Jan 14 2010

Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body- Part 2

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

Back in August the Memphis Daily News penned an editorial about the current Metro Government discission. In that editorial it recommended:

The legislative body proposed in a metro charter should not under any circumstances number more than the 13 positions now on the City Council or County Commission. The commission represents the entire county with its 13 members. Get rid of their convoluted and politically manipulative setup in which multiple positions are jammed into four of the five districts. All six suburban towns and cities are in one County Commission district with three positions. Thirteen single-member districts would accomplish the necessary goal of more and smaller districts.

As I demonstrated in my last post, we are already represented at a far higher rate in State Government than in County, or City Government for that matter. While I agree with the Memphis Daily News that smaller single member districts are needed, I don’t think limiting the number to 13, which is less than the number of Representatives we have in the State House, is the answer.

Shelby County is the largest county in Tennessee, both geographically and by population. There are many counties in the state that have legislative bodies that are the same size or smaller than ours, but there are also some like Weakley County, with a population of just over 33k has 18 Commissioners over 9 districts, and they’re not dealing with the area, population, or economy that Memphis has. The second largest county in the state, Davidson, has been a metro government since the 60’s. Their population is 70% of ours, their land mass is 66%, and their Government has some 40 council members, 35 of which are single member districts.

It doesn’t take a math wiz to figure out that the people of Nashville, and Weakley County for that matter, have more direct representation than the people of Shelby Co. In Nashville, there is one Council member for every 18,000 citizens. Compare that to Memphis, 1:96K or Shelby Co., 1:70k.

Does Nashville still have problems? Certainly. Nashville General is suffering some of the same problems that we have here at The MED. Traffic in Nashville is a disaster during the peak hours in the am and pm. They’re invaded every January by 132 crazy people, and the list goes on. But for all the problems, if a citizen wants to talk to a member of the Council, they’re one of 18K rather than one of 96K putting them far closer to their representative than here in Memphis.

Because the districts are smaller, the cost of running a campaign for Davidson Metro Council is also less than it is here in Memphis. Because there are more districts, more people can be more directly involved in government. Neighborhoods have a greater connection to government, and through this connection, are more likely to have their concerns and needs heard by the body as a whole.

But more direct representation isn’t necessarily a panacea. The Metro Council is fragmented. There are just 5 members that represent the entirety of Davidson Co. (12.5% of the Council). This means that getting things done for the good of the overall community can be more difficult due to a “what’s in it for my neighborhood” mentality. Lobbying for a project or something, like the non-discrimination ordinance that recently passed, requires interest groups to mobilize more broadly, and be more politically savvy than they might have been with a smaller council.

There are other objections to smaller and more districts that I hear from time to time. My favorite goes something like this:

More Legislative Districts will mean the Council will be full of insert name of your least favorite Councilor/Commissioner messing up the body.

That may, or may not be the case. Smaller districts mean that candidates have to have a strong connection to the community they represent. Their constituents will know them. If they don’t represent their constituents, they are more likely to get voted out of office because far fewer resources are necessary to mount a legitimate challenge.

Currently, it’s impossible for our Councilors/Commisioners to know more than a very small percentage of their constituents, and vise-versa. The direct connection that smaller and more numerous districts represent give constituents more reason to pay attention to, and buy into the body that is overseeing their community. The large, paternalistic districts that we now have, both in City and County Government, make that individual “buy in” a lot harder for people to swallow, and leads to a constituency that feels disconnected, and in some cases alienated by representatives that, try as they might, can’t adequately represent a large and diverse population that is greater than the entire city of Jackson, TN.

Mounting a challenge candidacy in Memphis or Shelby County government is SUPER EXPENSIVE. In the 2007 election, nearly every successful candidate spent over $100,000 for a City Council seat that only pays $30,000 a year. How can people possibly feel connected to their legislative body, when, in order to win a seat on that body, a candidate has to come up with a hundred large to win? The median household income in Memphis is just over $36,000. Think about that. It costs three years salary for a job that pays less than the median household income a year? That’s crazy.

Ed Note: Not trying to cast aspersions on any members of the Memphis City Council, or the Shelby Co. Commission…this is just the mathematical reality.

I feel like I’ve made my case for smaller districts in the resulting Metro Charter. The question now remains, how many? How should they be configured? In my next post I’ll talk some about my thoughts, and hopefully have some thoughts from readers. Until next time…

- 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.