Election Commission Zigs; County Commission Zags 

Election administrator Holden to leave; county commissioners play Santa Claus.

click to enlarge Rich Holden - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Rich Holden

The announcement Monday by Rich Holden of his decision to retire as Shelby County Election Commission administrator at the end of the year belongs to the category of events that are both surprising and instantly seen as inevitable, once they occur.

For years Holden has borne the brunt of virtually nonstop criticism for a seemingly endless series of glitches and issues that have bedeviled the county's electoral process. These have run the gamut from the issuance of ballots improperly matched up with the appropriate districts to snarls in vote-counting to what critics charged was a disregarding of quirks in the county's voting machines.

At various times, Holden was the recipient of sanctions from the Election Commission itself, votes of no confidence by the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission, and demands by local elected officials for federal investigations of his office.

Holden's problems began as far back as the time of his appointment in 2009 by a commission that had become newly majority-Republican in the previous election cycle, when the state House of Representatives tipped over to GOP control.

Since the Senate had already come under a Republican majority, that made the GOP the state's official majority party, and Tennessee law provides that not only the state Election Commission but each of the 95 county election commissions shall consist of a 3-2 majority in favor of the party which controls the legislature.

For decades, that fact resulted in anomalies like the presence of pretend-Democrats in control of election commissions in several ancestrally Republican East Tennessee counties where there were as many actual Democrats as there were aardvarks.

In Shelby County, however, the two parties had for some time coexisted in a condition of rough equivalence, and the change-over from Democratic to Republican control in the administration of elections had the potential of controversy under the best of circumstances.

And that fact was accentuated in 2009 by a fast-track post-election effort of the new GOP majority on the county Election Commission to transition Holden, who had been a Republican member of the commission, into the administrator's job, which had long been held by Democratic CAO James Johnson.

The move was initially staved off by a statement of caution from former state Attorney General Robert Cooper, but would eventually come to pass, with Holden acceding to the position of administrator and Johnson becoming a Democratic commission member.

The newly configured commission hit a bump with the 2010 county election, the first major partisan election under the new management, when an apparent electronic glitch erroneously recorded thousands of potential election-day voters as already having cast ballots in the early-voting period, with hundreds of them being turned away before the problem was discovered and corrected.

Given that the slate of Republican candidates swept that election over their Democratic opponents, the losing Democrats thought they smelled a fish and sued to have the results overturned. They were supported by a series of itemized charges— some of them alleging chicaneries that seemed fanciful enough for a James Bond saga — from Black Box Voting, an out-of-state watchdog organization.

The list of allegations was pruned down to a series of possible technical irregularities before trial, and then-Chancellor Arnold Goldin dismissed the plaintiffs' suit as not meeting the standards for declaring the election result "incurably uncertain," as required for the trial to be pursued. The numerical gaps between winner and loser had, in any case, seemed far larger than could have been affected by the election-day glitch.

But the seeds of suspicion had sprouted, and the almost dependable eruption of new glitches in election after election ever since has done little to restore trust between the two parties vis-à-vis the election process.

The basis of contention shifted in the course of time from suspicion of fraud to simple negligence or mismanagement, and the spotlight shifted away from members of the commission itself to Holden. Following the mismatching of thousands of races to precincts in ballots issued in the August 2012 county election, the commission members, Democrats and Republicans alike, agreed to put Holden on six-month probation.

He emerged with his job intact, but allegations and complaints continued, from Democratic members of the commission and self-appointed watchdogs like Steve Ross and Joe Weinberg. Most recently, Weinberg made a point of publicizing a new case of apparent wrong ballots being issued to specific voters, this one based on a challenge originally raised by John Marek, one of the losing candidates in the recent election for the Memphis City Council's District 5.

And state Representative G.A. Hardaway had of late gone so far as to call for a criminal investigation of Holden.

There often seemed to be a good deal of overreach by Holden's critics, and no doubt partisan motives played a role in his tribulations, as did a general need to find a scapegoat for problems and circumstances beyond the province of a single individual. And, though generally good-natured and uncomplaining, the husky ex-Marine sometimes evinced a stubbornness in the face of complaints that others found frustrating.

In any case, Holden is at last off the hot seat. The five-member Election Commission, so often at odds with itself, will now have to agree on a successor.

• The Shelby County Commission, another local body accustomed to a fair amount of contentiousness, eased into its annual holiday break with a Monday meeting that lacked any of the clashes between members that have become routine, and, for the time being, avoided as well any resumption of the commission's ongoing conflict with the administration of county Mayor Mark Luttrell.

And, as a result of the defeat at Wednesday's committee sessions of a resolution from Commissioner Steve Basar requiring approval by the county commission and city council of any potential merger of the city/county Economic Development and Growth Engine Board (EDGE) with the Community Redevelopment Agency, Basar had withdrawn his resolution from Monday's agenda.

The main order of business for the commission on Monday was to approve further incremental grants to community organizations, projects, and charities deemed to be deserving by members of the commission acting under their recently adopted license to dispense such lagniappes on a district-by-district basis.

One indication of Monday's laid-back pre-holiday mood came in the form of a quip from commission chairman Terry Roland to Luttrell's CAO, Harvey Kennedy, who had previously complained that the microphone at his desk in the well of the commission auditorium was malfunctioning.

"Well, Cap, you see we got your button fixed, and you don't even need to use it," cracked Roland, during a lull in proceedings. (The breeziness of addressing Kennedy, a former Navy captain, as "Cap" was an interesting indicator of the commission's relations with the administration, as well.)

The lack of action Monday on either the EDGE issue or the conflict between the commission and the administration does not mean that either is a closed matter, of course. There will doubtless be further actions on the commission (and on the city council, as well) to revise the terms of the relationship with EDGE so as to give members of the legislative bodies more active say on industrial recruitment matters than their presence on the EDGE board as ex officio members currently allows.

And there are ongoing discussions behind the scenes to break the stalemate over the commission's wish to complete the installation of former Commissioner Julian Bolton to act as an independent attorney on behalf of the commission. Basically, the commission insists on the basis of the County Charter that it has that right; Luttrell and County Attorney Ross Dyer insist on the basis of the self-same charter that they do not.

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