Why I’m Against Consolidation

In the past several years I’ve been an advocate for Consolidation. I’ve written several posts in support of the subject. Today I’m changing my tune. Today, I come out against consolidation and all it stands for.

What does consolidation even mean? The definition of Consolidation is combine (a number of things) into a single more effective or coherent whole. That’s a nice idea, but for the past almost 50 years consolidation here in Shelby Co. has represented to many an exercise that takes a County government, and a City Government, and smushes them together like two cans of different colored Play-doh. Some have characterized consolidation as a marriage of the blind and the deaf, unable to communicate or respond to each other, or worse, as creating a man made Platypus. None of those things sound like something I’m interested in. Consolidation SOUNDS LIKE taking two under-representative bodies and making them one SUPER UNDER-REPRESENTATIVE body. That’s something that I just cannot support.

Shelby Co. has is 724 sq. mi. and a population density of 1189/sq. mi. The County Commission has 5 Districts, 4 of which are served by 3 people, you still following me, for a total of 1 council member for every 69,000 people. That’s less representative than the average State House seat in Shelby Co. by 13,000 people.

Memphis is even worse. We have 7 Districts, and 2 “At Large” half city districts. At 279 sq. mi. we’re just 37% of the total land mass of Shelby Co., but have a population density of 2327/sq. mi.. Representation on our council is worse than in the county. That’s 1 district member for every 93,000 people. The “At Large” is even worse than that, ranging somewhere around 1 member for every 112,000 people. In all, any one district may be represented by 4 people, but only has one person really “responsible” for the area, and 3 others that are really responsible for the interests of their half of the city. You can “math this out” to look better than it is, but even at 1 per 83,800, you would still find yourself with each City Council member representing 27,000 more people than our State House members.

In pointing out the reality of our under-representation on both the County and City governments, I don’t mean to besmirch the intentions or credibility of any of the members, but to point out the representational reality that the two largest “municipal” governments in Tennessee are broken. The notion of marrying these two under-representative bodies into one SUPER UNDER-REPRESENTATIVE government is distasteful to just about everyone.

I’m against that…I’m against Consolidation.

I’m not against a completely revamped, and more representative Metro Government. I actually like the idea, as long as it’s not set up to solidify the power bases or any one group or political structure. I like the idea of a Metro Government that is SUPER representative. Davidson Metro is a good example of this.

Davidson Metro is 502 sq. mi. with a population density of 1243/sq. mi.. It has 35 Council Districts, 5 “At Large” positions and a Vice-Mayor that oversees the body. Each district position serves approx. 18,000 people. The “At Large” positions are simple, vote for 5 and the top vote getters win. Vice-Mayor is a Metro wide race that everyone votes for, just like the Mayor. Everyone is voted into a 4-year term, and the election is held in an “off year” to allow for citizens to actually be able to focus on the election.

That doesn’t sound bad to me.

Achieving a representational ratio equal to that of Davidson Co. would mean 50 council districts. That doesn’t seem manageable. 35 seems more manageable, and would net just over 2 council seats for every State House District. I like the “At Large” positions as well, for several reasons; 1. It gives people who have served on the council an opportunity to continue to serve after they have been “Term Limited” out of their local districts. 2. It allows for institutional memory to survive huge turnovers of the council. 3. It is a good platform to build leaders that could someday serve in an executive position. “Leaders aren’t born, they’re raised”, in order for a community to get the kind of leadership they want, they have to “raise” those leaders and show them what leadership looks like in their community.

Whether or not something like this emerges in the most recent push for a Metro government is yet to be seen. County Mayor Wharton is currently on a listening tour to hear resident’s concerns and questions. At the beginning of the month he visited a group in Cordova. More are planned over the coming months.

In order for any real push for a Metro government to begin in earnest, the Memphis City Council and Shelby Co. Commission have to adopt a resolution to create a Charter Commission comprised of members appointed by both bodies. The Charter Commission would then craft a charter to be put before the voters of both governments. Both City and County residents must approve the measure for it to take effect.

The makeup of the potential “Charter Commission” is really important. Appointing the usual suspects is going to be a non-starter. Both the City Council and County Commission need to look outside themselves, and the revolving door of people appointed to public boards and commissions to ensure that a wealth of ideas and experience is represented on the Commission. Further, both legislative bodies in Shelby Co. need to distance themselves from the process to ensure that no charges of “power consolidation” can be levied against them.

Once the Charter Commission is empanelled there are a lot of issues to deal with, in addition to the more basic problem of actually writing the Charter. Here are a few ideas that I support:

– Council districts that respect traditional neighborhoods/areas and are more representative than current or future State House Districts, along with a methodology to address population growth/contraction in the area.

– Direct oversight and supervision of any county executive that would emerge from the charter process.

– Sensible and comprehensive ethics rules that are easy for laymen to understand.

– Recall authority and citizen driven ballot initiatives.

– A straightforward line of succession for the executive, and the replacement of resigning council members.

– Easy and clear transparency of all government agencies, including the council, for citizen oversight.

Of course, there are all kinds of additional issues that will arise in the process. The key is that the process is open, transparent, and the result of a conversation with constituents, rather than trying to force a solution down the throats of voters, which is one of the greatest fears of most county residents. Having a direct say, and knowing what the eventual governing body will look like may go a long way to addressing those concerns and quelling those fears.

This whole discussion needs to be focused on building something new. Even though past discussions of creating a Metro government have largely been focused on making something new, simply using the word, “consolidation” illicits feelings of losing our already tenuous grasp on local control. No one is going to support that.

At the end of the day, there needs to be a good faith effort to address the concerns of County and City residents, and a well organized campaign to educate the public on the eventual proposal, both as it is being crafted, and once it emerges from the Charter Commission. Memphis Tomorrow, an organization whose mission is …to bring top business leaders together with government and civic leaders to foster economic prosperity for all who live in our community. has started a site dedicated to the discussion of building a Metro government in Shelby Co. called Reinvent Government. While this is a step in the right direction to foster engagement in the community, any effective effort will have to be supported by people who have a history of being arbiters of good faith, both in their neighborhoods, and the county at large. A “grass tops” push by politicians and business leaders alone will not do.

The conversation has started. The landscape of any proposed charter change, and the comprehensiveness of the eventual proposal largely depends on how engaged and involved people throughout Shelby Co. choose to be. If the people don’t get involved, we’ll keep getting what we’ve been getting and fighting the same old fights that have hamstrung our community for decades. If we do get involved, we might just end up with something pretty special, a government that we helped create, that is directly responsible to us, and that holds power at the will of a diverse, but unified group of people.

Yes, I’m against Consolidation. I’m against taking a duck and a beaver and putting them together to try and make a platypus, but I’m not against starting from scratch. Wiping away the power structures that have hamstrung our community, and building new systems from the ground up, to serve the will of the people. That sounds like a Revolution to me. A revolution is something sorely needed in Shelby Co.

0 thoughts

  1. Call it what you like … consolidation or metro government. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s still a duck!

    I’m a county resident living outside of Memphis. Why should I have an interest in having all the woes of the city of Memphis spread out all over the county? Keep them, please!

  2. It’s back to the future – power to the future.

    But our ambition has to be more than figuring out how to combine two massive governments, but rather, how to blow them up and start over, imbedding the kind of technology in a new government that allows the public to be more involved in co-creating their own community.

    Storm the barricades.

  3. Steve, interesting post, once again. This is just before the courts and the judges interfere (the micro, super, and mega districts will be a source for lawsuit …. fighting the same battles again and again …) 🙂

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