Although the names of veteran county commissioners Walter Bailey and Cleo Kirk will appear on the May 2nd Democratic primary ballot, they will not be eligible to serve. That's one of the anomalies resulting from the state Supreme Court's unanimous decision last week upholding the 1994 referendum in which Shelby County voters imposed term limits on county officials. Since various deadlines for this year's complex election ballots had already passed, Bailey and Kirk can still receive votes and no doubt will get a hefty number.
Indeed, there is effort under way by some Democrats to organize a vote for both commissioners. In the case of Bailey, their hope is to prevent a possible victory for another candidate, former Republican J.W. Gibson. If Bailey should "win," the reasoning goes, the local Democratic Party would conceivably be allowed to name his ballot replacement.
All such maneuvering aside, the fact remains that the court has spoken, and its unanimous judgment owed an acknowledged debt to the fact that an overwhelming majority of Shelby Countians, 83 percent, voted for the 1994 referendum that limits the county's mayor and members of the County Commission to two four-year terms. Covered by the provision, besides Bailey and Kirk, were commissioners Julian Bolton, Michael Hooks, and Marilyn Loeffel, none of whom sought reelection. Bolton and Loeffel are looking at election opportunities elsewhere. Add to those five departees two more voluntary ones, first-termers John Willingham, now a candidate for county mayor, and Bruce Thompson, and it becomes clear that seven positions on the 13-member commission are guaranteed to be occupied by new members by this time next year. And, for that matter, several of the remaining incumbents face opposition and could be leaving office as well.
When Congress was debating a term-limits amendment to the Constitution a decade ago, a veteran Republican representative, Henry Hyde of Illinois, thundered his opposition thusly: "You don't find leaders by looking in the phone book," he said. "You have to develop them!"
Whether that's the case or not, new leaders will have to emerge, and those who have been agitating for significant change in their local governance will be getting it, at least where Shelby County government is concerned. The fact is that the first-time commissioners elected four years ago, notably including Willingham and Thompson, brought radically different perspectives to county government, and the new brooms coming in can be expected to sweep in new and unexpected directions as well.
And there's an important ancillary benefit, which was directly reflected in the high court's ruling -- a new mood to respect direct expressions of the popular will. As one example, perennial candidate Joe Cooper, who in his race for the commission four years ago proposed selling off much of Shelby Farms to developers, now says he has "heard the voice of the people" and pledges in a rerun of his candidacy to uphold the preservation of the area as parkland. Even the bison have come out ahead.