Tomorrow is election day, though you could argue election day has been happening here in Tennessee for weeks, and no matter who wins or loses, there are going to be some general conditions, particularly here in Shelby County, that won’t change one bit. The biggest thing is access to information about our representatives in City and County Governments and what they are doing in our name.
What’s Goin’ On?
The Memphis City Council has made great strides over the past year in distributing the minutes to their meetings. Now there is an rss feed that you can subscribe to, as well as the relatively timely publishing of minutes. Unfortunately these are distributed in a manner that requires Microsoft Word instead of a simple PDF that could be more easily viewable.
The Shelby County Commission has a more detailed information system located here, but the system doesn’t seem to record any voting information for the individual members. I called the County Commission to find out, and, as of this writing, no one immediately knew.
This information is vital in finding out what the City and County government is doing, particularly in the absence of detailed coverage by the local media. What there isn’t, is a searchable database of votes and voting records. I don’t know if this is a financial consideration, or if there is the sense that there is insufficient interest. In any case, this may meet, or even exceed the current open meetings/records standards, but as a resource for constituents, it’s not all that helpful in finding a vote on a particular issue.
Of course, the business conducted by the legislative branches of City and County Government is only one part of the story. The executive branches have all kinds of things going on that few people know about, and even less is available on the Internet, particularly for City government.
Follow The Money
There are all kinds of resources out there for tracking down campaign contributions to candidates and organizations. OpenSecrets has a database for federal candidates, Follow The Money has a less comprehensive, but useful database of state candidates throughout the nation. Considering the scope of the latter project, it’s no wonder it lags a bit behind.
Currently, there is no way to “follow the money” for local candidates in Shelby County. All financial disclosures are filed on paper. Viewing these disclosures requires a trip downtown to the Election Commission, filling out a form, and paying for scads of photocopies.
Tennessee state law allows for electronic filing of financial disclosures in local and county races, but according to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, no county election commissions in the state of Tennessee currently have such a filing mechanism.
Connecting the Dots
From my perspective, these two issues, easy access to voting records and campaign finance disclosures are critical to connecting the dots between the influence of money and politics, or conversely, disproving any fabled connection.
Further, having such resources at the fingertips of voters, whether they use them or not, is a critical component in keeping constituents informed and a part of the process. In short, while the legislative bodies of the two largest governments in West Tennessee may be doing all that is required of them legally to inform the voters, they are hardly doing all they could to make that information accessible.
As we close out this national election, and move back into the now unfamiliar grind of talking heads talking about something other than the election, governing, something the wind bags on TV aren’t so good at talking about, I think it’s a good time to refocus ourselves to the governments that affect us most, local and state government. These are the less sexy, but vitally important positions that we will be voting on, again in some cases, in just two short years.
It’s time to start thinking about that future now, how it should look, and what information will be readily available when that time comes. That’s my focus. In the coming weeks I hope to have information about projects coming down the pike. Until then, get out and vote, if you haven’t already, and enjoy election night.