Jan 13 2010

Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body – Part 1

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis, Memphis Politics, Shelby County

One of the biggest points of contention facing the Metro Charter Commission is likely going to be that of establishing the legislative branch of the resulting government. As I noted in a previous post, the make-up of the legislative bodies for cities that have a “Metro” form of government is diverse, ranging from 19 to 40 members. Creating a plan to determine the way citizens are represented in government can go in many directions. In crafting that plan there are some realities that I think, should be considered.

Shelby County residents are currently represented by 16 members in the State House, and 6 members in the Senate (SD 32 also represents all of Tipton, Lauderdale, and Dyer Co.s) for a total of 22 members in State Government.

Currently in Memphis City Government there are 7 single member districts and 6 members that represent 2 “Super districts” for a total of 13. These “Super districts” each make up about half of the City. This means that every man, woman and child in Memphis has 4 City Council members.

On the County Government side there are 5 districts. Districts 1-4 have 3 members, district 5 has one, but is also about 1/3rd of the size of 1-4. This scenario creates a situation of potential confusion. Some people are represented by 3 members, some by 1, and even though there is parity in the number of Commissioners per person, it could be argued that those who live in districts 1-4 have more bargaining power by virtue of having 3 of the required 7 votes on the Commission to get things passed.

So, if you live in Memphis, you are likely represented by as many as 7 individuals across two governments (City and County). If I, as a Memphis City resident, want to know the name of every legislator that represents in City, County, State and Federal government I have to know 10 names (Strickland, S. Flinn, Hedgepeth, Conrad, Ritz, G. Flinn, Carpenter, Deberry, Marrero, and Cohen). I would be willing to bet that if you stood in front of a grocery store and did an informal poll of people, less than 10% could name all 10 of theirs (8 in Commission Dist. 5) and less than 20% could name half of them.

In short, that’s a lot of people to keep up with. Further complicating the issue is that some things come before both City and County government, and, to a lesser degree, also have to be dealt with by the state, meaning that if I want to support or oppose something I would have to communicate to as many as 9 of these individuals to make my opinion heard. That’s ridiculous.

Further complicating this is the ratio of representation. The average number of residents in a State House district is 63.6k, in a Senate District it’s 191k, for US House it’s 700k. In Memphis it’s a lot more complicated. For single member districts (1-7) 95.7k, and “Super Districts” (8 &9) it’s 335k across 3 members (1:111667). In Shelby County Commission districts 1-4 there are some 210k residents each. In 5 the number is around 70k. Shelby County residents, regardless of their location, have more direct representation in the State House (rep to people) than they do in City or County government.

(Source: US Census Estimates for Tennessee, Shelby County and Memphis. Resident numbers are estimates based on population.)

I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t make any sense at all.

It seems to me that we should be represented in local government with at least the same, if not a greater ratio than in state government. Sure, if you figure up the 13 members in the County and the 13 members in the city and divide that by the population you achieve a greater level of representation in local government than in State Government, but that’s apples and oranges.

In my next post on this subject, I’ll talk about some suggestions from the media, and take a look at the pros and cons of greater/lesser representation.

- Steve Ross is a Co-Chair of Rebuild Government, an organization committed to build community awareness and participation in the Metro Charter process by creating and giving voice to an informed and engaged citizenry. The views expressed in this space are not necessarily those of Rebuild Government, its Co-Chairs, organizers, or affiliates.