commission meeting on January 7th.

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