Jun 02 2011

Redistricting Push Picked Up in Memphis Flyer

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

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Jackson Baker, the intrepid senior editor and political reporter of the Memphis Flyer, used some column inches in this weeks report to cover the redistricting issue that I’ve been talking about here.

Lost in all the budget business as well as many other pressing city matters, is the very way we elect our city legislative body, who has to be redistricted, just like every other legislative body, every 10 years.

I’ve written pretty extensively on this issue, and even spoken to the City Council, though video of that exchange is now unavailable (for reasons I’m not that sure of). What I do know is that the matter was deferred until June 7th, next Tuesday, which is also the scheduled time to complete budget talks, which indicates to me that the issue will likely fall to the way side once again, making it that much more difficult for voters to identify their candidates and visa-versa.

While certainly, the issues surrounding the huge budget shortfall are many, and addressing these budgetary concerns are one of the primary duties of the City Council, it is also incumbent on the Council to, every 10 years, like clockwork, rework the lines of the 7 single member and 2 multi-member districts to conform to the population changes reflected in the decennial Census conducted by the US Census Dept. It’s not as if they didn’t know this was coming, and its troubling that, now three months after the data was made available, the process is just now underway.

It was, in fact, technical difficulties in matching up census tracts and precincts that led to the May 17th deferral, something that should have been addressed back in April.

If populations haven’t even been matched with precincts, then the very foundation of the data that must be analyzed to help determine the districts is in question, casting a shadow on the process being resolved on Tuesday, which would further delaying something that is critical to ensuring voters have time to make an informed decision at the ballot box.

What’s going to happen? No one knows but the City Council and Alan Wade, but between now and then people should use the opportunity to address their concerns about the budget proposals before the council as a platform to also raise this issue. While the direct impact of any redistricting scenario may have a more diffuse impact on the city than the budget itself, the issue of representation is one that will be felt for years to come, long after this years budget problems have been resolved.

To see an archive of all the posts on this issue click here.
To join my virtual petition drive on Facebook click here.

May 04 2011

Mr. Ross goes to City Hall

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis Politics

So yesterday, I spoke to City Hall about the redistricting ordinance. I thought about doing a lot of things like showing up with 9 petitions and asking which ones applied to me, bringing a horde of people as “supporters”, all kinds of theatrical stuff. In the end I decided against it for a couple of reasons.

First, while I’ve made light of the situation, this is something I’m very serious about. While I think it’s ridiculous and flies in the face of good governance that there’s a proposed redistricting ordinance up for third reading that has no maps associated with it whatsoever a week after petitions were made available to potential candidates, I also believe, at this point anyway, that this is a condition resulting from a City Council attorney that has too many irons in the fire. That belief was confirmed by Councilman Boyd, and other members after the meeting had adjourned.

Second, at over 3 and a half hours in, and after a heated exchange between some members of the Council and Mayor Wharton, I felt there were plenty of fireworks for the small smattering of people left in the Council Chambers.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, running for public office is not just something I want to do, it is something that I absolutely will do. Right now may or may not be the time for a whole host of reasons, but it’s gonna happen. The last thing I want is to be dismissed as a crank due to a misplaced prank before I even start my first campaign.

With all those things in mind, I went downtown without so much as a plan. I had some notes scribbled on a notepad, and a general idea of what I wanted to say. I wrote down a few key phrases during the meeting, the majority of which I didn’t use, and put in my dance card to speak to the council.

When they called my name, I had a flood of things rushing through my head, some of which went far outside anything I had in my notes. But at the end of the day, I wanted to ensure that the process was respected.

From my perspective, the most important thing any governmental entity can do is ensure the processes of government, the very wheels that power the trust between the individuals and their representatives, are as free of encumbrances, be they intentional or unintentional as possible. That was the foundation of what I wanted to say. Process endures while elected officials may come and go. The integrity of that process is one of the most important things anyone can work to protect. The integrity of the process maintains the trust in institution. And while the representatives tasked with maintaining that integrity can help or hinder it, the perception of the process lives on far longer than term limits.

And so I spoke, and here’s what I said…

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After the meeting I had the opportunity to talk to some members that I don’t get the chance to talk to very often. I spoke with Edmund Ford who told me about his own concerns about the redistricting process. He is, so far, the only member to have filed his petition.

