Jan 14 2010

Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body- Part 3

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

In my last two posts I talked about representation levels, and some of the plusses and minuses of greater direct representation in the legislative body that may come of a Metro Government. As we look at this, the question becomes, “How do we find the right fit for Shelby County?”

Let’s consider some facts about Shelby County:

Our population is greater than 6 states, our GDP is greater than 12 states and 123 countries. We have a complex and diverse economy that spills over into Arkansas and Mississippi and makes it necessary for us to operate, to the extent that we can, as a small state. We live at the crossroads of two of the most traversed highways for freight in the US. There’s a lot of stuff going on here, and that doesn’t even touch the local issues like crime, poverty and trash pick-up.

Of the four Metro Governments studied we have the LEAST representative government, in both the City and County. Further, even both of these combined into some mythical government barely reach the level of representation that we currently have in the State Government. Our systems are complicated and nonsensical to the point that it seems like an intentional attempt to disenfranchise constituents, and most importantly, it’s just not working. We need only look around ourselves, read the paper, or watch the evening news to know this.

So what’s the answer?

From my perspective, there are a lot of them, but the prescription of the Memphis Daily News Editorial from last August ain’t it. Of the 4 Metro Governments studies, the smallest legislative branch, Jacksonville, FL has the fewest, 19 members, 14 of which are single member districts. If you look at all the areas studied, you see that the “Census statistical areas” are very close to Memphis, all ranking between 33rd and 42nd largest in the nation. We should, at the very least, be on par from a representational standpoint, with the cities that we compete directly with.

So what’s the answer? The easiest is to keep the number that we have between the two governments that are merging. We are already paying for 26 Council/Commission members, why not get more bang for our buck by creating 26 localized districts. This would result in a 1:35k representation ratio, almost half the representation of Nashville, but as much as three times better than we have now.

What about the fragmentation that I talked about in the last post? Well, I personally think it’s important to have “at-large” members, someone who can look at the whole pie from a legislative standpoint. So add 5 “at-large” members to make it an odd number and make those positions similar to the way Davidson County handles it…the top 5 candidates get the seats. This eliminates the need for the 1991 Consent Decree that has allowed candidates with a plurality to win hotly contested “Super District” seats, as well as the runoff issue that spurred that decision in the first place.

For that matter, mandate Instant Runoff Voting in the charter, to ensure that the single member district and executive candidates have a majority of the votes rather than wasting money on a runoff election that no one shows up to.

Term Limits…well, I’ve gone on record in opposition to legislative Term Limits, and I’m not about to change that. Voters don’t need an arbitrary deadline to find a successor to a successful representative. Let the voters have the luxury of voting for whomever the heck they want to. If that’s someone you don’t like, or you think has been around too long, get off your ass and recruit some opposition.

The point here is, there are a lot of good answers, and I don’t pretend to have all of them. But putting something before the voters that’s less representative than we have now is a non-starter. We’re a diverse community and we need to start embracing and utilizing that diversity as an asset instead of cowering in the corner wishing it away.

It’s time, and this is one way to make it happen.

As always, I’ll be monitoring what the Charter Commission discusses on this issues in the coming months, and report what I see.

The process is in it’s infancy, it’s our job to raise it right, and make our government into the government that we want it to be.

- 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.

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.

Jan 13 2010

Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 07 2010

Charter Commission Meeting Cancelled

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

From Matt Kuhn, Policy Advisor to Mayor Joe Ford:

The Charter Commission meeting scheduled tonight for 4 pm will be CANCELLED and rescheduled for Thursday Jan 14th at 4 pm in the 4th floor Commission Committee room in the County Building 160 N. Main.

There is, however, some good news, despite the cancellation due to CLUSTERFLAKE2010, the Commission’s web site is now up.

It includes links to the Agendas and Minutes of the Commission. A list of members with their Commission email addresses, and a brief timeline of the important dates for the Commission.

This is a good development for the Commission. Hopefully there will be more updates, like the inclusion of the various Task Forces, and the members who serve on them. This, however, may not be made available until the meeting on the 14th.

Dec 18 2009

Metro Charter Commission Meeting – 12/17/09

Last night, the Metro Charter Commission met for the fourth time. From looking at the agenda one might conclude that it was going to be a barn burner with topics such as the fate of the two school districts, annexation, and Constitutional officers on the agenda. While the meeting was interesting, a barn burner it wasn’t. In fact, many of the “big fights” surrounding these issues are kind of moot based on opinions from the State Attorney General and County Attorney. Of course, these are just opinions. There’s still a possibility of litigation to actually “settle” these issues, but that seems unlikely at this point. So without further ado, here’s what happened.

