The decision wasn’t a difficult one. Ultimately, this comes down to the way we are represented in our County government, and the inability of that County government to do something that is, at best, an administrative task.
To my way of thinking, this failure is indicative of other problems that we have faced for a very long time. It reflects a long pattern of inaction or worse, legislative insanity (doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result) which has played a larger role in the persistent problems we, as a community are facing.
My decision to seek to intervene in this suit reflects my personal frustration at the Commission for inaction on this and many other issues critical to the community.
Every 10 years, every legislative body in the country that has specific districts is required to change the way the districts are drawn to reflect changes in population. These bodies are required to use Census data to ensure people have adequate representation in accordance with the concept of one man one vote.
This process, known as redistricting and reapportionment, is something the public rarely knows much about. In fact, in our state government, the plans that created the new State House, Senate, and US Congressional districts were so secret, all but a few legislators knew anything about the proposal before the start of session in January. From there, the plan was rammed through committee and the overall body with little discussion…for the most part.
For County and City governments, this must be accomplished by December 31, of the year the Census is released, or before the first election of the new decade.
The City Council reapportioned their districts just days before the filing deadline, to the consternation of many. The County Commission, by contrast, doesn’t have an election using the new districts until 2014. However, they are still required by state law to have the districts complete and approved by 12/31/11. Obviously, this did not happen, which led to a suit originally brought by Commissioners Bailey, Rtiz, and Roland…though the latter two have since withdrawn.
7 or 9, That Is the Question
State law plays a huge role in our County. Were it not for the state, Shelby County would not exist. We became a county in November of 1819 thanks to state action after the founding of Memphis on May 22, 1819. This relationship makes it clear that state law has supremacy over county law (not to mention all the bills passed in the state legislature over the past several years).
In addition to the 12/31/11 deadline imposed by state law on redistricting, there is also a provision that says a “majority vote” is the standard by which passage would be approved. 2J, pictured above, received at least 7 votes on all three readings of the ordinance (2nd reading it received 9).
However, our County charter requires 9 (or a super-majority) votes on third reading to pass any redistricting or tax change. This is where the conflict, from my perspective, gets interesting.
Because state law is “supreme” over county law, and because the County was in violation of state law when 2J received 7 votes on 3rd reading, I argue state law should remain “supreme” over county law. The result of this would be that 2J should become the new scenario for County Commission districts because it received the required number of votes while the County was in violation of state law.
Does that mean the County Charter is invalidated? No. Depending on how when the judge rules, it could mean 7 votes carries the day on redistricting, just like almost every other ordinance the County Commission passes.
Worries About The Charter
There are some who worry that if the state courts remove the super-majority standard for redistricting, other issues requiring a super-majority (namely tinkering with the tax rate) would somehow be impacted. I don’t really see how this is an issue.
First, the two couldn’t be more different. The tax rate is something that happens nearly every year through the budget process. Since 2004 the County Tax rate has remained consistent, even dropping a little in 2010. No one is challenging the 9 vote (super-majority) standard for changing the tax rate. Nor is anyone arguing that if one super-majority vote is made invalid, another must also be. Quite the contrary. State law says little about voting thresholds for County tax rates. Therefore, this shouldn’t impact that section of the charter at all.
Second, because the mention of a simple majority in state law only applies to the act of redistricting, it will be the only part of the charter to be impacted.
Desperately Seeking Nine
Last week, the County Commission heard the first of three readings on the redistricting ordinance again, this time brought by Terry Roland. Roland believes a ruling that seven is enough will somehow invalidate the charter and all super-majority provisions. That’s just not very likely for all the reasons stated above.
Last Monday the ordinance, which also seeks to enshrine map 2J, received 9 votes. There was talk of some special called meetings to speed the process along. The hope is to beat the judge to the ruling punch. So far, I haven’t seen any new meetings called, so I have little reason to believe they will. If they don’t then it will be at least 3 weeks from today before they get to a 3rd reading vote. Maybe the judge will wait that long, maybe not. Who knows?
Either way, it seems clear that 2J is the plan that will be adopted.