Councilman Boyd also approached me. He wanted to make sure I didn’t think there was some kind of conspiracy. I told him I don’t, and I don’t. But I’ll get into that in a minute. He also wanted to assure me that I, or anyone else, could pull any petition I pleased. I’ll test that theory later today.

Councilman Brown also came up and shook my hand. He asked me if I was a Democrat, and I said I was. He said he’d support me in my candidacy if I chose to run. I thanked him politely. I don’t think he made the connection that I was the same Steve Ross he protested so loudly about, and that’s fine. He was very nice, though I’m sure his demeanor would change if I was running against him.

All in all it was a good experience, one that I’m sure I’ll repeat after maps are open to public scrutiny.

While I stated that the timeline was less my concern now than the integrity of the process, the importance of the timeline is rapidly shifting from a secondary to a primary concern. May 17th, the next meeting of the City Council is just 65 days from the filing deadline. I’m not sure how much public scrutiny will be available at that time, nor am I certain that maps will be available. If a first draft is not available at that time, the tenor of this issue will shift 180 degrees. The next meeting of the City Council after May 17th is on June 7th, just 44 days before the filing deadline. That would, ostensibly, be the earliest date that the lines could be approved with any real public scrutiny.

In the event that maps are not available on May 17th, a more adversarial approach will be necessary, and faith in the process, and those charged with maintaining that process, will be severely damaged.

This is not a threat, but reality. I’m not sure why Council Attorney Wade is solely charged with working on redistricting, along with all his other responsibilities. I’m not sure why OPD, or an external firm hasn’t been tapped to tackle this issue. Certainly, that would require a greater deal of scrutiny. As it stands now, with Wade at the helm, any deliberations on this issue could fall under Attorney/Client privilege, which casts a shadow on a process that should shine brightly.

In short, this system is not working efficiently. I’m hopeful it gets fixed soon. As for my potential candidacy, it’s just as up in the air as the districts.

In the event I do decide to run I’ve started a Facebook page. Please join it and invite your friends to join.

In the mean time, I’ll be waiting for the maps.

Apr 30 2011

Campaign Update: Just getting started

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Let's Do this...somewhere

It’s almost 5 am as I write this and I can honestly say I feel a new day coming.

The birds outside are chirping and I’m beginning to feel a bit of a buzz about my campaign prospects. Of course, there’s still lots of work to be done.

First, I have to find a campaign treasurer. As much as I hate to admit it, this is one of the most critical positions on the team. In addition to handling all the campaign contributions and expenditures, the appointment of a campaign treasurer can have a huge impact on how quickly those campaign contributions roll in. It’s gotta be someone you trust, and who will keep up with the reporting dates in addition to all the other stuff. It helps if its someone with a good foothold in the community because it lends a level of credibility to a campaign. I’ve got some potential candidates in mind. We’ll see how it all shakes out in the coming days.

Second, I’ve got to get some kind of campaign account set up. Really, I could have already done this, but I’m a poor college student, and could only scrape together $35 in change from my change jar, couch, and car. I think most places want to see at least $100 to get started. Maybe a bake sale will help.

Besides finding a way for a blue collar, college student such as myself to fund a campaign, there are several other things that must be done.

I’ll have to go pull and file nominating petitions and get enough signatures from the district to qualify. The signature part is no big deal, I’ve done that before, even though I didn’t file back in 2008. The problem is finding the people to sign 9 petitions. See, a qualified signature must live in the district that its filed in. Since I don’t know what district I’ll be running in, and no one knows for sure what district they’ll find themselves in after redistricting, it can get pretty complicated.

Heck, I’m not even sure the Election Commission will let me pull all 9 petitions, which means that if I start trying now, and get shifted to another district I’ll have to start all over again. No one wants to do that, and having to do so can hurt your credibility with supporters.

So, rather than have people sign a bunch of stuff and then have to do it all over again, I’ve started a “virtual petition” facebook page for people to show their support, and get in line to be one of the names on a history making campaign for some, yet to be determined district.

I’ve also got to get my campaign website up and running with some content. While I understand that a web strategy alone won’t win you a race, its also important to have a place for potential supporters to go so they can see what you have in mind.

I’ll be working on that over the weekend.

Finally, I’m trying to decide if I need to do something to spur the City Council into action, or at least get some information shared publicly. There are many avenues that could be explored, some more adversarial than others, but I’m a peacemaker more than a trouble maker. I think they have a meeting on Tuesday. Maybe I should just go up there and ask them.

