You can usually tell something about an organization by the way it deals with crisis. Organizations that are truly open will do everything in their power to show just how open they are by inviting stakeholders, the media, and others to see for themselves. Organizations that aren’t really open will make claims, dispute the story, and ultimately, do little to actually prove anything one way or the other. Sometimes they’ll even say the claims are moot because it has no bearing on the really important stuff…whatever that stuff is.
The questions, that began in 2008 after a CNN report about a touchscreen voting machine was hacked have only gotten deeper since the electronic polling book fiasco of August 2010. While no one alleged malicious intent in that particular instance (at least in court filings), the sanctity of the vote, and the voting process was questioned.
What no one seems to acknowledge is that it is the uncertainty of the process…the mystery surrounding the problems, that sustain these fears. Also, because of the highly “virtual” nature of voting in Shelby County…almost everything is electronic rather than a hard copy…there is the belief that these records are less safe than if they were printed.
This is something greater transparency would ultimately solve, but that transparency…true transparency, isn’t on the menu at the Election Commission.
The Mystery of Modern Elections
When you walk into the polling place on election day, a whole lot of work has already happened to make sure your ballot is correct. Think about it. We all live in a precinct. That precinct is represented by someone in the US House, State House, State Senate, County Commission, City Council, City School Board, and now Unified School Board. That’s a lot of different elections in one single precinct, not counting the countrywide and other assorted elections that occur every two or four years.
Every precinct (just about) is different than the one next to it, some more, some less. But as long as precincts aren’t split, things are as simple as they can be…x 236 precincts.
But that’s not how it worked out. The State Legislature chose to redistrict based on Census blocks rather than precincts. That means people living across the street from each other and many living in the same precinct have different representatives in one of those bodies I mentioned before.
Its challenging enough to ensure correct ballots when nearly every precinct is a little different, but when two people, voting at the same location, have the possibility of completely different ballots due to the district they reside in, it becomes even harder.
Electronic voting procedures have actually made this easier. Before, every one of these iterations of a ballot would have to be printed in some manner, meaning there was a real possibility of either a great deal of waste in areas that had few contested elections, or the converse, running out of ballots.
Supply shortages just aren’t a problem in the digital age. But we are trained, from an early age, to demand a record of things that are important in our lives. Voting is one of those. So when you don’t get even so much as a receipt when you vote, people get naturally suspicious. From there, any problem big or small will lead those affected by that problem to suspect foul play, even when it might not exist.
This is a challenge for the Election Commission, and its one of the reasons they must not only be more open than other civic institutions, but work harder to educate the public about its actions to ensure they retain the public trust.
That public trust is even more fragile than it was before. People have more access to information. They expect to have more information available. The Election Commission in Shelby County has taken some strides to be more open, but honestly, it hasn’t kept up with expectations.
The allegations made late last month that the voting histories of nearly 500 voters had been erased was met with little more than a “it doesn’t matter”. Here’s the actual quote as reported in the Commercial Appeal:
“All these people can vote, and they are still in the database,” Holden said by telephone Monday. “That proves they are still in the system and can still vote.”
This circular argument would be entertaining if it wasn’t so important. The issue isn’t whether or not they can vote, but what their lack of voting history means considering the very same Election Commission has placed 180,000 voters on inactive status due to non-participation.
In fact, looking at the May 1st Ward and Precinct report those voters have been on the inactive list since May 1, 2012. We’re just hearing about it one month later.
Why the delay? Why wasn’t this publicized in some way before the change was made? How hard is it to put out a press release?
See, if those 180,000 people were put on inactive status on or before May 1, and the Black Box voting post alleging history deletion came out on May 12, doesn’t it seem that those individuals might be classified as inactive, even if they’re not?
Its amazing that no one at the Election Commission seems to understand that because few truly understand the process, and there was no advance warning about potential change in classification, it opens them up to not only scrutiny, but suspicion.
Hard to See Through a Brick Wall
What’s more, the Election Commission hasn’t been particularly diligent about publishing their minutes. The last meeting to have minutes is from March.
