If Shelby County mayor A C Wharton had his way, he'd appoint most of the constitutional county officers whose status is now judicially uncertain and allow the popular election of the assessor and sheriff, though he'd want to strip away the independent budget control now enjoyed by the sheriff.
The county mayor made his personal preferences clear Friday in an interview with the Flyer, after attending a noon session of the Urban School Leadership Conference at the city's Teaching and Learning Academy on Union Avenue.
Five currently elected county offices had their status made flexible by a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this year in a Knox County case. Since then, Wharton, county commission members, and other officials have been reviewing the status of these positions for possible redefinition under the county charter.
Besides the sheriff and assessor, the positions in legal limbo are those of trustee, county clerk, and county register.
"I do think there are some offices that are largely business-type offices that should be appointed," the mayor said. Those, he indicated, were the county clerk, the register, and probably the trustee, though Wharton remains undecided about the latter.
Eliminate sheriff's budget control
"I feel very frankly that the sheriff ought to be elected and answer to the wishes of the people. And the assessor ... I also think the individual in that slot ought to be completely immune from political pressure," the mayor said.
On a key issue affecting the sheriff's fiscal independence, however, Wharton demurred. "I think he ought to be elected under the charter, not under the state constitution," Wharton said. Did that mean that the budgetary control currently enjoyed by the sheriff should be transferred to the central county administration? "That's correct," the mayor answered.
"It's not the multiplicity of the positions per se that makes it difficult to head the county in one direction," he elaborated. "It's just the plain business functions — it's where we bank, where we invest, how many people we hire. When you have seven or eight people trying to make those decisions, it's very difficult."
In the case of the trustee, those issues have been acute in the recent past, Wharton feels — a factor in his ambivalence about the position. "I'm not fully decided on that, but I do think more of the functions ought to be more clearly delineated in the charter and not have to rely on the state law. See, that's what happens now: The trustee says, 'I'm not a county officer, and I don't have to go through your purchasing procedure, and I don't have to do this, and if you don't give me enough positions, I can sue you."
Conceivably, the trustee's position could remain elective, the mayor said, but "when it comes down to the housekeeping functions, those ought to come under the charter, just like everything else."
"Basically office-type positions"
Summing up: "I'm not completely decided on the trustee. I'm inclined to believe that ought to be an appointive position. With the assessor, I am decided that should be an elective position; the sheriff I think ought to be [elective]. But again, those business functions, you don't have that in city governments around the state, and they function quite well. Those positions are basically office-type positions."
Ideally, as Wharton sees it, the mayor's office would be responsible for hiring the county clerk and register and likely the trustee, with the county commission responsible for confirming the appointments.
Any change in the county charter would require an amendment to be voted on by popular referendum. It could be placed on a Shelby County ballot by citizen petition, by action of the county commission, or possibly through the aegis of a charter review panel.
• The Democratic primary race for the vacant state House seat has heated up (again) with candidate Kevin Gallagher's charge that only he is a longtime resident of District 89. Opponent Jeanne Richardson counters that Gallagher's flyer mail-out on the subject is loaded with inaccuracies. Meanwhile, the dangerous-looking guy on the flyer is apparently just a stock photo Gallagher (or a surrogate) got by Googling "angry citizen." (Richardson hopes people think it's Gallagher himself.)
Among the things that Gallagher charges in the flyer that went out late last week are that he owns his home in the district while Richardson does not, that he managed former state senator Steve Cohen's successful 2006 congressional campaign while Richardson "could not vote for Steve Cohen for state Senate" because she lived outside the district, and that for similar reasons she was never able to vote for former District 89 representatives Beverly Marrero or Carol Chumney.
Says Richardson: "The only thing that's completely accurate is that I wasn't able to vote for Beverly Marrero, whom I support, however." She insisted that while she lived for some years with a former husband on Mud Island, she rented her current residence in District 89 back in Februrary, lives there (in the Evergreen Historical District), and intends to buy the house.
Richardson says further that she lived at three prior District 89 addresses before moving to Mud Island in 1990 (on Pope, Crenshaw, and North Drive) and that she indeed voted for Cohen for the state Senate during that time frame and not only voted for Chumney (in 1990) but hosted a fundraiser for her in the district that year.
Gallagher's flyer notes that the house Richardson now rents is owned by her campaign treasurer, Amanda McEachran. Richardson concedes the point but says she moved there (with family members) before she made up her mind to run ("It was even before Beverly won her state Senate race [for District 30], and I couldn't have made plans to run by then"). She also says that she is endeavoring to buy the house and that she is completing the sale of her former Mud Island residence.
For his part, Gallagher contends he belongs to "the third generation of Gallaghers to live in this district and is raising the fourth generation" in it. His flyer is headed "Know the Facts! Only One Democrat in the Race for State Representative is Actually From the District."
For the last day or two, both he and Richardson have been making their rounds while packing folders with papers supporting their respective claims. The to-do involving residence recalls a similar issue raised by Marrero in 2004, when she won her own special election for District 89 to succeed Chumney, who had been elected to the City Council. In her primary against opponent Jeff Sullivan, she charged that Sullivan had voted from a district residence he had not yet moved into.
Richardson and Gallagher are generally conceded to be running neck-and-neck in the Democratic primary. Each can claim impressive endorsements: Richardson boasts Marrero and Chumney, while Gallagher has the public support of Representative Cohen and county commissioner Deidre Malone.
Mayoral candidates Morris, Willingham in Mini-Battle
Even as political adepts and voters alike begin to express an interest in broadening the current field for mayor, two aspirants for the job of Memphis' chief executive are engaged in a mini-competition of sorts for the official favor of the local Republican Party.
Former MLGW head Herman Morris and ex-county commissioner John Willingham were scheduled for a joint appearance this week before the East Shelby Republican Club, an influential local organization in the GOP matrix.
Morris, who is trying to hit some imagined political middle (calling himself both a "lower-case" Republican and a "lower-case" Democrat), has Republican establishmentarian John Ryder as a campaign chairman. Willingham is a longtime party member, though he has almost always been on the maverick side of GOP controversies and in his several previous races has most often been denied the party's imprimatur.
Both are probably in for a disappointment. County Republican chairman Bill Giannini told a meeting of the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon Saturday that Morris had "no chance" of being endorsed and, while he was not so explicit about Willingham, expressed his opinion that the former commissioner had no chance to win and should exit the race. After the meeting, Giannini told the Flyer he did not think the local party should endorse anyone.
(Some Democratic backers of Morris, meanwhile, believe his interest in a Republican endorsement, whether he gets it or not, would diminish, not enhance, his chances.)
Despite recent polls showing City Council member Carol Chumney leading incumbent mayor Willie Herenton and the rest of the declared field, including FedEx executive Jim Perkins, the current consensus among political observers seems to favor the mayor's chances in October.
But almost everybody thinks that could change with new arrivals in the field — notably Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who is widely considered a likely winner if he chose to run. — JB