Redistricting the County Commission

Could this be our next district map?
Yesterday, the Shelby County Commission again took up redistricting in committee. It was an interesting discussion, interrupted by an Executive Session, and a whole lot of questions about this and that.

I’m not going to report on the meeting itself. In the end, the committee voted 6-4 to affirm the plan pictured to the left.

If you would like to see this and other plans before the Commission in more detail, you can go here.

One or Many, That is the Question

Fundamentally, the question before the Commission is whether or not to continue with a mixture of multi-member and single member districts, or going strictly to single member districts. Currently, there are 5 districts: 4 districts have 3 members, 1 district has 1 member.

The plan before the Commission would expand the number of districts to 7, but not the number of Commissioners. This means that 6 districts would be served by 2 members, and, 1 district served by 1 member.

Most people know who their US Representative is. Some know who their State Senator and Representative are. In those cases it’s easier, because each office represents a specific area, and is only represented by one person.

That’s not the case in Shelby County. The current multi-member districts have over 210,000 people each. That’s three times larger than a State House District, and almost the same size as a State Senate district. While the representation per resident is about the same as the the State House district, the size of the district means that it takes a whole lot more time and resources to cover all that ground.

While the proposed districts would be smaller generally (140,000 residents rather than 210,000), they are still incredibly large, which makes it much harder for newcomers to get involved in the process.

I’m on record as supporting single member districts. I’ve written about this extensively over the past several years and feel strongly that getting representatives closer to the constituents is the way to get more people involved and engaged in Government. But even that aside, there are some serious deficiencies with this mixture of multi and single members districts. The biggest deficiency is for the district that ends up being the odd man out.

Counting to Seven

As I noted before, 4 County Commission districts currently have 3 members, 1 district has 1 member. On the face of it, this would seem to violate the idea of “one man, one vote”. However, because District 5, represented by Commissioner Steve Mulroy, is 1/3 the size of the other 4 districts, it passes muster.

So while it may be fair to the citizens in terms of representation levels, and the law, is it really all that fair?

If someone in District 1-4 proposes a project they can lobby all three of their members. It takes 7 votes to get anything done on the Commission, meaning that if all 3 agree with the idea, they only need to find 4 more votes. You are, in effect, almost half way there.

District 5 is different. While geographically smaller, any project proposal for District 5 still needs a 7 vote majority to pass. Because District 5 is represented by 1 member, this means you have to get 6 members from other districts to support the measure for it to pass. This puts District 5 at a disadvantage.

The Proposed New Odd Man Out
Under the plan that seems to be preferred, it’s a little better, with 6 districts having only 2 members, but there’s still the odd man out…District 5. Under the current plan would cover the area bordered by Sam Cooper, Egypt Central to the North, Bartlett to the east, and Warford St. to the west.

This area, which is currently represented by the 3 members of District 1, would get their own single member, and all the challenges that presents in getting to 7.

Local government is confusing here in Shelby County. Both the Memphis City Council, and the County Commission have different systems to arrive at 13 members using a mixture of single and multi-member districts.

In Memphis, every precinct is equal. No matter where you live you have four members on the Council. There’s your single member (Dist. 1-7) and three members that represent a “Super District”. I’m not a big fan of this plan either, but at least its more fair. Everyone has 4, and if by magic those 4 agree, only 3 more votes are needed to get something passed.

But in the County, not every precinct is equal. Some have 3 some have 1. So going back to the plan before the County Commission, it seems this mixture of multi- and single member districts does nothing but disenfranchises an area, in this case one that is 51% African American, and has the highest concentration of the growing Hispanic population which makes up almost 15% of the district.

I find it very interesting that the area with the growing Hispanic population got picked to be the odd man out. Speaks volumes if you ask me.

The County Commission could correct this by either going to single member districts, or increasing the number of members to 15 and creating 5 districts represented by 3 members. In both cases, every precinct would have equal representation on the body. While single member districts have been a topic of discussion, no one is talking about increasing the size of the Commission.

Covering Clueless Counterparts

In the discussion yesterday, Commissioner Mulroy recounted an observation made by former Commissioner Deidre Malone. The crux of this observation was that in each multi-member district there are some who perform at a high level, and others that essentially free ride on the work of that top performer (this is my interpretation of his words, not his words directly).

Anyone who’s served with any group of people has experienced this to one degree or another. It is the nature of groups. There are always a few people who drive things, and many more that go along with the folks that drive the debate.

Mulroy, who seems to prefer a single member district scenario, said that by going to smaller districts, those elected to the Commission would be more accountable, and by extension, have to be more on their A game.

Commissioner Henri Brooks countered Mulroy’s argument. Brooks agreed with the overall observation that there are some that perform higher than others, but disagreed with the conclusion. She noted that if a single member district had a lower performing member, they could be essentially left out in the cold.

This position presents two problems.

First, why should we, the people of Shelby County, ever be ok with an elected official slacking on the job? Just because under the current system of multi-member districts an elected official has backup, that doesn’t make it ok. The whole franchise of multi-member districts requires that every member use their talents to represent the people of the district. If one or two members of a multi- district is slacking off, the people of that district effectively has less representation.