Now, I know the Commission only meets about once a month, so a one month lag is somewhat understandable. But where’s April?
To add insult to injury, the agendas from each meeting basically tell you nothing. There’s no specific information at all. So if you’re not in the know, you’re out of luck.
This is no way to run an organization that is responsible for elections. Both the agendas, which are incomplete and less than informative and the lack of minutes…even proposed minutes, make it impossible for anyone who can’t make it to the meeting on the third Wednesday of every month at 4:30 to know anything about anything.
Add to that, the dearth of media coverage on the Commission…unless something has gone wrong, and public trust is further damaged.
It’s a Tough Job…
Sure, the folks at the Election Commission are usually very informative and helpful. I appreciate that.
It is rare that an email to administrator Holden goes unanswered. That’s a plus.
But a lot of these questions shouldn’t even have to be asked if the Election Commission were being open and up front about things.
The Precinct Locator for instance.
This is a nifty little tool that will tell you, not only what precinct you’re in, but also what districts you’re in and where to vote.
For whatever reason, it hasn’t been updated to reflect the new US House, State Senate and State House districts, which have been in place since January. Nor has it been updated to include the Unified School Board Districts, which is pretty important considering people are going to be voting for something for the very first time in an election this August.
While I’ll admit that finding anything about the configuration of the districts is darn near impossible, it was passed in January around the same time the state redistricting plans were passed. All that information should be available at the election commission website by now. For whatever reason, it isn’t.
As someone who has to shuffle and organize a lot of data, I get the scale of this task. I understand that a whole lot of man-hours are involved in doing this, and that unless the database is already set up for Census blocks, which it may not be, there’s no real way to automate the system. Then theres’ checking and double checking…maybe even triple checking to make sure everything is correct.
But its been four months. There’s been no public notice that there’s an issue. So that leaves people’s minds to wander and wonder.
And there’s an election in 60 days.
See, I’m not so upset that the work might not be done. I am concerned that the public doesn’t know. I am concerned that not only does the public not know about the delay in information, and that delay may make it harder for people to find out what they need to know about the upcoming election.
I’m concerned that the delay may make people even more suspicious of the process, whether that suspicion is justified or not.
I’m concerned because just being honest and up front is the surest way to ensure people understand and retain their trust, even though that may not be the first instinct of people who don’t want to be seen as failures or whatever. Again, it was a tough job that just got tougher due to a lot of issues.
Real Transparency, Now
But just because its a tough job, that doesn’t mean siloing yourself will make anything any better. If anything, it makes it worse.
See, even though Election Commissioners aren’t elected officials, ensuring the public trust is part of their job. In a County that is chock full of byzantine Commissions and Boards that act with only the bare minimum of public notice…often at places and times that are inaccessible to interested parties, and with little public disclosure after the fact, the soil is quite fertile for suspicion.
When you add moves by the State Legislature that many view as pure voter suppression and a great deal of suspicion, perhaps unfairly, gets heaped on the Commission tasked with executing that law.
With the technology available, much of it very inexpensive, its kind of unbelievable that the Election Commission and other Boards and Commissions don’t voluntarily archive their proceedings online. Even the Metro Charter Commission made recordings of their proceedings. The failure of the Election Commission to do so leads one to conclude that public disclosure just isn’t all that high on their list of things to do. That only fuels the suspicion.
While I understand that resources at the Election Commission are limited, that doesn’t mean that access to information has to be. Taking a little more time to be more diligent to build and restore public trust is something that all the City and County’s Boards and Commissions should take time to do, starting with the Election Commission and all the way down to the Beer Board (which is not as exciting as it sounds). Breaking down the silos of those in and out of the know should be at the top of the list for all of our public institutions. That it doesn’t seem to be just fuels the suspicion that much more.
I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that anything nefarious is going on at the Election Commission. 431K active voters is probably about right for a County that only has 682,902 people over the age of 18 (63% voter registration). Nationally, voter registration rates are around 70% so 611K (89.4%) was high to be sure. But the lack of advance disclosure regarding the voting rolls is unsettling.
