Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body – Part 1

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.

4 Replies to “Metro Charter Commission Commentary – The Legislative Body – Part 1”

  1. Steve, thanks for posting. Here’s a additional info from Joe Saino’s site. I think it still comes back to 2 questions: Are these bodies making good decisions ? -and- Are these decisions in-line with the wishes of the communities they represent ?

    Our present mayor-council form of government was created in a November 1966 election referendum by a vote of 56,808 to 39,211. Downing Pryor led the long and often bitter fight to adopt the new form of government. In a debate before the election, former Mayor Henry Loeb argued that any change would be a change for the better and that the proposed mayor-council form would be more economical than the City Commission form. Mayor William B. Ingram charged that the mayor-council form was a political move by people who want to gain control of your government and furthermore that the change would result in a tax increase. Well Mayor Ingram certainly called that one correctly.

    The first City Council was sworn in on January 2, 1968 and consisted of Tom Todd, Downing Pryor, Philip Perel, J. O. Patterson Jr., Rev. James Netters, W. T. McAdams, Bob James, Billy Hyman, Lewis Donelson, Fred Davis, Wyeth Chandler, Jerred Blanchard and Mrs. Gwen Awsumb. Henry Loeb was Mayor.

    The new City Charter prescribed the following rules for the City Council. It was composed of 13 members, 7 elected from districts and 6 elected at large. The Council was to perform legislative functions including passage of ordinances, approval of budgets submitted by the Mayor, conduct hearing on matters of civic interest, approve appointees proposed by the Mayor, hear appeals from the Planning Commission and review operations of administrative departments. The Councilmen were prohibited from dealing directly with administrative personnel. The Memphis City Charter makes it clear that except for the “purposes of inquiry or investigation” council members shall deal with city administrative officers and employees only through the mayor’s office. The charter declares: “Neither the council not any member thereof shall give orders directly to the mayor’s subordinates or otherwise interfere with the operation of the administrative departments through such means as directing or requesting the appointment or removal of any of the mayor’s subordinates or by suggesting or promoting the making of particular purchases (from) any specific organization or by applying for special services not available to all citizens. The charter says any councilman convicted of violating this section will lose his office immediately.

    The next major shift in the formation of the Memphis City Council came in 1991 with a federal lawsuit against the Memphis City Government asking that all elections be barred until city runoff elections and the six at-large City Council seats were abolished. The Federal Government charged that the runoffs diluted the voting power of blacks. In a consent decree, it was agreed that there would be in addition to the seven districts, that there would be two super districts with three seats each for a total of thirteen councilman. This virtually assured the african americans of a majority on the City Council.

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