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Mayor’s race now has court hurdle over residency issue

Attorneys for Shelby County Sheriff and Memphis mayoral candidate Floyd Bonner Jr. filed a suit in Chancery Court on Tuesday (March 14), challenging the Memphis City Charter’s residency requirement for candidates for mayor.

Candidates are required to reside within the city limits for five years before the election is held, according to the charter.

The case comes on the heels of the Shelby County Election Commissions’ decision two weeks ago to adhere to the provision. It followed a legal opinion offered by a former Election Commission chairman, attorney Robert Meyers, who concluded the rule stands.

With city elections slated for Oct. 5, an unsuccessful challenge of the election commission’s decision could remove from the ballot three people considered by some among the strong declared candidates in the mayoral race – Bonner, who is Shelby County sheriff; Van Turner Jr., Memphis Chapter NAACP president and a former Shelby County commissioner, and former Memphis mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton.

Turner, who has threatened to challenge the residency rule, may join the action. Chancellor Jim Kyle has been assigned the case.

At least eight other people, so far, have declared they will run for the office.

In addition to seeking a temporary injunction on the requirement, Bonner’s lawsuit also asks for a ruling on a contradictory opinion by Memphis City Council attorney Allan Wade. 

In November, Wade surmised in a letter to Shelby County Elections Administrator Linda Phillips that stated aspirants only needed to reside in the city by election day.

“A person’s qualifications to serve as mayor or city council member are determined at the time he or she is elected…,” Wade wrote.

He based his opinion on a 1995 charter amendment, also authored by Wade, which created the council’s super districts. It passed in a referendum vote.

Bonner’s lawsuit criticized the lack of a vote by the commission’s five members before posting the news on its website that the rule would be enforced.

“Defendants did not take any official action by vote or otherwise with regard to its decision to ignore the precedents of all municipal mayoral elections since the passage of (the referendum ordinance) and the prior legal opinions from the city of Memphis,” wrote Bonner attorney Robert Spence in the complaint.

Bonner embraced the opinion. In January, the sheriff went a step further and purchased a house in East Memphis. He and his wife, Audrey, have owned a home in Bartlett since 1994.

Elected to his first term in 2018, the second ends in 2026, Bonner is the first African-American elected to serve as Shelby County Sheriff.

In addition to Bonner and Turner, other Democratic candidates likely to be watching the outcome include Herenton, who resided in Collierville until mid-2020.

Meanwhile, the Democratic party’s leader in the Tennessee House, Rep. Karen Camper, and a declared candidate for mayor, issued a statement on Tuesday, calling on candidates to abide by the longstanding rule and “withdraw from consideration.”

“For the last 118 years, the Shelby County Election Commission has adhered to the laws that a candidate for Memphis Mayor must be a resident for 5 years.”

Contacted soon after Meyer’s opinion was disclosed, Turner told The New Tri-State Defender, “Yes, I will appeal….

Attorney Allan Wade, who has been a legal advisor to the City of Memphis for decades, penned an opinion advising the Shelby County Election Commission that the 5-year residency requirement had been repealed. Now, there is an opinion which contravenes Attorney Wade’s opinion. Obviously, this is a conflict which will need to be resolved, and I am prepared to do so as quickly as possible.”

(This story includes a report by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell.)

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