What this requires is a proactive rather than reactive posture from the Election Commission, including the Commissioners themselves and the Commission’s staff in terms of public disclosure. That means future plans to administer the voting rolls, alter precinct lines, reduce the number of precincts, change voting location (early or precinct level) or anything else by the Commission should be disclosed well in advance of the meetings and in a way that the public can react accordingly.
That’s just not happening.
The hard truth for Administrator Holden and the Commissioners who oversee the Elections Commission is that just saying you’re transparent isn’t good enough. It doesn’t matter if other Counties in Tennessee are less transparent than we are…they’re also a lot smaller. The simple truth is, until proactive transparency becomes the norm questions will persist, and faith and trust in one of the most important institutions…voting, will continue to erode.
I would say the measure itself was rash, and I agree with my friend Steve Steffens, that this is a cheap political stunt. Its unfortunate that some of my friends on the council chose to advance Conrad’s meme that is both purely hypothetical, and politically motivated. But rather than yell at you, I want to give you some food for thought.
If you go back to the FY2011 budget (I don’t have the 2012 one in front of me), and look at page S-11, there is a list of the tax rates for Memphis. Since 1979, it’s been relatively stable. By and large, since 1979 taxes in Memphis have been about 3.25, with a few drops and spikes along the way. So if you think your Memphis City taxes have gone through the roof in recent years, you’re wrong. They’re right around where they’ve always been.
Looking back to the year 2000, it’s Shelby County government tax rates that have been expanding, not City rates. That’s just something people should consider before they complain about how high taxes are in Memphis.
Of course, there’s another tax that impacts every single one of us, the sales tax. While Memphis’ portion of the sales tax is relatively small compared to the state, reforming that would take a good deal of burden off the working poor, many of whom are employees of the City if Memphis, despite Councilman Conrad’s claims to the contrary during the Sanitation privatization battle. Making $30k a year may be a “livable wage” in Memphis TN in 2011 if you’re single, but if you’re trying to raise a family and support your children, it ain’t that much.
But I think this whole infatuation with limiting the ability of government to increase revenue is actually something else. It is, in reality, operating from the same level of thought as every other sector in Memphis…fear. More specifically, the fear of knowing.
Just as the members of the City Council would privately complain about the time it was taking to redistrict the city’s 9 districts, none of them sought to confront, hold accountable, or take any public measure to expedite the process. It was either the fear of knowing that the process was being dragged out intentionally and then having to do something about it that stopped members, who rightfully had their own concerns, from raising them publicly. Or dragging the process out was the plan all along. Either way, this is not leadership, it’s followership.
So fast forward to today, in the wake of an ill-advised charter measure that thankfully failed, we find ourselves in the same position as the redistricting issue, and so many other issues. The fear of knowing, the fear of true accountability informs the the political presuppositions of Council members rather than, you know, real data. I say this because to my knowledge there is no real data.
The city, for instance, has no way currently to quantify how much it costs per house to pick up trash from the curb and deliver it to a landfill. Nor does the city have any way to measure how much or less more it costs to service the areas currently covered by private contractors. They don’t know because they don’t have the data. They don’t know how many times they have to send an additional truck into the areas served by these private contractors to pick up yard trash, or how much that costs. There are no accountability measures on that level in City Government, anywhere.
It is this fear of knowing that hamstrings efforts to collect, study, and adjust accordingly to this data, but that fear is not just where some would have you believe. Both the Administration, and individuals who share Councilman Conrad’s ideological worldview would have you believe that it is labor and labor alone that hamstrings efforts to collect this data. That’s a convenient scapegoat, but the reality is, it’s all of us: The City Council, the Administration, City worker, and citizens, that keep this data from being collected, and it all goes back to fear, the fear of knowing. All of us are afraid of knowing the truth because knowing that might challenge the presumptions we have clung to so tightly over the years. Knowing might prove us wrong, and no one wants to be wrong.