The first item on the agenda, after the normal opening business, was a presentation by Brian Stephens and Darrell Cobbins of Rebuild Government. This consisted, primarily, of informing the Commission about the mission of the group and a rundown of the activities that the group has planned going forward. I wrote about the organization, which launched Monday here.

There were some questions for the group, one of which is a question I’ve been asked about 20 times since Monday. Commissioner and Millington Mayor Richard Hodges asked where the funding for this organization came from. Stephens replied that the early fundraising efforts had come from the business community, but that as the organization continues on it’s mission it will be soliciting donations from philanthropic organizations and individuals.

The second question/comment came from Commissioner and former Collierville Mayor Linda Kerley. Kerley was concerned that the information given out to the public by the group be as accurate as possible and reflect the intent of the Commission. Stephens replied that Rebuild Government would accept any and all information from the Commission and work to ensure that the both the information distributed and the intent was as comprehensive as possible.

This presentation was followed by a statement by Memphis Mayor AC Wharton on the issues of the Metro Charter and schools.

The crux of his message was that because of the way that both the Shelby Co. Schools and the Memphis City Schools are established, that neither “body politic” could be forced to come together by any other entity. “…not gonna have a shotgun wedding.”, was the quote that perhaps most captured the sentiment of his message.

The Mayor’s comments were followed by some quick business about the Commissions task forces. I hope to have a list of all the task forces, their Chairmen, and members soon.

From there, things got a little interesting…but just for a second. Commissioner and City Councilman Jim Strickland put forth a motion to exclude the topic of schools from the entire purview of Metro Charter Commission discussions. Waiting in the wings was County Attorney Brian Kuhn, with testimony, an opinion and State Attorney General opinion on the state’s school provisions in regard to the formation of a Metro style government. This motion was tabled until after Kuhn’s testimony.

County Attorney Brian Kuhn then started laying out his opinion, backed up by a State Attorney General’s opinion on what powers and responsibilities the Metro Charter Commission had in regard to the schools. As Mayor Wharton noted, because of the way the Shelby Co. and Memphis City schools are organized, two separately chartered organizations with separate legislative bodies, the Charter Commission has no right or duty to try and merge the two districts. According to his testimony, the only thing that the Charter Commission must do, is set forth the manner in which the two school districts are to be funded.

But even the funding issue has a twist. According to Kuhn, a measure that may come up this spring in the State Legislature would allow taxing authority to school boards. Such a move would allow the Charter Commission to establish a process by which the two individual entities could tax constituents according to the needs of each district. This would eliminate one area of disagreement and fade some of the heat off of the resulting Metro Council or Commission, but would also increase the profile and importance of the boards for both Memphis and Shelby Co. schools.

At this point, Commissioner and City Councilman Strickland amended his motion to only deal with the issue of funding. The motion was approved unanimously.

Next, County Attorney Brian Kuhn talked to the Commission about Constitutional Officers, or officials that the state mandates every County have. In the opinion he provided to the Commission, Kuhn lays out in great detail the officers that must remain and what options the Commission have in front of them. According to the opinion, Sherriff, Trustee, Register, County Clerk and Assessor of Property are all mandated by the state. However, the duties of these offices are not. The Charter Commission can decide to define the duties for each of these offices as they see fit.

Kuhn noted that in Davidson Co., for instance, the Sherriff was only responsible for the jails and courts. Also in Davidson, the Trustee only collects the taxes, an appointed official deals with investments and warrants (checks).

This will likely be one of the more lively and possibly contentious discussions in upcoming Commission meetings.

A discussion about the County and City government functions was largely tabled until a later meeting. As I noted in my post about last meeting, both function very differently, and with new administrations in both the City and the County, it is possible that some areas will be a moving target for the Commission, and the staff that seeks to help provide them the details of both.

Kelly Rayne also gave a presentation on the current annexation plans and what will happen to them should the citizens of the Memphis and Shelby Co. decide to form a Metro government. On page 12 of the document is a map that describes the current annexation arrangement between the cities located in Shelby Co. If I’m understanding correctly, the resulting Metro government will either inherit Memphis’ current annexation areas, or will have to be given via the new charter, those areas. This, however, is a question that will likely be referred to the County Attorney, or the State Attorney General.

Finally, the Commission spent some time on how to best deal with media interviews and Task Force scheduling going forward. Due to the holiday, the task force issue will be primarily dealt with after the holidays. Task Force meetings will be announced at the next Charter Commission meeting on January 7th.