Categorized | Opinion

Vote ‘No’ on Shelby County Charter referendum

shelby-county-sealThe Shelby County Home Rule Charter serves Shelby County government the same way that the United States Constitution serves our country and our federal government.  Our county charter was carefully written by a special committee of citizens 30 years ago and it has served the people of Shelby County well, putting into place checks and balances and clear lines of accountability that are essential for a fair and efficient government.
Yet there’s a county referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot that tinkers with our county charter and injects politics into its provisions regarding the Shelby County Attorney.  I urge the voters of Shelby County to vote NO on this referendum.
This year’s election has been overshadowed by a historically contentious presidential race, and I would argue that contentious also describes this county attorney referendum found at the bottom of the ballot.   The question is written in a way that obscures the disruption its passage will cause to traditional roles and responsibilities in Shelby County Government.  It asks if the charter should be amended “to require the County Mayor and the County Commission’s approval to dismiss the County Attorney from office.”
If approved, this would change the county charter to mirror what happens in City of Memphis government. Many of us remember the controversy that erupted when a former city attorney refused to leave his office despite misconduct charges by the Attorney General’s Office.   That could not happen under the current Shelby County Charter, because it gives the mayor the authority to remove the county attorney.  In other words, a change in the charter would encourage the attorney to play politics, likely resulting in confusion and chaos, and possibly, even legal expenses.
To quote the old axiom, if there’s nothing broken, don’t fix it. However, because of the liberal political overreach by a number of Shelby County Commissioners, the referendum could change a charter provision that has worked well for three decades.  Our county charter was written by a nonpartisan group of citizens whose only interest was to create a government that was prepared to take its place among the best counties in the U.S.
The purpose of our charter is to establish the structure, powers, and responsibilities that allow county government to have “home rule” so it can act independently of state government control on many issues.  As it relates to the Shelby County Attorney, the framers of the county charter created a system in which the county mayor and the county board of commissioners must agree before the attorney is appointed.  This same process consistently applies to all county division directors. And, like the directors, the attorney can be removed from his job by the mayor.
The separation of powers is fundamental to our democracy and, thus, was incorporated into the county charter.  Along with the checks and balances guaranteed into the charter, so is a healthy debate between each branch of government.  Shelby County’s executive and legislative branches do not agree all the time, but healthy debate on important issues is the bedrock of our democracy. The intention of the writers of the county charter is further indicated by the fact that they put these appointment and removal processes under Article III: Executive Branch.
The legal opinions of the county attorney must be fair, objective, and candid so that all departments and agencies of county government operate within a consistent and coordinated legal framework without the need for the attorney to be concerned about remaining in political favor with 13 county commissioners. We have been fortunate that from the first days of the county charter, county attorneys have issued their opinions without fear or favor.  This tradition must continue and it will do so with the defeat of this proposed charter amendment that threatens to jeopardize the careful balance the Charter drafters created for the citizens of Shelby County so that your government can work confidently and competently on your behalf.
I hope you will join me in voting NO on the referendum that would alter the Shelby County Charter.

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November 2016
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