Friday, February 19, 2010

On Reinventing Government

Posted By on Fri, Feb 19, 2010 at 12:52 PM

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Don't ask someone who has been laid off, robbed, can't pay the house note, recently waited in line to get their car inspected, or didn't get their trash picked up last month to worry much about the face of government two or three years from now.

This is the problem with reinventing city and county government. Most of us have more immediate concerns.

The county charter commission is in the early stages of its labors. Reinventing government could be a good idea. Or it could be a way of diverting time and leadership from more pressing, fixable problems. A way of doing something without doing anything.

Conversations are fine. But members of Congress, the Tennessee General Assembly, Shelby County Commission, and Memphis City Council who can't stand each other are perfectly polite and amicable in social settings or in meetings where there are no consequences. "I have the greatest respect for my colleague, the gentleman/gentlelady from so-and-so" says to the gentleman/gentlelady from the other side of the aisle or the table. We've all seen that many times. It has all the lasting significance of the standing ovation given to The President before a State of the Union address.

Voting on specific items that have an impact on specific somebodies and specific projects next week or next month is another matter.

Members of the Memphis City Council are often maligned. Sometimes they deserve it. But sitting in those 13 chairs where talk is cheap and votes count is very different from writing a commentary or attending a meeting.

Memphis and Shelby County may have an outdated government structure. The case for changing it would have more clout if the elected and appointed city and county leadership independently pared their budgets. If the leadership can't cut two governments down to size, how will one big government be cut down to size? Sorry, attrition is not a credible answer.

I have seen numbers this week stating that our municipal governments have more than 14,000 employees, not counting schools. Consolidated governments in Louisville and Indianapolis and Jacksonville, it is stated, have 6,000 to 8,500 employees. I have enough trouble keeping up with local numbers to confirm the accuracy or time frame of some other city's numbers. The implication is that a metro Memphis government could function ably with a third fewer employees.

If so, then mayors Wharton and Ford and the City Council and County Commission have their charge. As did their predecessors Willie Herenton, Dick Hackett, Jim Rout, and Bill Morris. As did Sheriff Mark Luttrell and his predecessors.

Where are these thousands of overlapping or unneeded municipal employees? Who will identify them and give them their pink slips? Why have they been overlooked for so long, when there is a budget "crisis" nearly every year? When will "the efficiencies" by cuts or attrition take place?

It's been suggested to me that I attend some of the meetings on reinventing government. Fair enough. Anyone who spouts off should go to unfamiliar places and talk and listen to people they don't know. That goes for executives who want to influence public policy but haven't been to the city council in years, too.

My experience is that people show up for meetings about something they care deeply about — a crime wave in their neighborhood, the prospect of a nearby school closing, optional school enrollment, or a strip club that wants to move in. Nobody has to tell them to come. On the other hand, I have been to countless meetings where a handful of people come, often paid advocates or their friends. Or nobody comes, like some of the meetings a search firm held to determine "what the community wants" in a city school superintendent, pre Kriner Cash.

There's an adage on the speakers' circuit that says "get their restroom rating." In other words, civility aside, what do you really think? Are you in or out? One of the challenges for reinventing government will be finding out what people really think, what their takeaway is, and what the action plan is.

The City Council meets Tuesday. A budget update will be given, and decisions will be made about funding Memphis City Schools. They'll also be talking about single-beer sales downtown, the issue that has generated the most calls to their office this week, hands down. This is not a drill. This is the context for the conversation.

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