Greer, Johnson and Currie appointed to City Council

Published on: January 9, 2019

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By Bill Dries, Daily Memphian

The Memphis City Council is back up to its full 13 members with the appointment Tuesday of three new members at the first council session of the new year.

But the path around a messy two-month political stalemate was unexpected and unconventional in two of the three selections. And some on the council wonder if the dispute will linger and spill over into other matters.

Sherman Greer, Gerre Currie and Cheyenne Johnson give the council its first eight-vote African-American majority in the 50-year history of the mayor-council form of government. The selections also mark the first time the council has had four black women serving at the same time – with Currie and Johnson joining Jamita Swearengen and Patrice Robinson, both of whom were elected in 2015.

Greer and Currie were not among the applicants for the District 1 and District 6 seats, respectively, that they claimed.

And the appointment of Currie, a vice president at Financial Federal Bank, marks the first time since 1972 that a member of the Ford family has not held the District 6 seat.

Currie was among 11 applicants for the Super District 8 Position 2 seat that went to former Shelby County Assessor of Property Cheyenne Johnson on the first and only round of voting.

When council balloting for the District 6 appointment followed, the council was at an impasse, with former Councilman Edmund Ford Sr. and Dr. Lynette Williams the top two contenders after three ballots but neither having a majority.

Councilman Worth Morgan nominated Currie from the floor after talking with her and asking her to stay for the third and final vacancy to be filled Tuesday.

"I was ready to go home and eat some pizza," Currie said later of the surprising turn of events.

It took seven more rounds before Currie claimed the appointment, with some council members who had favored Ford switching to Currie on the final ballot.

Johnson and Greer had abstained in all of the earlier rounds. But on the 10th round, Greer voted for Ford. Johnson became the seventh and deciding vote for Currie.

The decision was based on Johnson being in the audience at the Nov. 20 council meeting that featured more than 100 separate roll calls votes as the council unsuccessfully tried to fill the District 1 council seat – the first of the three seats to come open.

Johnson was at the council session as part of her effort to round up the necessary votes for the Super District vacancy that was to come.

Johnson said the standoff was upsetting and confusing to citizens.

“They just could not understand why this council could not have finished it,” she said. “They understand that it’s not an easy path being council people. But if we desire to do it and we take it, we have to make those calls.”

With that she announced her vote for Currie.

The council also went outside the applicants certified by the Shelby County Election Commission as part of council rules for filling such vacancies to select Greer, executive assistant to the president at Southwest Tennessee Community College as well as executive director of government relations for the college, for the District 1 seat.

A motion by Councilman Ford Canale to suspend the rules to allow such nominations "from the floor" failed. But council attorney Allan Wade said the body's rules already included a provision for such nominations as well as nominations from the public.

Greer later said he began contacting council members individually over the holidays following the council's decision at its Dec. 18 meeting to delay trying to fill the vacancies until the new year.

“After the last set of votes (at the Dec. 18 council session), I saw their logjam,” Greer said. “I sent a letter to the council members and asked that they consider me as a consensus candidate.”

Prior to that, Greer said, he had never been interested in running for office, although he has served as an aide to U.S. Reps. Harold Ford Jr. and Steve Cohen. And his position at the community college involves contact with political leaders.

“The thought of raising money – hate it,” Greer said of the political duties of a candidate as he outlined the dynamics of being one of 13 council members.

“Everyone wants the same thing. Every council member wants what’s good for their district,” he said. “But you have to balance that with what’s good for the city. There are going to come times when my ZIP codes will need things and it will be different than what other council members need. You have to balance that and just compromise.”

On one ballot Tuesday, Greer claimed the appointment with eight votes. Councilmen Joe Brown and Reid Hedgepeth passed on the vote. 

Greer, Johnson and Currie each said they have not made a decision about running in the October Memphis elections for a full four-year term in the seats they now hold.

Currie said Edmund Ford Sr. told her that he intends to run for the District 6 seat.

“It will be tough. I haven’t made that decision yet,” Currie said after her selection. “It depends. Also the community decides —not Ed, not I, not anyone else that’s going to run.”

Council member Patrice Robinson, who supported Ford until the 10th ballot when she voted for Currie, recalled being up for an appointment to a vacancy on the old Memphis City Schools board in 1999 and not being chosen. She ran for the seat in the next election and won it.

“I got over it,” she said. “And I ran the race and I won. It is not a good feeling to be in that position and this is very difficult for me tonight.”

Council member Martavius Jones voted for Ford in most of the 10 rounds but switched to Currie on two ballots. Jones expressed regret about the two-month stalemate and all that followed and influenced the discussion around all three vacancies.

“Everything that we went through last year was difficult on all of us,” he said. “And Memphis, personally I apologize to you for me and my colleagues … doing the things that set this direction.”

Jones said he was still hopeful the council’s differences over the vacancies are behind it.

“I am hopeful right now,” he said. “I am hopeful that we can go in a direction that says, ‘Memphis, we want to make amends.'”

The appointments of Greer, Johnson and Currie each run to the end of 2019 to fill the remainder of the terms of council members Edmund Ford Jr., Janis Fullilove and Bill Morrison. Ford, Fullilove and Morrison won offices in Shelby County government in the August county general elections and under terms of the county charter had 90 days to give up their city offices from the Sept. 1 start of their terms in county government.

All chose to remain for most of the 90 days. Had they resigned by Aug. 22, a special election for their seats could have been added to the November ballot.

Tuesday's appointments mark the first time in council history that three appointed members have served at the same time.

In other action, the council chose Kemp Conrad as its chairman for 2019 and Patrice Robinson as vice chairman. Both of those selections, usually made in December for the next year, were delayed because of the political stalemate over the three vacancies.