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Memphis City Council challenges City of Memphis on five-year mayoral residency requirement

Must a mayoral candidate have lived in Memphis at least five years prior to being sworn in?

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis City Council is joining a lawsuit targeting the August mayoral race which names the City of Memphis.

This news comes as Van Turner, who brought the lawsuit along with Floyd Bonner, confirmed with ABC24 that the Shelby County Election Commission has been dropped from the lawsuit. 

The Memphis mayor's race as the election is just months away. And the question that remains at the center of debate could affect who can officially run: must a mayoral candidate have lived in Memphis at least five years prior to being sworn in?

"The question is if they're elected, will they be legitimately elected mayors of the city," said Susan Adler Thorp, Political Analyst.

Memphis City Council files motion

In a court filing Sunday, May 7, 2023, the Memphis City Could said a referendum voted in by Memphis voters in 1996 amended the 1966 ‘City of Memphis Home Rule Charter.” The filing said the amended rule holds the mayoral candidate to the same qualifications on residency as city council members, which is that they “shall be a resident, as defined by State election laws, of the city and district from which he or she is elected.” The council argues this means that the five-year residency requirement was thrown out, and mayoral candidates are not subject to that rule.

Read the full filing HERE.

Read Memphis City Council Vice-Chairman JB Smiley Jr.'s motion for intervention HERE.

The city council's lawsuit is against the Shelby County Election Commission and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. The move essentially pits the city's legislative branch against the executive brand. Adler Thorp tells ABC24 a lawsuit between the mayor and city council, does not happen frequently.

"In all the years that I have been involved in local politics and government, I have never recalled the city council suing the mayor," said Adler Thorp.

The Memphis City Council did not authorize the lawsuit in a vote, but according to Council Chairman Martavius Jones, council attorney Allan Wade still had permission to file one.

"Because it is a litigation matter, we didn't have to go into public committee, because we cannot vote on anything unless it is in a public forum. We can give authorization in an attorney-client privilege meeting to represent our position," said chairman Jones.

Jones went on to tell ABC24 the city council wanted to make sure the decision was not made by a single branch of government. However, not all the council members were clear about the lawsuit's details before it was filed.

"We knew that the council had to intervene somehow, nobody knew what the language was going to be in that motion to intervene," said Chairman Jones.

Shelby County Election Commission dismissed from lawsuit

Candidate Van Turner told ABC24 Monday the Shelby County Election Commission has been dropped from the lawsuit.

In a statement, Turner said, "Our legal team dismissed the Election Commission today from the lawsuit because the court enjoined them from promulgating or acting upon the Meyer’s opinion. Additionally, we welcome the entry of the City Council to this litigation since actions which were taken by the City and the Election Commission may have potentially violated a federal court order. We will continue to stay focused on the issues and not the distractions. A small group of insiders should not decide this race, but the people should decide! We will continue to make our argument to the people who want a better Memphis like we all do!"

City of Memphis added as defendant in early May

This all comes after the City of Memphis attorney in early May said the five-year residency rule still applies. And with those words, the judge said the city would have to join the lawsuit.

"In light of the city's changing position — resulting in a renewed challenge to interpretation of the city charter — court requires that the City of Memphis be joined as necessary and indispensable party."

Here's why it's an issue

This election, three of the most recognizable names running for mayor have all lived outside the city in the past five years; sheriff Floyd Bonner, former county commissioner Van Turner, and former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.

Bonner and Turner only recently moved back.

A Daily Memphian investigation recently found while Turner said he moved to Binghampton, he and his family have barely used any water at the home, according to his MLGW bills. Turner told the publication he's been fixing up the place.

"If this was an issue, why hasn't it come up on all the mayoral elections we've had since 1995 and especially in 2019 when it could have been an issue?" Turner said.

"I'm just glad the City finally came out of the shadows and revealed that it's the real party behind this," said Floyd Bonner's attorney, Robert Spence.

Another candidate, Paul Young, has raised more money than anyone else in the race so far. Young is also believed to be the favorite choice of current Memphis mayor Jim Strickland.

Judge Jenkins is set to hold a hearing on May 18 that should shed some light on the residency issue. This would be four days before the day candidates will be pulling their petitions to run for Memphis mayor.

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