Second, if a member is slacking there’s little accountability. With two or three members per district, identifying who is not performing is harder. In these multi-member scenarios there’s always the possibility that someone can point the finger at someone else rather than accept responsibility for their action, or in this case, inaction, which further complicates any remedy by the people being represented.

The issue is easier to deal with in a single member district scenario. If your representative isn’t doing their job, you will know it, rather than having them hide behind the labors of a colleague. From there, constituents have remedies readily available. They can wait for the next election vote for someone else or they can seek to have a recall election in accordance with Article 5 Section 24 of the County Charter.

While these remedies are available in the multi-member scenarios, the difficulty of identifying which member really is the problem plus the increased difficulty of gaining the number of signatures needed to get to a recall election (15% of those that voted in the last election) is much higher, which further decreases accountability on the body.

More than One Option

One of the things I noticed in yesterday’s discussion is that few on the County Commission are really thinking outside the box on this issue. OPD presented two initial plans to the Commission, and by and large that’s all they’ve considered.

I know some members have asked for additional information, and Commissioner Ritz presented an alternative plan to the mix of multi and single member districts that seems to be preferred by the Commissioners. Aside from that, there’s been no real discussion or exploration of other options.

There are, literally hundreds if not thousands of ways to draw the districts in Shelby County. With 236 precincts, and all kinds of potential representation levels that include single and multi-member districts, this could be cut in all sorts of ways.

However, when talking about the idea of single member districts, the discussion is largely relegated to the plan before the members rather than exploring alternative ways to look at the same area. This, to my way of thinking is intellectually lazy and flies in the face of good representation.

Commissioners should be looking at any number of ways to represent the people, rather than just accepting the two options given them. Even though I’m not a fan of the Ritz plan, I commend him for exploring other options. I agree with him that the Commission should look for ways to keep communities of people together. From my perspective, splitting up communities, whether they be neighborhoods or suburban cities, dilutes their ability to organize and push for needed changes.

Commissioner Shafer noted that doing so might create a kind of “balkanization” of the County. I would argue that we already have this kind of balkanization, and it is furthered by insisting on these large multi-member districts. If we want more diversity of opinion, if we want more local control over the decisions the County Commission makes, we need smaller districts that respect these natural boundaries.

This, by necessity means we should be looking for alternative single member district plans.

Free Market Elections

Over the past several election cycles we’ve seen a huge decrease in participation. There have been all kinds of causes discussed, too many elections, districts that are too large, and a belief that there is little possibility for positive change being just a few of them.

If you look at the last County election in 2010, 12 of the 13 seats on the County Commission were uncontested in the General election. While this was most certainly was a boon for the 12 members that benefitted from this lack of competition (all 12 represent multi-member districts) one has to ask if this is really what’s best for the County?

The idea of the free market follows that competition brings innovation, and the success of that innovation determines the winners and losers. In effect the rule is “innovate or die”. But for some reason, that’s not something the Commission seems interested in. The bulk of the discussion has revolved around incumbency protection, which again, flies in the face of both innovation and competition.

While I’m sensitive to the notion that incumbent members shouldn’t be districted into direct competition with each other, as this would create needless conflict in the execution of their current duties, I also firmly believe that the lack of competition stifles our ability as a county to adequately address the issues we face.

By contrast, implementing single member districts would increase competition, and therefore increase the possibility that new ideas would be heard, and perhaps acted upon. Further, by putting our elected officials closer to their constituents, it gives them more reason to be directly involved in the process, and encourages more participation.

I think all of these things are ultimately good for Shelby County.

By holding fast to a multi/single member plan, the County Commission is effectively stifling bedrock value of our nation, competition.

If we want a truer level of competition to drive our community forward, we need to not only look at the possibility of single member districts, but multiple plans for those single member districts.


On Monday, November 14th, the County Commission will consider the 7 district plan referenced above for a vote. It will take two more votes to formally codify this plan.

The Commission may, before the second vote, make changes to the plan in any way it deems fit, without prolonging the process. This means they have 26 days to draw up alternative plans before the next to the last meeting of the year on December 5th. After that second vote, any changes will, by necessity, push the issue into 2012, which would put the Commission out of compliance with state law.

As constituents, we should demand that our elected officials to think outside the box and look for the best solution rather than just accepting what’s been given them. That is the definition of good governance.

Ultimately, this process should be about the best way to represent the public, rather than the best way to protect incumbents. By focusing on incumbency protection, there is only one group of people whose interests are served, incumbents. That, in and of itself, flies in the face of their charge to serve the people of Shelby County, and may explain why so many people are checked out of local government.

It is my hope that the County Commission will reconsider the possibilities again on Monday, and look at alternative solutions to the issue of representation. Most importantly, I hope they will think outside the box, and look for solutions that best represent the diversity of our community, rather than resting on the current proposal that stifles competition and discourages participation.

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