Here’s an example: As a guy, I, like so many other guys, am loathe to go to the doctor. I hate it, and most of the time, no matter how sick I am, I can self-treat and I’m fine. Also, not having health insurance has a lot to do with this decision. So on the surface, I look fine. I’m healthy, well fed, and seem like I’m in pretty good shape for a 40 year old smoker.
But something could be really wrong with me medically, and I’d never know it. There are any number of problems that I could be experiencing, lurking in the background that, without trained medical treatment, could take my life. Neither I nor anyone else would know until it got too bad to treat. It is my fear of knowing, in part, that keeps me from going to the doctor.
The same can be said of the City of Memphis. Since the efficiency study, published in 2007, this city hasn’t been to the doctor, despite significant concerns raised in that very study. What’s worse, even though we went to the doctor in 2007, we didn’t seek a second opinion, or take any substantive corrective action. We, as a city, chose to ignore it. In that choice we have continued a pattern of relying on conjecture and finger-pointing as a solution to our “problems”, which are themselves conjecture. It is this condition that continues to divide our city along racial and socio-economic lines. It is this condition that is killing us.
It is intellectually dishonest for anyone to claim they “know” how much more or less anything costs in city, county and state government, because that data isn’t collected in a manner that would allow such analysis. Further, it is even more intellectually dishonest to claim to “know the solution” based on this incomplete and highly circumstantial data. Yet, that is how we’ve been operating because it’s easier to not do anything that to do something.
I think its time to do something.
With this in mind, I call upon the members of the City Council, the Administration, Labor leaders, and the citizens of Memphis to come together and formulate a treatment plan with the aide of professionals. The plan, in the form of a charter amendment, would mandate that the administration, in conjunction with the stakeholders listed above, formulate and execute an annual performance review of each division of City government and report those findings no later than 6 months after the end of the fiscal year (right around budget time). This review would detail the costs associated with each function of government. The review would include a detailed accounting of the resolution of citizen complaints and concerns across categories, and be able to associate a cost per incident analysis to identify real problem areas impacting the city.
I have more thoughts about a way to make a full and accurate accounting of the services our city government provides, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll stop here.
In order to restore faith in government, we have to rely on facts and that requires data. We have rested our faith in faith, and clearly that’s not working. Failing to act on this issue means that we will continue to be swept up in intellectually dishonest at worst, or painfully misinformed policy decisions at best, that have been a feature of our city government for decades. Every boondoggle, every ill-conceived policy decision is, in some way, a function of this condition. And while data collection and reporting may not prevent boondoggles or poor policy choices, we can at least have the information necessary to spot such shenanigans in the future.
It’s time to stop letting fear paralyze us as a city, and go to the doctor. As for me, I’ll be doing that very thing tomorrow.
When I moved here 7 years ago, I thought Memphis would be a stopping off place on my way somewhere else. I was certain that within a few years I would find an opportunity elsewhere and find myself on the west coast.
After a few years I bought a home and decided to settle down. I couldn’t be happier about that decision. I have a beautiful girlfriend who has enriched my life. Our daughter is an amazing little girl that both baffles me and brings a great deal of joy into my life. I’ve made friends here, in a way I never thought I would.
Memphis wasn’t my first choice, but over the years it has become my city of choice. I can honestly say that I want nothing more for my city than to make it a city of choice for other people to come to, live, work, raise a family and ultimately retire.
That said, Memphis has some particular challenges. Addressing those challenges can seem daunting. I know from both my research, and my work in creative focused businesses that people have a hard time visualizing change. They long for it, because we all want something better, but understanding what change might really look like, and the path to effectuate that change is difficult for many folks to conceptualize.
At the end of my previous post I said this:
In the end, it is the way it is because we allow it to be, either through inaction, of lack of information or just not giving a damn. If we don’t start thinking and talking about ways to change it, many of the issues facing this City will never be resolved…and that’s really sad to me.
