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Candidates for mayor don’t have to live in Memphis, according to new legal opinion

Candidates for Memphis mayor and City Council do not have to be Memphis residents when they run for office but must be residents when they take office, according to a legal opinion.

Unless successfully challenged in Chancery Court, the opinion by attorney Allan Wade apparently settles conflicting viewpoints about the residency question. 

The issue was clouded further when U.S. District Judge John T. Fowlkes Jr. ruled in September that the city of Mason, Tennessee can require candidates for mayor to live within the city at least six months before Election Day. 

Wade, who is the City Council’s attorney, issued the opinion in a letter dated Nov. 2 to Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips. City elections are October 5, 2023.

The residency issued centered on two of the announced candidates for mayor:

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr., who announced his run for mayor last month. Bonner lives in Bartlett and has said he plans to move back to Memphis.

And former Shelby County commissioner Van Turner, who opened his campaign for mayor in September. He sold his house just outside the city limits a year ago. In September his family’s living trust bought a house in Midtown.

Turner, a lawyer, told The New Tri-State Defender Wednesday afternoon that Wade’s opinion officially clarifies the residency issue for Memphis.

Asked if Wade was acting on behalf of the council or city, Turner said that as council attorney, Wade is part of the City Attorney’s office.

As a result, he said the Election Commission should honor the opinion since it is up to the city to determine the requirements to run for office. Anyone who disagrees with the opinion can appeal to Chancery Court.

Election Commission Chairman Mark Luttrell concurred.

“Basically, it is a City Charter issue. If it came to us (for an appeal), we probably would refer them to Chancery Court if they wanted to challenge it,” Luttrell said.

Bonner could not be reached for comment by press time.

Wade told Phillips “a person’s qualifications to serve as mayor or city council member are determined at the time he or she is elected.”

For background, Wade cited a 1996 amendment to the City Charter approved by Memphis voters in a referendum that created the two City Council super districts.

The amendment restructured the 13-member body after the council’s set of six at-large seats was ruled unconstitutional in a federal court case.

Wade referenced the last line of the amendment and the ballot question that went to voters, which reads, “That each council member shall be a resident, as defined by state election laws, of the city and of the district from which he or she is elected.”

Various City Charter provisions over the years were interpreted to require mayoral candidates to live in the city at least five years from the Election Day in which they are running.

Besides Bonner and Turner, other candidates for mayor are Michelle McKissack, a member of the Memphis-Shelby County Schools Board; Paul Young, former director of the city’s office of Housing and Community Development and current president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, and former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown.

Candidates who have said they will be running or are considering a bid include Democratic State House leader Karen Camper, former Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, and lawyer Michael Floyd. 

 

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