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.