No one can change our city alone…we have to start changing it together.
For my 700th post, I wanted to talk about things that I believe will make Memphis better for all Memphians, and the 800,000 people in the area who rely on Memphis for their survival. The truth of the matter is, we can’t make Memphis better to their exclusion, no matter what we do. So rather than trying to punish them, we should work to better our city. That work, if successful, will cause them challenge their assumptions about us. Here are 10 things I believe we should do to get that ball rolling.
1. Accountability – Government must be more accountable for its actions. That means that problems cannot be shuffled off until the last second. The way budget issues have been handled over the past several years demands reform. Both the Administration and the City Council behave as if they had no idea there would be problems, even though many of these problems are structural and have been known for some time. Government must be willing to be honest with the people even when it is not politically popular so we can all work together for an equitable solution.
Furthermore, both the Administration and the City Council have to work harder to take and enforce accountability for their actions. While there may not be the same kind of checks and balances in City Government that there are in State or Federal government, the City Council must do more to ensure the public is informed and aware of the actions of the Administration, and vise-versa. By holding each other accountable, these two bodies who ultimately represent all of us can better serve us.
2. Transparency – Transparency has become a buzz word meaning nothing. Elected officials use the word transparency all the time, but don’t actually engage in transparency enough for it to be effective. There are several things that transparency is, and is not. Transparency is not making sure that everyone knows what’s going on, it’s making that information available for discovery. However, far too often the information is hidden away in a byzantine manner making the discovery of that information not only unlikely, but impossible. The city should work to make information flow more freely. This applies to the administration and its divisions and the City Council, including implementing a better system for vote and issue tracking and policy changes.
3. Efficiency – Efficiency is a word that can mean many different things. Workers may see the word efficiency as tantamount to layoffs. Business leaders view efficiency as lowered liability in the form of taxes or additional revenue streams. In reality, efficiency is using what you have to its greatest potential. Because of the lack of accountability and transparency in city government, there is no real way to calculate its efficiency. Without real and independent calculations, people are left to their own perceptions of how well or poorly government is operating. By conducting both independent and internal audits of the 17 City divisions, both policy makers and the public can be better informed about the efficiency of government operations, and seek ways to make that government more efficient to ensure we as citizens are getting the maximum bang for our tax bucks.
4. Restructuring – There are two areas of our government that need to be studied: Appointed Boards and Commissions and the lay out of City Divisions.
The City of Memphis website lists three pages of city or city/county boards and commissions. I challenge you to try and name them and what function they serve without the benefit of that link. Memphis needs to restructure both the duties and number of these appointed boards the relationship between them, the City Council and the Administration. Many things happen in these meetings that few if any people outside of the room actually know about. This is a drag on accountability, transparency, and efficiency. By streamlining the number of boards and commissions, the city can better help serve the public interest by dismantling a structure that no one truly understands and replace it with one that is more accountable, transparent, and ultimately efficient for the people of Memphis.
Much like the Boards and Commission, the City of Memphis has 17 divisions with 17 directors, and additional administrative staff to support the functions of those divisions. Quite honestly, this is simply unmanageable. It is nearly impossible to figure out what each does without doing a great deal of poking around, that most folks aren’t willing or don’t have time to do. This makes our government less transparent and creates unnecessary barriers to public information. By reforming the division structure, you may not gain much efficiency, but you can help remake a structure that has become a hive of micro-missions that are hard to navigate, and hopefully restore the people’s connection to the ultimate mission of these divisions.
5. Opportunity – One of the roles of government is to create an environment where its citizens can thrive both in their personal and professional lives. For thousands of Memphians, their professional lives are the small businesses they own or are employed by. Small, locally owned businesses are the lifeblood of any city. The health of those businesses is key to ensuring long-term growth and sustainability. While Memphis has a vibrant community of small businesses, few of them have any real interaction with the city outside of administrative contact mostly dealing with licensing and zoning issues. The city should reach out and work to forge partnerships with these businesses by providing assistance with the RFP/RFQ process and by creating a database of businesses to send notifications of these business opportunities. This keeps our tax dollars in Memphis and ensures our tax dollars are put to the most productive use possible. While certainly, there are areas that local businesses may not be able to service at this time, by communicating the needs of government to business, and setting forth a mechanism for those businesses to help meet those needs, businesses will adapt and expand to include those areas which helps us keep more of our tax dollars in our city and strengthens our local business community.
