In a saga whose milestones have most often been marked by conflict, stress, and high drama, a key moment occurred Wednesday afternoon with such minimal sound and fury that it almost seemed an anti-climax.
In reality, however, the January 19 meeting of the Shelby County Election Commission to formally set a date for a citywide referendum on dissolution of the Memphis City Schools charter could better be described with the familiar phrase “calm before the storm.”
Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini and his four colleagues seemed relaxed, even jovial, when they entered the auditorium at the SCEC Operations Center, and they got right down to business.
Commission attorney Monice Hagler reviewed the circumstances, including a back-and-forth on technical issues with state Election Coordinator Mark Goins, that had led, first, to a delay in setting an election date and, finally, after a court order and apparent resolution of contested points, to the selection of March 8.
Then Bill Giannini called for a voice vote of approval for the date, which came unanimously from the two Democrats and three Republicans (including Giannini). The chairman then asked for another vote on the 16 early voting sites selected by the Commission staff and announced by SCEC chief administrator Rich Holden, and, once again, there was a chorus of agreement.
Deed done, the press conference stretched out a bit anyhow, as if both the commissioners and the assembled media felt an obligation to endow the bare-bones scenario with texture and complexity appropriate to the occasion.
Reporters, who may have simply needed context to fill out their stories or segments, asked the kind of questions to which the answers were already well known — for example, whether the referendum (which, if successful, would force the de facto consolidation of the city and county school systems) would be restricted to voting residents of Memphis. It will be.
An inventive variant was a question as to whether poll workers could be from outside the city. The answer, from administrator Holden: No.
The commissioners themselves strained for detail — Giannini, for example, noting that, by scheduling the referendum on the same date as a special general election for state House District 98, the taxpayers would be saved some $50,000 (the cost of the House election by itself).
That was more illusion than reality, since the $50,000 which was already scheduled to be spent will be filled out by another $950,000 — the cost of extending the charter-transfer referendum to precincts outside 98. Total expenditures: $1 million, identical to what would have been spent for the referendum if there were no special House election.
Still, the colloquy engendered a sense of shared good will that marked the event as something of an oasis in a turbulent timeline that will include such future events as the almost certain passage of state legislation designed to impede the consolidation of districts, as well as looming litigations and other complications and contests as yet undreamed of .
The video below captures the central core of the event: