With at least two, and maybe three, declared candidates for the looming Memphis mayor’s election facing residency requirements, the Memphis City Council’s Personnel & Governmental Affairs Committee held the first round of discussions on Tuesday (March 21), concerning a proposed referendum to clarify the rules.
The result: The council, on first reading, passed a referendum ordinance requiring candidates for Memphis mayor and Memphis City Council members to live in the city for a year before election day.
If approved, the referendum would not impact this year’s city elections, which are Oct. 5.
At issue is the five-year residency requirement for Memphis mayor and City Council that was adopted by referendum in 1967, still is on the books and that may be unconstitutional.
“In 1967, when we adopted home rule…It made the council be resident voters for five years; mayor was made the same,” said Allan Wade, the council’s attorney.
For Wade, the proposed referendum will be his second stab at eliminating the rule from the Memphis City Charter. He authored the last referendum addressing residency for candidates in 1996 after its constitutionality was struck down by the Tennessee Supreme Court.
That year, a professor, who moved from Ohio to teach at Vanderbilt University, challenged its constitutionality after he was denied the right to vote in the governor’s election.
“The Supreme Court says you restrict someone’s right to travel. That they can’t travel to a place and become a part of the fabric of that place because of some duration,” said Wade. “In 1996, when we adopted the new form of government in terms of the structure, we eliminated the durational residency (voting) requirement because there was a lot of argument about whether it was constitutional or not.”
However, the requirement for candidates has remained.
“The ambiguity that existed here is that we tied our durational residency to being a resident and voter. It wasn’t just being a candidate. You had to be a resident voter as well, which made some ambiguity as to whether that was constitutional or not,” said Wade.
At the time, the update to the charter was meant to protect the interests of Memphians, particularly Black voters.
The proposed ordinance will make an independent provision for mayor and council. Otherwise, the requirements will stay the same.
“They won’t be linked hand in hand, like they are now. Which is a different paradigm, and it probably needs to be that way,” said Wade.
The current problem came to a head after Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. announced he was running for Memphis mayor.
It was given further impetus after the longtime Bartlett resident purchased an East Memphis home in February. Later, former Memphis Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton also announced his candidacy. He has lived in Collierville since mid-2020.
Also, Memphis NAACP President Van Turner Jr., who is running for city mayor, also has a residency issue. He was living outside the city until late last year.
Both nascent campaigns were buoyed by an opinion Wade authored in November saying the residency rule had already been removed from the charter.
It was contradicted by Shelby County Election Commission attorney Robert Myers, a former Election Commission chairman, who said the charter’s requirement remained in effect.
Bonner and Turner, a former county commissioner, have filed lawsuits in Chancery Court challenging the residency requirement.
Council members also discussed stripping the age requirement to run for mayor and council, which is 30 years of age, for a lower number.
“The number I had in mind was 21,” offered council Chair Martavius Jones.
It was quickly seconded by council member Jeff Warren.