Oct 27 2011

Speaking of Redistricting…

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County

It's redistricting time again! Whee!

Yesterday I wrote about statewide redistricting. Just minutes after I published that post I remembered that the County Commission was taking the issue up for discussion. So I jumped in on the stream and gave it a listen.

By the time I got there, the discussion was winding down, but based on what I was hearing it seemed they were talking about two scenarios: one with 13 single member districts, another with 6 2 member districts and 1 single member district.

I’m not exactly sure what the affinity is in this county for multi-member districts or mixing multi-member districts and single member districts. Like I said, I missed most of the discussion and it’s not posted online as of this writing, so, I’ll just have to wait.

There’s one thing I have to give the Commission credit for: they started with maps. Two of them to be exact, unlike the City Council debacle.

One thing I did hear was that the maps were based on census information gained on April 1, 2011, which basically confirmed to me that Alan Wade was either lying or in way over his head when he said he was having trouble matching up the data back on June 7th . Either way, that process was unacceptable.

All that aside, this has to be resolved by the end of the year. I couldn’t find the statute, because the new TN Code site really sucks (I found it and bookmarked it on the old site, which no longer exists), but the crux of what I heard was that they had to have this done by December 31.

Of course, that doesn’t mean its over. In August of next year there will be a newly elected County Commissioner that will, I’m sure, not want to have to run head-to-head against any other County Commissioner. This will likely mean some changes will be made to the districts no matter what they approve in the next three meetings.

What’s more, if rumors are to be believed (and I’m not saying they should) there could be another vacancy in the next 12 months meaning there would be another new member that, once again, wouldn’t want to have to run against one of their colleagues, causing yet another shifting of the lines.

So in reality, while this may seem like something now, the decisions of this process aren’t necessarily set in stone. They just have to have something done on it by the end of the year.

The next regularly scheduled election isn’t until 2014, so there’s plenty of time for folks to jockey for position.

I have long believed that single member districts would benefit the County. Of course, I’ve also stated that I think 13 members for a county of 927,000 people is too few. The County Commission can consider drawing districts for as many as 25 members. While I think going to 25 may be disruptive at this point, expanding by two, as they did in the 1994 redistricting process, may be an intermediate step to getting to more direct representation. Doing so would bring the district sizes just below that of a State Representative.

Something to consider.

In any case, the Commission will take up this issue on Monday. The ordinance will have to be read and approved three times before it law. Also, I believe a 2/3 vote will be required on final passage, but I may have misheard that. I fully expect that additional maps and scenarios will be brought up in the coming meetings, though there can be no changes between the second and third readings for this to go into effect.

I’ll be keeping my eye out, and post more when the discussion is available online.

Jul 18 2011

Conflict of Interest

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

via Polar Donkey

Tomorrow afternoon the Memphis City Council will take up, and presumably pass the redistricting proposal that Council Attorney Alan Wade released on July 8th.

It’s been three months since the redistricting ordinance passed on second reading. At the time of second read, there were no maps, lists of precincts, or any other information that would assist a reader, or Council member for that matter, in understanding the depth of the changes, or the potential impact those changes might have on the upcoming election for City Council. Despite this, the Council chose to move on the ordinance, to effectively give itself a cushion until the proposal could be solidified. All of this was happening under the backdrop of a challenging budget debate that, despite the beginning of a new fiscal year, may not be over yet.

While the media has finally taken up this issue in the past week, one thing that no one has talked about is the inherent problem with the process and the potential conflict of interest for Attorney Wade in crafting this proposal.

Wade represents the City Council. In fact, Wade is representing the body in several ongoing cases including the school merger case, which, due to the sheer size of the issue, must be consuming a great deal of his time. Because Wade serves at the pleasure of the Council he has a vested interest in ensuring that the body continue to retain him, which also means he has a vested interest in incumbency protection. If you don’t see the conflict of interest in this, let me help you out, his job depends on this body staying as close to the way it is as possible.

Redistricting is mandated every 10 years to ensure that the people are represented as fairly and equitably as possible. At the Federal level that means both reapportionment and redistricting. Reapportionment is what happens when a state gains or loses a seat in the US House of Representatives. Once the seats are apportioned the districts can be drawn. There are some general guidelines that govern the makeup of the districts: that they be contiguous, include “communities of interest”, respect political and geographic barriers to the greatest degree possible, be compact, as well as other criteria as defined by various state and federal laws as well as court decisions. You can read a good primer of the rules of redistricting here.

