Redistricting: When Will This Start Being Transparent?

Memphis City Council via their Facebook page
Our country is built on the idea of public scrutiny. The very sanctity of our representative democracy is balanced on our government’s willingness to publicly disclose what it is or isn’t doing in our name, and our collective will to demand disclosure.

So when things happen, either by circumstance or on purpose, without the benefit of public scrutiny, the whole process gets called into question.

In the past two months I’ve written 10 posts that mention City of Memphis redistricting. Some have been playful, others really serious.

The last discussion I can find on the City Council site is from the June 7th meeting. At that meeting Memphis City Council Chairman Myron Lowery and City Council Attorney Alan Wade talk about redistricting. The central issue that both dealt with is that people don’t know which district to file in if they want to run.

Unfortunately, it’s not just about knowing what district you’re in, though that’s important, it’s about the public scrutiny, or lack thereof, in the process. This process has had little urgency, public scrutiny, or urgency for public scrutiny, much less, action.

When I spoke to the Council in May, I was given some assurances from Councilman Boyd that the process would be open and transparent. That was the chief concern I expressed. Since then, the Council met on June 7th and deferred the issue to July 19th, just two days before the filing deadline, which is by default, the deadline for the City Council.

In that discussion there was no real questioning or accounting of the problems faced by Wade, other than the huge amount of data. Of course, there were huge amounts of data, it’s the census! But some very basic and fundamental questions were never asked, nor addressed. How in the world is this process in any way open and transparent?

In my statements to the City Council I cautioned against this, saying that such a circumstance would lead people to believe this to be some kind of incumbency protection program. I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but that is either exactly what this is, or this Council just doesn’t see accountability, transparency, and disclosure as important to maintaining and strengthening the public trust. Either way, it’s sad.

It shouldn’t be taking this long. I’ve talked to folks at the County Commission, they created districts for 25 school board members through OPD, the agency helping with City Council redistricting, in just about a month. In Nashville, they had new districts approved for their upcoming August election by early April, about a month after the release of Census data to the states. The point is, it only takes this long if there isn’t any urgency, or desire for public scrutiny, and apparently there isn’t.

Prior to speaking to the Council I talked to attorneys about suing the city over this issue. The thinking was, if they don’t see the urgency, then let’s put some urgency to them like what happened in Nashville. Instead, I decided to take a different path and talk to the City Council like adults, ask them to get with it, and look forward to results. That strategy was a mistake on my part. Fool me once…

It’s unfortunate because this didn’t have to be this way. If Council Attorney Wade was having technical issues, it should have been disclosed and detailed before June 7th. That’s what transparency looks like. If there was some other problem it should have been announced publicly when it was happening, not as an afterthought. Through that disclosure, there might have been additional help or resources dedicated to the project. Now it seems the Memphis City Council has adopted the same tactics endorsed by State Sen. Bill Ketron, do it quick and at the last second before anyone notices.

Trust in the governing process, which is already very low in the first place, gets further damaged by elected officials who don’t work intentionally to foster trust. This is why public scrutiny is so important. Scrutiny builds trust in the process, what’s happening now tears it down.

While there’s a a lot of lip service given to transparency in government, there’s not a whole lot of, you know, real transparency. People are willing to forgive and understand problems when they’re dealt with as they occur. When it’s after the fact, or treated as an afterthought, not so much. Then it just looks like manipulation, or worse, self-interest.

What needs to happen now is a full and accurate accounting of what has and hasn’t been done by the City Council and its representatives in this process. That’s what transparency looks like.

Last week I sent a request to OPD asking them to provide dates and times of contact and requests from City Council attorney Alan Wade, who is spearheading redistricting. In response, on July 23rd I received a reply, but rather than answering or informing me of a process to get an answer, OPD forwarded my request to Mr. Wade. Monday I resent the request to Mr. Wade. As of yet I have received no response.

The questions were simple:

1. When did the original request go into OPD?

2. What technical problems have you experienced in the process?

3. When were the maps completed (assuming they are) and when will they be made available to the public?

None of these questions are remarkable. They are questions my employer would ask of me if I was having a problem finishing a task. From my perspective, as a citizen of Memphis, I employ the City Council and by extension Alan Wade. My tax dollars pay for their salary, and as such I have a right to know. That’s what transparency is. That’s what public scrutiny is all about.

The next City Council meeting is on July 5th and I plan to be there. As of right now the agenda isn’t even published, but I’m sure there won’t be anything about redistricting on it. I’ll be there anyway seeking answers to these and other questions. I hope you will be too.

Below are videos of the last public discussion on redistricting by the Memphis City council.

Executive Session – June 7, 2011

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City Council Meeting – June 7, 2011

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4 Replies to “Redistricting: When Will This Start Being Transparent?”

  1. Seems to me that a group of candidates or potential candidates should file a lawsuit requesting a court to delay the qualifying deadline on grounds that the council had adequate time but failed to develop and approve a redistricting plan giving candidates a resonable time to study the districts before submitting qualifying petitions. I am not a lawyer, but candidates or potential candidates might be the only ones with grounds to file a suit since the council’s foot-dragging on the issue is directly affecting them.

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