To be perfectly honest, 2J is not my first or even second choice. So you’re probably asking yourself why I would go to the trouble to seek to intervene on a plan that I’m not even that big of a fan of?
The reason is actually simple. This is a representative democracy, not Burger King. I understand you can’t always have it your way. Majority rules, and the majority voted to approve 2J.
Technically, 2J meets all the requirements I had on an acceptable plan: it has single member districts, it reflects the racial diversity of our county, and it does so without splitting up too many neighborhoods.
Personally, I don’t like that Midtown is effectively split in two…North and South of Poplar. I would have liked more of a “Midtown district”. But that’s not in the cards this time. Maybe next time.
This really comes down to duty. The County Commission has a duty to uphold, and a big part of that duty includes upholding state law. For reasons that only the dissenters know, this process has been dragging along since September. I think this, and many other recent events tells us something about the state of the County Commission. I don’t think it tells us something good either.
Redistricting is a political process. There are political interests that will come into play. Compromise is important. I think 2J represents a lot of compromise, quite honestly. Reasonable people must come together to pass a reasonable plan. I think there are many such plans that have been introduced, including 2J, which received a majority vote on three readings back in March…after the state deadline.
But no plan has received the County Charter required 9 votes on third reading…yet, even though 2J received 9 on second reading. I can’t explain why those two votes changed at the last second. Keeping 9 votes might have resolved the issue without a ruling, rendering the lawsuit largely moot.
Of course, that’s why they’re trying so hard to show 9 votes now.
It remains to be seen if the courts will make a decision before the Commission gets to a third read on this issue. At the last meeting, one of the attorneys for the Commission indicated the Judge was losing patience. We’ll just have to see if his patience holds for three weeks.
The ball is in his court.
The process at the state level has been shrouded in mystery. Maps weren’t released to the public until a week before session and they’ve been pretty well rammed through both legislative bodies. Overall, while the state process has been about as transparent as a slab of concrete and rife with a bad aftertaste of blind self-interest trumping leadership.
By contrast, the process at the County level has been pretty out in the open. There are more plans than you can shake a stick at here in Shelby County, and all of them can be found here as well as their supporting documents. That doesn’t mean it’s been all roses.
Thursday it was reported that an Arlington Chamber of Commerce meeting turned into a rumble between competing sides of the redistricting battle here in the County. Last night, Terry Roland’s community meeting in Collierville was hijacked resulting in a police visit to the event.
With all the shenanigans surrounding the issue, it would seem that today’s meeting of the County Commission would have the potential to be a barn burner, something confirmed on twitter yesterday by Commissioner Chris Thomas to Lauren Lee of Fox 13.
No one knows what Thomas, et. al. have up their sleeve, but this kind of confidence can only come from coordinating with other elected officials, which just may be a violation of those Sunshine Laws the TN House has decided not to mess with this year.
On the Issue
While the issue of redistricting in the County Government could be framed as an intellectual debate over single-member versus multi-member districts, the reality is this all comes down to ideology. Commissioners Thomas, Bunker, Taylor and Shafer want to ensure that there are six safe Republican seats on the Commission. Mind you “safe” means 60% or more. The easiest way to do that is to make huge districts that pack all the Democrats they can into two-three member districts, and all the Republicans they can into two other three member districts. The final district would be what it would be. Voila! a 7-6 split on party and most likely racial lines.
Now, this only seems fair to the side that’s getting disproportionately more than they deserve. In committee discussions from December, Bunker, Thomas and Taylor all spoke of their concerns about the County Commission becoming 8-5 or worse, 9-4 based on partisanship. Oh the humanity!
Breaking Down Partisanship
I decided to look at some election results. All of these are general elections and can be found at the TN Secretary of State website.
What does this tell us? Shelby County votes Democratic more often than not, surprise, surprise. There is only one instance when Republicans outperformed Democrats in Shelby Co. in the past five November elections, Sen. Lamar Alexander, in 2008.
Taken all together, Shelby County consistently votes about 60.6% Democratic, which translates to 7.88 members of the County Commission.
This is why Taylor, Bunker, Shafer, and Thomas are concerned. This is why they’re asking for 60% majorities in Republican districts by partisanship. This is why they want huge districts. Its easier for a powerful minority to neutralize the majority that way.