While all of these guidelines are nice, the reality is few redistricting proposals are put forward absent any intended political outcomes. That’s just not how the world works y’all. As long as self-interest exists, individuals will use their self-interest to guide their decisions to the greatest degree allowed by law, and that’s where the conflict comes in.

Because Wade serves at the pleasure of the Council and he has a vested interest in maintaining that position. When the Council’s attorney is the one conducting redistricting, the entire thing can be shielded behind the wall of attorney-client privilege, meaning no one, and I mean no one, will ever really understand the considerations made in arriving at this proposal. Further, because both the individuals sitting on the council and the person making the proposal have a vested interest in the outcome, there is the possibility of shenanigans, like “proposing” as many as seven challengers who have already started their campaigns are suddenly no longer in their intended districts. I’m not saying that’s what happened, I’m saying that’s what it looks like, and no one will ever really know one way or the other because of attorney-client privilege.

All that said, I’m realistic. Just about anyone tasked with this job would have to consider political outcomes because no one wants an unhappy customer, it’s just plain bad for business. However, had a demographer, or some other professional other than an attorney been employed, those conversations would have to be made public to some degree. Only in the attorney-client relationship is there a shield of public disclosure, and this Council has used that protection to the greatest extent possible.

In this morning’s Commercial Appeal there was an article about redistricting among other things. In it they quote Councilman Shea Flinn:

The cold reality of it is … if you’re waiting now to run against an incumbent, you’re probably too late,” said Shea Flinn, who won office for the first time in 2007 to take the Super District 9, Position 2 seat. “That’s just Politics 101. If someone is going to run for City Council, it’s just the basic rules of the game.”

He’s right. If you were waiting for redistricting to be complete to run and you’re not in yet, you’re probably screwed, unless you have unlimited funds at your disposal or you’re running for an open seat. Incumbents are rarely beaten because they have several inherent advantages: time, money, and experience. They don’t have to introduce themselves to the electorate because they already did that. Their gig is to hold their ground, which is easy to do when the challengers have such a high climb. Add into that the additional uncertainty due to questions about redistricting and you’ve got a great recipe for ensuring incumbents get elected.

The question for voters going forward is, “Is this how you want your local legislative body to operate?” What I mean by that is, are you cool with the City Council using a tactic to make it harder for you to know what’s going on or not? If you are, good on ya, you’ve got the government you wanted. If not, you need to ask yourself and your elected officials a couple of questions:

1. What is your commitment to transparency, and why did you go along with this arrangement for redistricting?
2. Did you, at any time, publicly state your concerns about the transparency of the redistricting proposal?
3. If not, why should I believe you are committed to transparency, and how will you work to make the work of the City Council more accessible?

At the end of the day, we as the people of Memphis, and the US for that matter, have to do more to hold our elected officials accountable if we want them to be truly responsive to our needs. By shielding things from the public, in this and other manners, officials can save themselves a little trouble as long as no one is paying that much attention.

You just can’t expect folks to be completely open and forthright because they ought to. It may not be in their best interest. We have to demand that level of openness, and punish those, either at the ballot box, or via donations, who seek to shield things from the public view. But that’s on us, not them. They can’t do it to us if we don’t let them. Right now, we’re letting them. If you don’t like what’s going down, and you’re not raising hell and asking questions you can point at them all day long, but there are at least three of your own fingers pointing right back at you.

If you want better government, you have to demand it. If you don’t, you get what you get.

Jul 15 2011

I’m Sure It’s Not Political

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

via Polar Donkey

On Tuesday, Bill Dries at the Daily News penned an article looking at just who all would be cut out of their current districts under Council Attorney Alan Wade’s redistricting proposal. Unsurprisingly, no Council members would find themselves in the same districts as a colleague, even though some live within blocks of each other.

What was surprising is that as many as seven contenders, some of whom are the only people who have pulled against an incumbent, have managed to find themselves on the wrong side of “circumstance”. These poor folks had the very thing happen to them that was one of my early concerns, they got written out of their districts, some after spending thousands of dollars on materials, because the process, unintentionally or intentionally, was allowed to drag on.

