The election backstory: Term limits

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 25, 2022 11:03 AM CT | Published: April 25, 2022 4:00 AM CT

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Memphis City Council members and Shelby County Commissioners are both limited to serving no more than two consecutive terms of four years each. So are the Memphis mayor and the Shelby County mayor.

Related content: 
Changing who wins and how long they serve: A call for city primaries and extending term limits

 The Backstory: Primaries

That’s two full terms of four years each.

Someone who is appointed or elected to serve out part of someone else’s term of office if a position is vacated can serve the remainder of that term of office without it counting toward the two-term limit.

Some public officials are trying explain away the recent referendum results

The two-term limit does not mean someone can never serve another term after that; it just can’t be a consecutive term.

Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey hit the two-term limit in 2006, left office and four years later ran for and won another term on the commission and in 2014 was re-elected to a second term and final term.

Shelby County voters approved limits of two consecutive four-year terms for county commissioners and the county mayor in a 1994 referendum.

The measure was put on the ballot through a petition drive initiated by the group Citizens Against New Taxes – CANT.

Ballot Basics: Election Day

By its terms, the clock started running on the two-term limit with those elected in the 1998 county elections.

Several incumbent county commissioners who would have hit the two-term limit in 2006 sued county government in 2004 over the limit.

Chancery Court ruled the term limits were constitutional, but the state appeals court reversed that decision. The Tennessee Supreme Court in 2006 upheld the original Chancery Court ruling.

Council funds ‘public information campaign’ on referendums

Two years before the county referendum on term limits, in 1992, City Council member Mary Rose McCormick proposed limits of two consecutive terms for the council and mayor along with other city charter changes.

On the way to the November 1992 ballot topped by a presidential general election, the term limits were linked to a pay raise for the City Council whose pay in 1992 remained at the $6,000 mark set in the 1966 city charter.

Memphis voters rejected the term limits with the pay raise, marking five rejections of a pay raise for the council in some form or fashion.

Sixteen years later, in 2008, the Memphis Charter Commission included at limit of two consecutive terms for the Memphis Mayor and City Council in its recommendations that were approved by voters.

‘Drafting error’ in term limits question draws fire from Herenton

On the county side, Shelby County commissioners undertook their own review of the county charter in 2008.

The result was two sets of charter changes that went to county voters. In one of the sets was a proposed extension of the two-term limit to three terms.

The three-term limit would have applied not only to the County Commission and mayor but also to the countywide offices of Sheriff, Assessor, Register, County Clerk and Trustee.

Voters approved one of the sets of charter amendments but rejected the one containing the extension and expansion of term limits.

The commission drafted a new set of provisions that kept all the other unrelated items the same. They changed the term limits provision to two terms and an extension of the two-term limit to the five countywide offices and put it on the ballot that August.

Voters approved the entire package.

Commissioners have discussed and debated since then other charter amendments to increase the term limit to three terms but those efforts have never made it to a vote to put the amendment to voters again.

City Council members put a three-term limit extension for the council and mayor on the 2018 ballot with several other unrelated items, each to be voted on separately.

The three-term limit would have allowed council members near the end of their second term to seek a third term in the 2019 elections.

All of the ballot questions from the council, including the term limits extension, were rejected by Memphis voters.


term limits Memphis City Council Shelby County Commission Walter Bailey

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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

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


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