African-Americans have dealt with this kind of chicanery since the end of the Civil War. Now, thanks to the Voting Rights Act and several court cases, African-Americans MUST be represented in proportion to their population. Partisanship is not protected, and these four Republicans know they will be rewarded by members of their party for artificially maintaining a 7-6 balance.
What About the Other Three?
Of course, this opens up the question of why Commissioners Brooks, Burgess and Ford, all Democrats, support a plan that would artificially prop up a fledgling Republican minority.
Brooks, who is term-limited, has indicated she would like to see voter outreach and education if the districts are changed to single member districts. Seems simple enough. Maybe someone should offer that.
Burgess has been relatively silent on the issue. I wouldn’t want to opine about his motivations without further information.
Ford, the maker of the motion, with the blessing and assistance of Interim Commissioner Brent Taylor and GOP redistricting guru John Ryder, has been very clear. He has future ambitions. Just days after getting elected in an unopposed August General election, Ford indicated that he would like, someday, to be Mayor.
There’s nothing wrong with ambition. Truth is, ambition can be a motivator that drives people to do more and better than they might do otherwise. We should want driven representatives who use their office to prove their worth and build a name for themselves by representing their constituents in a way that makes everyone want to be represented by them.
But there’s also a downside to ambition. The downside is individuals can work to game the system for short-term gains or worse, lose sight of what they’re supposed to be doing in the name of blind self-interest.
I don’t know that this is what’s motivating Ford, but he has communicated no real rationale for his position other than he doesn’t want the status quo to change and he wants his shot at incumbency protection.
Ahh, more altruism.
It’s About Representing the People that are There Not Protecting Your Incumbency
The original idea about the Census, reapportionment, and redistricting was to ensure that states were getting the representation in the Federal government that their populations deserved. The process has always been political, so lets not fool ourselves.
But in addition it should be about the legislative body that results sharing common interests with the communities they represent. That’s the danger of packing, stacking, and gerrymandering; the people aren’t represented as well as they could be.
My inner optimist wants it to be about actually representing the people, which is one of the reasons I support single member districts. In fact, for the entirety of my time writing at this blog I have advocated for smaller, more direct representation in local government. I have argued that we should have more direct representation in Shelby County than we do in Nashville (we don’t by the way), and that districts should be a collection of neighborhoods rather than these behemoths that cover nearly one-quarter of the population of the County.
Regardless of your partisan leanings, this is something we all should want. Folks in Whitehaven have decidely different challenges facing their communities than those near Riverdale. Folks in Midtown have a different perspective than those in Germantown. Yet, each of these pairings fall into districts that include each other. Downtown is different from Raleigh/Frayser and Millington is different from Collierville. Again, those areas are paired for partisan considerations only, not actual governing from those communities and for those communities.
This is what should be one of the key considerations in the redistricting process. Right now, we have members who are more concerned with maintaining artificial partisan counts and ensuring their incumbency. Truth be told, if you’re doing your job, incumbency isn’t something you will have to worry about.
Making Better Government
If we want a better, more responsive legislative body in the Shelby County Commission, we should demand that the districts be smaller, and closer to the people. Its not about making districts that are easier to run for, its about representing the people the best way possible. Maybe some believe these huge three member districts are better because they ensure that someone is responsive if you get a deadbeat. Well, if you do get a deadbeat, other members of the body shouldn’t be put in the position of covering for him/her thus obscuring reality to the people they are tasked with representing. If they’re bad at their job, their bosses, the voters, should know so they don’t make the same mistake twice.It should also be about serving communities.
The map to the left shows the current districts and where the members live. Note, the areas where there isn’t a member for miles.
Collierville, Raleigh/Frayser, the Summer Corridor, Bartlett, the list goes on.
Single member districts would give these communities a better chance of having more direct representation in County government.
I keep hearing that no one cares about this stuff, but if you’re irritated with the way the County Commission, or the City Council for that matter, deals with issues… If you feel that your area is getting the shaft, if you wish you were represented by someone within a 4 mile radius, maybe you should consider advocating for single member districts.
