City Council's 3 empty seats take center stage

By Updated: December 18, 2018 9:46 AM CT | Published: December 17, 2018 11:23 PM CT

The Memphis City Council has three empty council seats to fill Tuesday. And if the 10 council members can’t break the gridlock that has delayed the appointment to the first of those vacancies, there will be more calls for special elections to fill all three.

Some council members contend the difficulty in filling the District 1 vacancy, which was supposed to have been done at the Nov. 20 council session, isn’t unusual. But the delay that is now approaching Christmas and includes two other council vacancies is drawing opposition and vocal criticism – primarily around the stalemate that has left Raleigh Community Development Corp. director Rhonda Logan as the leading contender but short of the seven-vote majority it takes to claim the seat.

“This is an assault by this council against women in general,” Norma Lester, president of the Democratic Women of Shelby County, said Monday as women’s political groups rallied at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Lester called on the council to “cease and desist this foolishness.”

The support for Logan came the day after the Memphis Branch NAACP expressed concern over how the council has approached filling the District 1 seat. Memphis Branch president Deidre Malone said legal action to prompt a special election is a possibility.

Lester, a Shelby County election commissioner who was not speaking in that capacity Monday, also brought up the possibility.

“My understanding is if the council requests a special election, a special election can be held,” she said. “I’m not an attorney, but if there’s a request we will make that happen.”

Council attorney Allan Wade told the council earlier this month that a special council election only happens on the same ballot as a county general election. That was the case with the super district seat the council appointed Ford Canale to fill earlier this year. Canale was the winner of the special election on the August ballot to finish out the rest of the term to the end of 2019.

Council members who say they are following rules of procedure and vocal critics of the council’s methods have each complained of a political atmosphere of proposed deals, pressure in the form of opposition in the October 2019 council elections and block voting centered on race and gender.

“It’s this kind of apartheid government that thinks we will be quiet,” former Councilwoman TaJuan Stout-Mitchell said Monday at the NCRM press conference. “You are sadly mistaken. A minority will not force the majority, which is the democracy that I believe in.”

When Mitchell upset incumbent Councilman Jerome Rubin in the 1999 city elections, she was one of four women on the 13-member body. There are currently two women – Jamita Swearengen and Patrice Robinson – on the body.

The highest number of women ever on the council at one time was six, starting with five women elected to the body in 1991. Mary Rose McCormick, Janet Hooks, Pat Vander Schaaf, Florence Leffler and Barbara Sonnenburg were joined by Barbara Swearengen Ware, who was elected in a special August 1994 election following Shep Wilbun’s resignation after he was elected to the Shelby County Commission that year.

Council chairman Berlin Boyd, who initially backed Tierra Holloway for the current District 1 vacancy before abstaining numerous times, said he was offered deals as well as threatened politically during the course of more than 100 roll call votes at the Nov. 20 council session. Boyd has not said specifically who offered the deals or made the threats.

“I was appointed to the Memphis City Council twice and I worked to introduce myself to the council members to let the council members know who I am,” Boyd said earlier this month. “I didn’t have people coming speaking in my behalf. I didn’t send people messages. I ran for City Council on my merits.”

The District 1 seat has been represented by white men for the entire 50-year history of the mayor-council form of government in Memphis even as the district lines have changed over those years.

Logan was one vote away from changing that last month. Her appointment would up the African-American majority on the council to eight from the seven-member majority it has had since 1995.

Some of the white council members did not vote for Logan but did vote for other African-American contenders for the appointment as well as abstaining and/or voting for Lonnie Treadaway, the contender with the second-highest number of votes. Treadaway ran for alderman in Senatobia, Mississippi, last year and moved to District 1 this past July.

For some of those council members, the issue was the vocal support Logan had from former Councilman Rickey Peete. Peete has served two federal prison sentences for corruption – specifically for selling his council vote.

Some council members say there is nothing unusual about the deadlock beyond the difficulty of finding seven votes on a body that is down to 10 members.

“There wasn’t anything strange about us not reaching a consensus,” Councilman Kemp Conrad said after the Nov. 20 deadlock. “The thing that was strange was that seven votes kept overriding the chairman. These are not easy issues and everything is not as it may appear.”

Others says it would have been even easier to fill the District 1 seat if the council had followed the procedures it used earlier this year to appoint Canale.

“My take on this is let’s just be consistent,” Councilman Martavius Jones said this week. “The rules changed in the middle of the game.”

Boyd plans to outline the order of business at Tuesday’s 2:30 p.m. executive session ahead of the regular meeting that starts at 3:30 p.m.

The council vacancies are at the end of a long agenda that includes a set of nine construction and development code revision ordinances and proposed Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division rate hikes.

Follow the meeting @bdriesdm for live coverage and updates from committee sessions earlier in the day.

At the Nov. 20 meeting, the council abandoned the practice of nominations for vacancies and instead voted on all six applicants, then narrowing the choice to those who got two or more votes in the first round. Later in the proceedings the council voted to do away with a return to all six contenders after a round of voting on those with two or more votes.

An attempt to overturn that decision at the Dec. 4 meeting was what prompted the walkout and the loss of the council’s quorum.

Conrad has since withdrawn his bid to open up the balloting to all five remaining contenders, including Logan.

Wade hopes that will enable Logan to make her case to the council Tuesday. The original intent was that she would have a chance to get the one vote she needed to get to seven. But Logan is now three votes down with the resignations of Janis Fullilove and Edmund Ford Jr. since the Nov. 20 session. Wade has said if Logan can’t get the seven votes at the outset, she should consider withdrawing from the process and let the council focus on the four remaining contenders.

The scenario got a visceral reaction from the eight women and three men gathered Monday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

“She won,” said Stout-Mitchell, referring to Logan. “This is divide and conquer.”

“They never tell us the same thing twice,” Lester said of the council. “This is an insult to the city of Memphis. Enough is enough.”

“Boyd is a joke,” said Fullilove, who has had vocal differences with Boyd on numerous issues over the years. “He’s a joke and he needs to get out of there.”

Fullilove doesn’t think there will be a similar standoff when it comes to filling her super district seat.

“My seat will be fine,” she said.


Memphis City Council Norma Lester TaJuan Stout-Mitchell Berlin Boyd Janis Fullilove
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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