6. Inclusiveness – Cities that build walls or other barriers cannot grow. It costs too much to expand because too many people have too much invested in this old infrastructure of exclusion. This is not only true of the walled cities of medieval times but also the cities of today. While the barriers may not be bricks and mortar, the investment in terms of conventional wisdom and custom remains.
Memphis has several constituencies who, for more reasons than I can name, are relegated to the margins. In order to be a truly strong city, Memphis must reach out to these groups and work to provide the assistance necessary to remove the boot of want, poverty, and prejudice from their necks. We can’t say on one hand, we want to be a vibrant, inclusive city, and on the other hand work to further marginalize these people. They are people after all, and deserve our respect and assistance. While the city may not have the funds to correct these problems, it can set the tone and create opportunities to address them.
7. Quality of Life – Safe, secure, and healthy neighborhoods are one of the strongest features of a vibrant city. Great neighborhoods are to cities as the baseball field is to the movie Field of Dreams… if you build them, they will come. This is shown over and over again in cities across this country. Policy initiatives, driven with an intentional eye on creating or maintaining a great place to live, attracts people to places they might have otherwise not considered.
In order to build and maintain great neighborhoods in Memphis, we have to be more diligent and intentional with code enforcement, zoning and other land use decisions. We have to stop merely building for now, damn the consequences later. We have to stop allowing property owners to sit by while their properties crumble. We have to keep our eyes forward, and ensure that the decisions we make today won’t negatively impact the great neighborhoods we already have, and we have to make sure they’re making neighborhoods that need help better.
In addition, we have to make sure that all our neighborhoods have equality of access to city services. From fire and police coverage to mass transit, when one area is left unserved, it negatively impacts all others. This will require a comprehensive re-evaluation of many city services, something that focusing on greater efficiency will bring with it.
8. Building Equity – Equity has two primary definitions. It can mean fair and impartial, and it can relate to value. In this sense, building equity means both. We have a great many stakeholders in this community. In order to be truly strong, we work in a fair and impartial manner with those stakeholders to help bring value to our community.
For too long the interests of some have been held hostage by the interests of others. Life does not have to be a zero sum game. While the city can’t afford to be all things to all people, it can help shepherd a process that ensures we all benefit by bringing stakeholders together to work for solutions to issues they both face. Boats don’t sink when the water rises, they rise with it. By addressing our many stakeholders in a fair and impartial way that brings value to our city, we can all benefit.
9. Core Growth – For decades our city’s core, the areas inside and around the Parkways have been suffering. While some neighborhoods have managed to thrive, others have been left to fend for themselves, leaving blighted and poor living conditions. It is important for our city that all our neighborhoods, regardless of wealth be maintained and treated with the same respect. It is also important for the efficient use of city services that we drive population to our city core. All city services, from police and fire protection, to sanitation and mass transit can become more efficient if our population is less dispersed.
But people won’t just move because we want them to, we have to give them a mission, and the tools to implement that mission. Implementing a comprehensive homesteading program to help build up neighborhoods in and around our city’s core can help drive population, and the businesses that serve them back inside the Parkways.
While doing this, we must also be cognizant of the investment in infrastructure that we have made outside the 240 loop. Any homesteading program cannot be implemented to the exclusion of another neighborhood. Further, there may be areas that would benefit more from a re-development that may or may not include homesteading. The City must look at ways to use the land that has been left vacant by our 30 year eastward expansion, and seek solutions to bring people and businesses back into the city core and work intentionally to ensure that the kind of blight seen in many of these areas never re-emerges.
