Council rules change draft ruffles feathers anew

By Updated: February 10, 2019 4:00 AM CT | Published: February 06, 2019 2:21 PM CT

With its three newest members seated and their committees assigned, the Memphis City Council appears to have moved past the controversy of November and December over how to fill the three vacancies and who to put in the seats.

But the ruffled feathers from the controversy and stalemate are still evident at times with the new council appointees who are learning the procedures and customs of the council.

Gerre Currie, the new District 6 council member who was chairing the public works committee last week, kept a close eye on the digital clock in the council committee room as the time for her committee bled over into the next committee session.

Joe Brown, the council’s longest-serving current member, had questions about the relocation of a 48-inch sewer line for the expansion of the campus of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The committee was running long and into the time of another committee when Currie said the committee was ending discussion on the item.

“I can’t be cut off like that,” Brown said.

Currie said she wasn’t cutting off Brown but the administration officials answering his questions. Brown argued that she had to let them finish their answers to his questions.

“I’m trying to educate,” Brown continued. “I’m not trying to be the sharpest guy in the room. But I am the sharpest guy in the room.”

BILL DRIESGreer, Johnson and Currie appointed to City Council

The back and forth set the stage for the first draft of proposed changes to council rules designed to avoid the stalemate the council of 10 walked into this past November that lasted into the first meeting of 2019.

In advance of the comprehensive rules review overseen by council member Patrice Robinson, the council approved last Tuesday the addition of a second vice chair, proposed by chairman Kemp Conrad. It drew "no" votes from council members Brown, Berlin Boyd, Jamita Swearengen and Martavius Jones.

The position addresses one of the scenarios that came up during the council’s stalemate when some of the members wanted to call a special meeting but Boyd, who was then chairman, said neither he nor vice chairman Frank Colvett would be available for the meeting.

The second vice chairman is to be elected like the first vice chairman and chairman by a majority vote of the council.

“Now we have a second vice chairman?” Brown asked when Robinson mentioned the proposal. “I don’t know what he’s trying to do. Never in the history of the council have we had a second vice chairman,” he said, referring to Conrad. “It looks like corruption. I said that. … I know you. Let me tell you something, player. It’s not right.”

In the 50-year history of the mayor-council form of government, the council has never had three appointed members serving at the same time.

The draft changes, to be discussed further and voted on by the council at the Feb. 19 council session, clarify rules in writing that the council has adapted through their use of them over the years without putting that usage into the written rules.

The draft changes include a written provision that says the council rules take precedence over Robert’s Rules of Order on parliamentary procedure unless there in an instance not addressed by the council rules.

One of the hardest fought points during the stalemate was what constituted a quorum of members – the minimum number of council members that must be present for there to be a council meeting. And the standard changed from seven to six at a key moment in the standoff.

The draft of the rules changes sets a quorum as “a majority of the duly sworn members of the council.” That is consistent with the legal opinion of council attorney Allan Wade, who held that since there were only 10 council members who had taken the oath of office on the council after the resignations of three other council members took effect in December, the council’s quorum until at least two of the vacant seats were filled was six instead of seven.

The rules for filling council vacancies would change from specifically requiring the votes of seven council members to appoint someone to the open seat to “a majority vote of the duly sworn council members.”

The council was down one member when the resignation of council member Bill Morrison took effect Nov. 1. The resignations of council members Janis Fullilove and Edmund Ford Jr. took effect toward the end of November, with the plan being that the council would fill Morrison’s District 1 seat before Fullilove and Ford left the council.

BILL DRIESCity Council's 3 empty seats take center stage

But the 12 council members took more than 100 separate roll call votes on the District 1 seat at the Nov. 20 council meeting with none of the six contenders getting the seven votes required by council rules.

When the council met next in December, the body was down to 10 with the departures of Fullilove and Ford. Four council members supporting Raleigh Community Development Corporation executive director Rhonda Logan walked out of the meeting, leaving the council without a quorum of seven. That requirement is where interpretation of the rules created some differences. The rules read that a quorum “shall require a majority of the members of the council.”

The proposed changes include changing that to read a majority of the “duly sworn” members of the council. It’s the rule the council adopted during the stalemate on the advice of its attorney Allan Wade, which meant a quorum and a majority vote of the council of 10 members came to six.

The decision effectively ended the walkout by Jones, Brown, Robinson and Swearengen, all of whom had supported Logan. But it led to a brief debate about whether a council member abstaining or passing on a vote to fill a council seat was tacitly supporting the applicant who had the most votes among those council members making a choice.

“Those not voting go along with the majority,” Swearengen argued at the last council meeting of 2018. “They went toward the majority.”

Council member Reid Hedgepeth was among those who saw it differently while acknowledging the changing rules during the standoff.

“It’s become obvious to me and to everybody in this audience that Ms. Logan has four votes,” he said. “We are going to have to look and find somebody who can go get six votes.”

When the council met Jan. 8, Logan’s name never came up. The council took one vote on the District 1 vacancy and selected Sherman Greer, who was not among the six applicants for the vacancy but who was nominated from the floor by a council member.

Logan’s name resurfaced last Tuesday as Robinson outlined the proposed changes to the rules.

“When somebody commits murder, they must be put into a court of law,” Brown said. “It must be proven who committed that murder and who committed that murder is who committed that murder. Not too long ago with Rhonda Logan, we committed murder. Somebody committed murder. I didn’t.”

Brown also described Logan’s treatment during the process as “a public lynching.”

Robinson, who supported Logan throughout the stalemate, said the council’s rules weren’t clear for either side.

“We had several passages in here that were conflicting with one another,” she said. “At that time we were operating – it really didn’t make a lot of sense. I’m not trying to change just to change. I was trying to make sure that what we have here is clear to anyone.”

Jones, meanwhile, wants to require a two-thirds majority to suspend the council rules.

“I still think that for the suspension of the rules we should have a higher hurdle. We’ve agreed upon these rules,” he said. “And if we say we want to change them, we could very well go from meeting to meeting to meeting and change the rules just based upon seven. When do we go about having some type of consistency?”

Wade recalled an unsuccessful attempt by Lee Harris during his tenure on the council to change council rules to require a two-thirds vote to suspend the rules.

“Nothing else in the (city) charter requires anything greater than a constitutional majority except one instance where people can petition,” Wade told Jones. “You are entirely welcome to put that back on the table. But I wouldn’t like to see you complicate what we have before us. I think that should be taken up separately and debated.”

<strong>Reid Hedgepeth</strong>

Reid Hedgepeth

<strong>Allan Wade</strong>

Allan Wade

<strong>Patrice Robinson</strong>

Patrice Robinson

<strong>Joe Brown</strong>

Joe Brown

<strong>Gerre Currie</strong>

Gerre Currie


Memphis City Council Patrice Robinson Joe Brown Martavius Jones Kemp Conrad
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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