The Daily News published the names of these poor souls, so I wanted to check and see, in addition to what district they were seeking to challenge, just when they pulled their petitions and their filing status. Here are the results:

Name District Date Pulled Filed Disclosure
Ronald Thorton District 1 April 29, 2011 Yes None Filed
Jesse Jeff District 1 June 6, 2011 No None
Ambi Phillips District 2 July 5, 2011 No None
Jennings Bernard District 3 July 5, 2011 No None from this cycle
Kelly Price District 7 May 31, 2011 No None
Derek Richardson District 7 April 26, 2011 No None
Ricky Floyd District 7 June 27, 2011 No None

It’s already hard and expensive to run for any public office. Additional barriers are just ultimately limiting the choices voters may have before them. And that’s what this whole redistricting thing is, putting up additional barriers as Wendi Thomas rightly notes.

So, this is what incumbency protection looks like Memphis. Don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to see it again early next year when the state legislature starts redistricting. By the end of 2012, redistricting is something lots of folks who want to run for office will have stamped into their brains.

One of the keys to a well functioning Democracy is that the public have real choices, and a real chance to debate the issues of the day to decide who will represent them. While it’s not uncommon for those who hold power to do go out of their way to make sure they get to keep it, something any Memphian with a decent grasp of history can understand, it is pretty interesting to me that five of the seven people who are written out of their districts pulled petitions as much as two weeks before the redistricting proposal was released. Four of them a month earlier.

Certainly, the districts, particularly district 6 and 7 had to change. They were too small. But a lot of this could have been avoided had the Council and their attorney Alan Wade been a little more forthright in their efforts to make this process both transparent and timely. It’s an unfortunate consequence of a Council that has distinguished itself as a body of chronic procrastinators on a whole host of issues that go far deeper than a mere administrative task like redistricting.

If we want to strengthen Memphis, we have to change the dynamics of the relationship between the public and our elected leaders. We have to start demanding more, and better solutions to the challenges we face as a community. If the folks we have in office now, or elect in three months can’t help bring about better and real solutions to our long-term structural challenges, then we have a duty to ourselves and our children to find someone who can.

That’s what this, and every election is about. Finding the people who have the skills and the drive to arrive at solutions. Whether or not the individuals who have pulled petitions or filed for the election have those skills or that drive is an open question. But if the redistricting proposal as it is currently drafted, is passed on Tuesday, there are at least seven candidates that we may never know about one way or the other.

Jul 11 2011

Horserace Politics and Determining the Track

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Via Polar Donkey

Yesterday, after a long absence, our good friend and master map maker Polar Donkey resurfaced to point out the inadequacies of Alan Wade’s redistricting program.

Those light spots you see in the map to your left. Those are precincts that aren’t included in Wade’s incomplete list. All in all there are about 15 of them. In addition, there are some precincts included in the list that no longer exist. Maybe this is what took Wade so long to get it together on this project.

This morning, Smart City called the process a “punch line”, and wonders why a demographer wasn’t employed in the process. That’s a really good question. I wonder if Attorney Wade is as good at plumbing or electrical work as he is at demographics. Maybe the Council should task him with that. I’m sure there’s some stuff around City Hall that needs some “fixing”.

Both the Daily News and the Commercial Appeal have stories out on the stands this morning about redistricting, though mostly about the horserace and not the problems of determining the track. Which is exactly what this is.

Of course, Jackson Baker picked up on that story a month ago.

While horserace politics is what most election coverage and much of political punditry has been restricted to over the past 15 years or so, you can’t have a race without a track. The track in this case is the way the districts are drawn. The importance of paying attention to the track and the way the track is drawn is that it determines who can run in the horserace. That’s a process that few people know about, including many elected officials and political writers, because it’s only done once every 10 years. That gives everyone plenty of time to forget.

But as the Daily News points out, the proposal before the City Council would effectively cut 3 candidates out of the race, at least two of whom, I know have spent a good deal of money on their campaigns, based on the snazziness of their printed materials.

Few people seem to be questioning the process. Few people seem to notice or care that today, just 10 days before the filing deadline, there are a number of questions regarding who will be in, and who will be out, as well as the justifications for those changes. What’s worse, because there are “missing precincts” in the list, there is no question that this list will change again, and once again a level of uncertainty will be cast on potential candidates.

For two and a half months now I’ve been calling for this process to be more transparent. Transparency in the process would have likely avoided many of these issues and also might have sped it up. Because the City Council decided to once again solely use their attorney, much of this process is likely shielded behind attorney-client privilege, an unnecessary wall that hasn’t been a feature of other redistricting proposals both here in Shelby County and other counties in the state that have recently redistricted.