Well, it’s just after 5:30 am and I see none of my policy advisors have accepted my page “Like” request yet. I guess I’ll let them sleep since I can’t pay them at this point. It’s going to be a long slog to October. They need their rest. If you’re up, go beat them to the punch and “Like” my Facebook page.

Thanks in advance for your support.


Steve Ross

Apr 29 2011

I Can’t Decide? Can You?

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

One of these lucky Memphis City Council members could have the pleasure of running against me, if only they would reveal their plans for redistricting their seats. Despite pleas from supporters, I can only run against one of them.

Obviously, being that I am but a lowly blogger, I have some preferences. But until they decide who gets the honor, I’m putting the choice up to you. Make that choice, in the comments.

Sorry Councilmen Collins, Ford, Boyd and Morrison. Apparently I live no where near your districts. It’s your loss.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this post, then go here, then come back and vote.

Wanda Halbert

Jim Strickland

Barbara Swearengen Ware

Joe Brown

Janis Fullilove

Myron Lowery

Kemp Conrad

Shea Flinn

Reid Hedgepeth

Apr 29 2011

Why Redistricting Is a Real Issue

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Literally on the border

The image you see to the left is the area of town I live in. The red highlighted area is my precinct. You can see a full map of all the Memphis City Council districts here.

If you click on the image, you can clearly see that my precinct is in Council district 5 and super district 9, but borders Council districts 4 and 7, as well as super district 8. This means, depending on how the population has shifted since the last redistricting ordinance my precinct could end up in any of those three single member districts and either of the two super districts.

As I noted yesterday, Nashville’s redistricting ordinance has been in effect since April 13, or starting 16 days ago. Their municipal election is set to be held on August 4th, with a withdrawal date of July 5th, giving potential candidates plenty of time to organize before the final date to pull out of the race.

Memphis municipal elections are scheduled for October 6th, with a withdrawal date of July 21. While our election is two months later, our withdrawal date is just two weeks after Nashville’s, creating the potential for significant difficulties for candidates who would challenge incumbents.

As of yet, there has been no plan shown to the public, nor any real public comment from the Memphis City Council regarding its plans to redistrict, aside from a deferred ordinance that is on third reading. According to the minutes of the April 19th meeting, that issue will be taken up again on May 17th.

The data for Shelby County was released on March 16th, meaning that should the issue be taken up on May 17th, right in the midst of difficult budget discussions, it will have been two months since the data was released that any information regarding the new lay of the land is made available.

My issue is not the timeframe, but the lack of public information.

Certainly, there are difficult decisions to be made and stringent rules that must be followed. The consent decree that governs the drawing of districts in Memphis has very particular guidelines. From my perspective, these rules are one of the most important reasons there must be public scrutiny of the process, never-mind the whole notion of “open government” itself.

So yeah, I’m serious about this issue.

For me, the issue is less about “why hasn’t this been done” than “why isn’t more information available about this”. Because, aside from an ordinance on third reading, there is nothing. No maps, no information, nothing. And my attempts to find out more about this process have yielded very little concrete information, calling the process into question, which is concerning to a person, like myself, who believes that the public’s trust in government comes not from the officials, but from the easy availability of information.

As I noted yesterday, Nashville’s process was open and transparent, netting several different versions of maps until the final product was unanimously approved. That final product includes specific information that any potential candidate can easily access. While I’m sure many in Memphis are tired of being compared to Nashville, this is something that’s really very simple, and should be put in place.

But for all I know, it might be. I have no idea. I’ve heard all kinds of things from people about how this goes down, and I don’t know whose information is reliable. And that’s an unfortunate consequence of a process that is likely being done the way its always been done in the past, but no one really knows anything about.

Memphis is full of opportunities. I love Memphis. If I didn’t, I would have left years ago. We have many challenges, but we have a lot of potential. To reach that potential, and ultimately address those challenges, we have to do things differently.

I think that there’s little disagreement that what we’ve been doing on a whole host of issues, clearly hasn’t been working. And while this is but a small issue in the grand scheme of things, it is an easily resolved example of part of the problem that cripples us in suspicion and divisions that exist to the advantage of a very few people.

I think everyone can agree that the status quo is unsustainable. But we’ve trapped ourselves in a feedback loop of the same ideas over and over again seeking a different result. That is the definition of insanity.

To break this chain, we have to take steps to change the way we do and think about things. Small steps count in this process of reinvention. Hopefully, opening up this process can be one of those small steps.