I don’t know many people who think the Commission is consistently working in the best interests of the County. Part of that has to do with the way the districts are drawn, because that affects who runs and how close to you they live. The other part, well that’s up to the voters. But we’ll never get there if we just decide to tune out and let whatever is going to happen happen.
You have a voice outside of the ballot box. If you think the current system stinks, I think its time you used it. You can find your County Commissioners here or just email them all at once using this link.
Also, post about this on your Facebook page, and make sure to tag them in your post. Maybe they’ll get the message.
The date’s been set, and even though the filing deadline is over a month away, some 10 candidates have declared their interest to run.
Due to the abbreviated nature of the campaign, learning about the candidates for Mayor of Memphis is probably going to be a cram fest. In an effort to help people find information on the candidates I’ll be posting fairly regularly about ways candidates are reaching out to voters. Most of this will deal with the ways they are using the internet to attract support, but as time goes on other things may be covered also.
Because it’s so early in the campaign, not everyone is up to speed. The inclusion of candidates who aren’t “up to speed” on this list is not an attempt to besmirch them, but to keep the list as comprehensive as possible. As always, candidates are welcome to contact me with new information and resources as their campaigns ramp up.
Without further ado, here are your candidates so far:
Candidates are listed in the order of their internet presence strength first, then by electoral strength when there’s a tie
County Mayor AC Wharton – Wharton’s decision to jump in the race should come as no surprise. Since his early consideration back in the 2007 election, his name has consistently come up as the heir apparent. That his campaign also mobilized far more quickly than anyone else should also come as no surprise as he has been raising money for this run since just after the 2007 election.
His website is clean and professional looking, with shades of the Obama campaign website apparent. My only complaint about the website is the manner in which issues are discussed. Currently, this page is just a list of editorials and news clippings. Still, this is far and away more comprehensive than most announced candidates. The priorities page is less comprehensive, but gives a good overview of his positions.
Wharton has also been using social media very effectively. His twitter feed is by far the best use of the medium I’ve seen in a local election, and he also has a Facebook fan page is impressive. It’s interesting that his site currently doesn’t mention either. Oversight perhaps?
Charles Carpenter – Carpenter, the former campaign manager for several Herenton campaigns, jumped out of the gate fast with his site. The design is relatively simple, but has plenty of meat to it. The issues page is hardly comprehensive, but gives the reader a good idea of his positions. I find it interesting that he worked with Herenton all those years, but opposes a metro government, for instance.
Jerry Lawler – Lawler’s site is sparse, though it has some potential. His Letter to the People of Memphis is the closest thing I’ve found to an issues page. I’m sure some of this will change over time. He also is using twitter and facebook though I hate the way the facebook link works on the page.
Lowery’s use of twitter, so far, has been sparse but instructive. He consistently posts interesting things about what’s going on in the city. That’s great and all, but if he expects to win the election he’s going to have to mobilize to a far greater extent.
Former City Councilwoman Carol Chumney – Chumney, who placed second in the 2007 Mayoral election, currently has no internet presence aside from a twitter page that has but one entry. I have it on good authority that a web page is in the works, though it will not appear at her former site due to a cyber squatter. Once the page is live I’ll be sure to link it either here, or in a future post.
School Board Member Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. – Whalum, a member of the Memphis City School Board and pastor at The New Olivet Baptist Church is perhaps one of the most colorful characters in the race, besides Prince Mongo. Outspoken and often controversial (his church once had a sign out front that used the word ass), he has his own ideas, as evidenced by this video. Whalum also has a twitter feed that’s just getting started.
City Councilwoman Wanda Halbert – Halber, who just announced her intention to run on Monday is also a little behind the curve. This is to be expected considering how recently she announced. She does have a twitter account though this may be a personal one, and is currently protected. Perhaps in the future she will have something more campaign oriented.
Commisioner James Harvey – To the best of my knowledge, Harvey has no real internet presence, with the exception of his page on the Shelby Co. Government site. You may remember this nifty sign I saw at the Chism Picnic. Other than that, not much else has been seen or heard from Commissioner Harvey.
Sharon Webb – A former member of the Memphis Charter Commision, Webb has also been pretty quiet in the mix. We’ll see.