Memphis Needs a New Charter Commission

Memphis City Hall – via Wikipedia

In 2008, the Memphis Charter Commission wrapped up its work on six proposals to put before City voters.

The Commission worked for two years on proposals that ultimately ended up on the November, 2008 ballot.

The proposals that  made their way to the ballot included: Term Limits, Executive succession, Instant Runoff Voting, Council suspensions for corruption charges, a mandatory vote on any proposed sale of MLGW, and staggered terms, which was overturned a few years later. All won decisively.

As Memphis prepares to celebrate its bicentennial, now is the time to start thinking about the kind of Memphis we want going forward.

I can’t think of a better way to do this, than to impanel a new Charter Commission  to start working on those ideas.

Why a Charter Commission?

There are plenty of reasons for a new Charter Commission.

The last Charter Commission was elected 12 years ago. The proposals they brought won overwhelmingly.

Some proposals have been tested: Executive Succession got tested in the wake of Mayor Herenton’s retirement. Council Member suspension got tested after Barbara Swearengen Ware was charged with Corruption.

Others, like IRV won’t get their first test until 2019.

But a Charter Commission gives the people a chance to vote on ideas the City Council may not have the will or vision to bring forward.

Several of the things we take for granted now were very much uncertain before the 2008 election.  Term limits and restrictions on the sale of the city run utility are just two of them.

By bringing forward people of all stripes, we can  push the city forward. The Commission could deal with issues that may be too delicate, or fraught with political problems, for the City Council or the Mayor.

What Could a Charter Commission Propose?

The neat thing about a Charter Commission is that just about anything is on the table.

There are all kinds of issues that could be considered: from Police oversight to transparency and accountability.

Policies that many of us take for granted whose futures depend on the will of the Council or Mayor. Voting them into the Charter makes it more difficult for future leaders to ignore them.

The idea is that while an ordinance could overturn or weaken a charter addition, doing so would be more perilous in the face of an election.

Charter Commission Ideas

Here are a few ideas that I’d like to see Memphians consider:

Strengthening CLERB

When the Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) ordinance was approved, many saw it as a victory for transparency in the Memphis Police Department. While the effort was a great first step, there are still challenges to making CLERB a truly effective body.

Some of those challenges are laid out in this letter to the Mayor and the City Council by CLERB Chair Ralph White.

Here’s an excerpt:

The members of CLERB volunteer our time, and, currently, it is being wasted. CLERB needs one of four things to take place before our board can be effective: 1) Director Rallings to be reasonable and at least meet us in the middle on our decisions (compromise), 2) A new police director who will work with us,  3) A new ordinance that gives CLERB binding decision-making power, or 4) an amendment to the current ordinance, which gives appellate power to the mayor over the police director’s decisions.

There has been no real movement to resolve this problem since Rev. White published this letter in May.

Truth be told, police oversight is very popular nationwide. Nashville recently voted to establish one. Based on its structure and scope, it will probably have many of the same issues we’re having here in Memphis.

For civilian oversight of the police department to be real, it has to have teeth. And while there will, no doubt, be resistance to such a proposal, it needs to happen.

Financial Interest Disclosure

One common trope that I hear more than I want to is that elected officials are “bought and paid for” or “acting in their own self interest”.

I’ve had the good fortune to meet and get to know a lot of current and former elected officials. Honestly, I don’t see that.

Generally, I see people, many of whom I disagree with, acting based on their ideas or worldview. This may also align with self-interest. Generally, people don’t vote “out of character” enough to merit the “bought and paid for” label.

Elected officials must recuse themselves from clear conflicts of interest. But people may or may not be aware of that. Recusals are not always reported in the press.

There are ways to make sure the public knows elected officials are doing the right thing. One way is to make financial interest disclosures more detailed and easier to find.

Now, I can already hear people saying “That’s too invasive” or “You’ll scare good people off from running”. But really, constituents deserve to know that you’re working in their interests, not your own. And while some members may have to spend more time on disclosures than others, Ensuring people’s trust in the system is more important than any hassle it might cause fewer than two dozen elected officials.

Single Member Districts

The Memphis City Council began its bizarre set of seven single member districts and six “Super District” seats as the result of a 1995 Federal Consent Decree. I wrote about this history back in 2011.

Truth be told, these “Super Districts” are only super in the way they give disproportionate power to a small segment of the population.

As it stands now, each single member district represents about 95,000 people. That’s bigger than a Commission district and bigger than State House Districts.

Super Districts are even larger, representing over 300,000 people each.

The Council should be organized as 13 single member districts. Each District would encompass about 50,000 people. This would bring those representatives much closer to their constituents.

City elections take place in 2019. Redistricting will happen before the 2023 election cycle. That gives the City ample time to address any potential legal issues and ensure the process is transparent, unlike the 2011 redistricting process.

Appointed Body Transparency

The City of Memphis has, at least, 45 boards or commissions that oversee everything from the FedEx Forum to Stormwater and Public Art.

Some of these board are jointly run with the County Government. Others are City only affairs.

Finding out who sits on these boards, when they meet, and what they are doing, or have done is a complicated process. In many cases, for a citizen to get information like meeting notices, agendas, or minutes of the meetings, they have to contact the Board Chair. That can mean real delays in information delivery, or that people will give up their efforts due to potential reprisals.

Additionally, many boards and commissions have a hard time keeping up with this stuff on their own. For instance, the last minutes published by the CLERB Board are from March of 2018. Looks like someone dropped the ball.

This simply shouldn’t be. If a Board or Commission is doing City business, even in conjunction with the County Government, the City should be responsible for keeping up with that business and making it publicly available.

Shelby County Government has a system in place for many of its boards and commissions. In fact, it even lists times and agendas for some meetings that don’t have ANYTHING TO DO WITH COUNTY GOVERNMENT!

I’m not sure why the City couldn’t do something similar, since they seem to be using the same system to manage their web portal.

As with anything, if a government won’t act on its own (and sometimes even if it will) the public should demand it. All meeting times, agendas, and minutes of City boards should be easy to find.

It shouldn’t take a Charter Amendment to do this, but its the only real way to make sure transparency  lasts beyond political terms.

Comprehensive Citywide Transparency

The current and previous administrations have talked a lot about transparency. Each claiming to be more transparent than the last.

That may be true, but it doesn’t mean this level of transparency is good enough.

It is true that FOIA requests are handled more quickly than before. But many of these requests could be avoided if the City had a searchable database of publicly available information that was consistently maintained.

Making these documents available in an easy format would reduce the time City Attorneys and Administration Flaks have to field and research requests.

Certainly, there are more sensitive documents that would have to go through City Attorney vetting. But I would bet the vast majority of requests are either pretty straightforward, or items that should have been publicly available in the first place.

Its way past time for local government to make access to their records less complicated. And the public should demand it in a way, that outlasts administrations.


These are just a couple of examples. I’m sure there are many more ideas out there that could be explored. What better way to start off our city’s third century with a fresh look at ways to make the City work better for the people who live here?

If you have an idea for a possible charter amendment, leave it in the comments!

(Note: all comments are subject to approval to reduce spam. If your comment doesn’t show up immediately, give me time, I’ll approve it unless its really out of bounds)

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