This is the modern version of the “smoke-filled room” that was a feature of our political system in the days before television, and that was largely responsible for deciding who could run when and where. There is no transparency in a smoke-filled room, except for those who happen to be included.

On July 19th the City Council will meet to approve this proposal. Because so little attention has been paid this process, it’s highly likely the Council will just approve what’s before them, problems and all, leading to a legal challenge. This is, by definition, the antitheses of “good stewardship” on at least two levels:

First, because the process has had delay after delay (the first of which began on April 19th), none of which have been fully explained or accounted for, the entirety of it has been shrouded in mystery. The Council could have easily avoided this by merely instructing Wade to employ a demographer who he would oversee, much like the process that went down for the Metro Charter Commission.

Second, because the City Council has exercised virtually no leadership on this issue, including setting timelines and benchmarks for the process to be complete, the process has been allowed to drag on for an additional two months. In talking to people who do this kind of work for a living, I’ve found several capable individuals who have indicated that the timeframe for this project has long since past.

This all goes back to something I wrote over a month ago about walking and chewing gum, a skill that nearly four years in this City Council hasn’t seemed to master. Long-term issues that ultimately impact the budget are pushed off until the three months that are set aside for the budget. In the nine months in between, few proposals are put forth, and even fewer are passed that might help correct those budget issues in the future.

Procrastination is a feature of both this Council and Memphis City government at large. How then, can we expect to rebuild the lost growth this city has experienced when the can is continually kicked down the road?

There are many good and thoughtful people on the Memphis City Council and in the Memphis government. Some I agree with, others not so much. My agreement with them isn’t required to make them good and thoughtful. What is required is a willingness to make a huge cultural shift in government from what we have now, to a government that can justify its actions because it is committed to a rigorous program of accountability. The Memphis City Council has a duty to be a check on the goings on of City Government, to enforce a level of accountability, to the degree that it can. Instead, it has allowed itself to be little more than a zoning board most of the time, something that only it can correct.

After the 2007 election, with 9 new members, there was an opportunity for the City Council to be that check. The fresh blood, the new ideas brought with it some pitfalls, most notably the school funding issue, but since that time there has been little willingness or vision to address the issues facing a declining city, or any proposals to help right the ship going forward.

In the time since that election, hope for progress on issues that face Memphis have slowly faded as constituency after constituency has found their concerns falling on far too many deaf ears. Councilman Boyd’s comments, the day of the final vote on the CVS Pharmacy that “it doesn’t matter how many people you bring, I’m still voting the same way”, illustrates some of the problem. Certainly, the Councilman knew that the meeting before, and the meeting after would feature almost no civic participation from the community at large. That lack of participation allows the Council to act, or in many cases, choose not to act, in any way it deems fit.

And that’s also part of the problem with this particular issue. Redistricting is not as in your face as an ugly building being built within 2 miles of 9 other ugly buildings that serve the same purpose. Redistricting is not a series of blighted empty houses crumbling and ultimately lowering property values and property tax revenues on Spottswood between Josephine and Highland. But it is a serious issue that deserves serious consideration because it helps determine who will run where and what issues those individuals will bring to the forefront of the public’s eye. That this Council has allowed this process to proceed in this manner, is nothing more than a manifestation of the lack of proactivity that has been a feature of the past several years.

There an old saying that “Leaders just lead”. While I’ve devoted a fair amount of this post to criticizing the City Council, I also think there are several potential leaders on that body. I wish they would just take the mantle of leader and just lead, despite those also serving on the body who primarily seek to distract, distort, and disguise their intentions. This council needs a Drill Sergeant to help push things forward and point out the inadequacies of both the system and the body itself. This council needs a staunch advocate who will challenge the status quo and demand results from both their counterparts, and the other organs in City Government. It is time for that kind of leadership to emerge to place the focus where it belongs from the horserace politics that have dominated our political discourse, to determining the track to help guide our way forward. Until that kind of leadership emerges, we’ll be stuck running on the same track over and over in circles, stirring up some dust, but not really moving forward.

We can’t afford to continue running in this same circle.

Jul 08 2011

Redistricting Proposal Out

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Take a look at it here.

Maps aren’t included, but a list of precincts and their proposed new district is. If you want to find out what precinct you live in, go here.

Update: Several folks have contacted me about problems with this proposal. Seems there are several precincts missing from the list. We’ll see how that shakes out next week. I’m sure there will be an update.