At the same time, we have to be cautious that we not spur another great migration. We have to grow smart and look for more areas of great potential to help rebuild our core and strengthen our revenue streams both in the form of property taxes, sales taxes and infrastructure investments.
10. Unity – “No one can change our city alone…we have to start changing it together.” That’s how I ended my last post, and that’s how I’ll end this one. We can’t do this alone, or at the exclusion of anyone. We have to do this together, as Memphis, as a city that understands the depth of our challenges and is willing to fight and work together to address those challenges. It will be frustrating, and it will require all of us to make some sacrifices. But if you’re not willing to make sacrifices, then you’re not bought in in the first place.
I am willing to fight to make the city I love better. I’m willing to sacrifice. I hope you are too.
Thanks for reading.
So when things happen, either by circumstance or on purpose, without the benefit of public scrutiny, the whole process gets called into question.
The last discussion I can find on the City Council site is from the June 7th meeting. At that meeting Memphis City Council Chairman Myron Lowery and City Council Attorney Alan Wade talk about redistricting. The central issue that both dealt with is that people don’t know which district to file in if they want to run.
Unfortunately, it’s not just about knowing what district you’re in, though that’s important, it’s about the public scrutiny, or lack thereof, in the process. This process has had little urgency, public scrutiny, or urgency for public scrutiny, much less, action.
When I spoke to the Council in May, I was given some assurances from Councilman Boyd that the process would be open and transparent. That was the chief concern I expressed. Since then, the Council met on June 7th and deferred the issue to July 19th, just two days before the filing deadline, which is by default, the deadline for the City Council.
In that discussion there was no real questioning or accounting of the problems faced by Wade, other than the huge amount of data. Of course, there were huge amounts of data, it’s the census! But some very basic and fundamental questions were never asked, nor addressed. How in the world is this process in any way open and transparent?
In my statements to the City Council I cautioned against this, saying that such a circumstance would lead people to believe this to be some kind of incumbency protection program. I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but that is either exactly what this is, or this Council just doesn’t see accountability, transparency, and disclosure as important to maintaining and strengthening the public trust. Either way, it’s sad.
It shouldn’t be taking this long. I’ve talked to folks at the County Commission, they created districts for 25 school board members through OPD, the agency helping with City Council redistricting, in just about a month. In Nashville, they had new districts approved for their upcoming August election by early April, about a month after the release of Census data to the states. The point is, it only takes this long if there isn’t any urgency, or desire for public scrutiny, and apparently there isn’t.
Prior to speaking to the Council I talked to attorneys about suing the city over this issue. The thinking was, if they don’t see the urgency, then let’s put some urgency to them like what happened in Nashville. Instead, I decided to take a different path and talk to the City Council like adults, ask them to get with it, and look forward to results. That strategy was a mistake on my part. Fool me once…
It’s unfortunate because this didn’t have to be this way. If Council Attorney Wade was having technical issues, it should have been disclosed and detailed before June 7th. That’s what transparency looks like. If there was some other problem it should have been announced publicly when it was happening, not as an afterthought. Through that disclosure, there might have been additional help or resources dedicated to the project. Now it seems the Memphis City Council has adopted the same tactics endorsed by State Sen. Bill Ketron, do it quick and at the last second before anyone notices.
Trust in the governing process, which is already very low in the first place, gets further damaged by elected officials who don’t work intentionally to foster trust. This is why public scrutiny is so important. Scrutiny builds trust in the process, what’s happening now tears it down.
While there’s a a lot of lip service given to transparency in government, there’s not a whole lot of, you know, real transparency. People are willing to forgive and understand problems when they’re dealt with as they occur. When it’s after the fact, or treated as an afterthought, not so much. Then it just looks like manipulation, or worse, self-interest.
What needs to happen now is a full and accurate accounting of what has and hasn’t been done by the City Council and its representatives in this process. That’s what transparency looks like.
Last week I sent a request to OPD asking them to provide dates and times of contact and requests from City Council attorney Alan Wade, who is spearheading redistricting. In response, on July 23rd I received a reply, but rather than answering or informing me of a process to get an answer, OPD forwarded my request to Mr. Wade. Monday I resent the request to Mr. Wade. As of yet I have received no response.
The questions were simple:
1. When did the original request go into OPD?
2. What technical problems have you experienced in the process?
3. When were the maps completed (assuming they are) and when will they be made available to the public?
None of these questions are remarkable. They are questions my employer would ask of me if I was having a problem finishing a task. From my perspective, as a citizen of Memphis, I employ the City Council and by extension Alan Wade. My tax dollars pay for their salary, and as such I have a right to know. That’s what transparency is. That’s what public scrutiny is all about.
The next City Council meeting is on July 5th and I plan to be there. As of right now the agenda isn’t even published, but I’m sure there won’t be anything about redistricting on it. I’ll be there anyway seeking answers to these and other questions. I hope you will be too.
Below are videos of the last public discussion on redistricting by the Memphis City council.
Executive Session – June 7, 2011
City Council Meeting – June 7, 2011
No matter how messed up something is, no matter how ineffective, my default setting is…“it can be fixed”.
This Saturday, the second part of the SCDP re-organization will happen. On March 26th over 350 faithful Democrats came out to begin the process by electing delegates. This weekend those delegates will vote on who will serve in the 38 seats on the Executive Committee.
It was a tough year for Democrats across the country, and we held our own in the legislative elections, even though, for a bunch of reasons I detailed here we got swept in the countywide elections.
I don’t have a whole lot of criticism of current Chair Van Turner, who inherited a situation where the Committee ballooned from around 40 members to 80 something members. Considering the circumstances I think Van did the best he could. I know he worked his butt off despite the odds, both internally and externally. But as a body, I don’t believe the Shelby County Democratic Party is healthy and I think that’s been clear for some time.
I’m a delegate to the convention this weekend. I doubt that I’ll end up serving on the Executive Committee, mostly because the number of seats in my district is contracting from 6 members to 2. Because of this, there will be a lot of folks who are accustomed to being on the Committee that won’t be.
Many of these folks are probably not too happy about the possibility of not making it on the Committee. There is a mechanism in place to keep it from happening…its called voter turnout. So if you don’t make it on and think you should have, ask yourself where you were during early voting and on election day in November. If you weren’t working to get people to the polls, you know why you’re in this position.
If you are a delegate to the Convention, I ask you to take a look at the current members that represent your district and ask some questions.
1. Of the people in this list, which ones did you hear from in the past 2 years? Any? All? None? If the answer is none, and you’re getting calls now asking you to support them, ask them why they deserve your support when they haven’t bothered to contact you until now.
2. In every Convention that I’ve been involved in since I moved here there has been talk of organizing down to the precinct level, but it hasn’t happened. From my perspective, that’s not the job of the Executive Committee as a whole, but of the members that represent those precincts. Ask them why we haven’t organized down to the precinct level and what they intend to do about it.
3. There have been a lot of divisions in the party for longer than I’ve lived here, and those divisions are a big part of the problem. Ask the prospective member if they’re just for their Democrats, or all Democrats.
4. Communication between the party leaders, including members of the Executive Committee and constituents has been nonexistent despite a wealth of free or cheap means for communicating. Ask your prospective member if they intend to communicate with their constituents, or if they’re going to just disappear after the Chair is selected. After they answer ask them how they intend to communicate with people and when that will be set up. Make them set a date.
5. Finally, ask them if they’ll pledge to support the Chair, no matter who it is, and work to build a stronger party. Ask them if they’re willing to commit 2 years of their lives to support Democratic candidates. Ask them if they will lead their districts in voter registration, GOTV, and other efforts to engage the public.
If they say yes, then ask them how they’re going to do it. Set a date, put a reminder in your calendar, and bug the crap out of them until they do.
If we want a better county party, we have to have a vibrant and active party. That takes time, effort, and demanding accountability, but it can be done…if we will make it happen.