A Little More Conversation 

Is the proposed Metro Charter DOA on November 2nd or a good idea in search of a constituency?

Metro Charter Commission members, from left: Carmen Sandoval, Andre Fowlkes, and Julie Elli

Metro Charter Commission members, from left: Carmen Sandoval, Andre Fowlkes, and Julie Elli

The proposed Metro Charter for a consolidated Memphis and Shelby County is either a good idea or dead on arrival. Or both.

You can't tweet a charter. The final draft is 48 pages long, or 44 pages longer than the U.S. Constitution, although not written on parchment or in fancy script. The 26th Amendment to the Constitution, giving 18-year-olds the right to vote, is 36 words.

The blueprint for what backers say is a more ethical, nimble, and efficient government is chock-full of details sure to test the patience of a population with an attention span geared to sound bites, partisan simplifications, and instant messages. As fodder for water cooler conversation, it makes C-Span or the Library Channel look like Sex and the City.

How much detail? The note that came with the e-mail release of the first draft of the charter said that printing the usual number of handouts for a meeting last week would add 5,495 pages to the 13,650 total. Attendees were urged to "BYOC" (bring your own copy).

The actual ballot question could be less than 200 words, or even one sentence. There will be plenty of time to analyze the proposed charter and tout it or criticize it in the 80 days between now and the election. For now, 15 of our fellow citizens have made a selfless effort to reinvent local government, and their work deserves serious attention.

"This is democracy at its best," said Memphis mayor A C Wharton this week, as he thanked commissioners for their service, adding, "I know how tedious the work has been."

In its 30th and final meeting, the Memphis and Shelby County Charter Commission made a major change in the document at the last minute by pushing back its implementation date to 2014 instead of 2012. The charter commission approved the charter by a vote of 14-1, with Millington mayor Richard Hodges casting the "no" vote.

The timing may be a moot point. One commission insider privately gave it the chance of "a snowball on the Main Street Mall in August."

Slightly more charitably, Charles Perkins, an attorney and former Shelby County commissioner who has worked with every city and county mayor for the last 40 years, called its chances "slim."

Germantown mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, who attended the meetings as a spectator, said she opposes consolidation but declined to predict its chances of passing.

"A lot will depend on how well the public is informed," she said.

On that note, here is the preamble to the proposed new charter, along with the highlights and some likely sticking points:

Preamble. "The citizens of Memphis and Shelby County, with pride in our heritage and confidence in our future, choose to form a new metropolitan government that represents our values of integrity, accountability, and respect for every citizen, that is committed to efficiently delivering quality, citizen-centered services, and that champions our shared vision of a community that offers prosperity and opportunity for all."

The double referendum. Voters will decide whether it passes or fails on November 2nd in separate referendums in the city of Memphis and in Shelby County, outside of Memphis. No substitutions. The referendum must be approved in its entirety in both elections or else it fails. Memphis votes go in Bucket A. Shelby County votes go in Bucket B. If the charter passes 99-1 in Bucket A but loses 51-49 in Bucket B, it fails. Should it pass, it will take effect September 1, 2014.

The catch: Two is harder than one. The double referendum is a substantial handicap for proponents. The last large city to consolidate was Louisville. The city and county votes were counted together, yet the measure still passed by only a 54-46 margin in 2000. The merger took place in 2003.

Consolidation is the main thing. No more beating around the bush and talking about merging certain departments or doing efficiency studies instead of invoking "the C word."

"There is hereby created and established a new metropolitan government to be known as the 'Memphis Shelby County Metropolitan Government.'"

The catch: There's a reason consolidation was taboo for so many years. It tells some opponents all they need to know. They'll never get to the details.

School consolidation is prohibited. Memphis and Shelby County will continue to maintain separate systems. The charter does not address the funding formula that ties city school construction to county school construction or shared schools like Southwind High School in southeast Shelby County.

Some consolidation proponents, including former Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton, urged school system consolidation. But the Metro Charter Commission followed the lead of other consolidated cities that left school systems alone.

The catch: Where's the savings? This takes roughly 20,000 public employees and nearly $2 billion a year off the table.

One mayor, instead of two. The first mayor of metro government would be elected in August 2014. Wharton and newly elected Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell would serve their full terms. They could, and in all likelihood would, run in the metro election. The metro mayor would serve a four-year term, just as the mayors do now.

Wharton, who has a little over one year to go in his term, is a consolidation supporter. Luttrell, who will take office on September 1st, is not.

The catch: Last week, Luttrell won a convincing victory over Joe Ford. Luttrell's 102,295 supporters would not take kindly to the idea of his victory being erased. On the premise of possible legal challenges, the charter commission pushed back the implementation or "start date" from 2012 to 2014 so that Luttrell and other elected county officials can serve their full terms.

There is still a transition issue, however, because city elections in Memphis are scheduled for 2011. Those terms would be abbreviated by consolidation, but voters and candidates would have advance notice.

Table for charter, party of 25! There would be one 25-member legislative body, instead of two 13-member council/commission panels. Members would be elected in August 2014 and take office in September of that year for four-year terms. For comparison, the Metro Council in Nashville/Davidson County has 40 members. Louisville has 26.

The catch: The proposed charter gives the mayor veto power that can only be overridden by two-thirds of the council. That's designed to create a strong mayor.

Legislative districts: Smaller districts are supposed to encourage grassroots involvement and fresh blood. The 13 single-member districts were drawn as six majority-white districts and seven majority-black districts. The four super-districts were also drawn with racial balance in mind. Each voter would have four representatives — one single-district and three super-districts.

The catch: It's called democracy. Voters repeatedly elect a few rogues and numskulls.

Term limits. Both commissioners and the mayor would be limited to serving no more than two consecutive terms. The county has had such a provision for several years, and it limited Wharton to serving two terms as county mayor. Memphis has had term limits for only two years, and former Mayor Herenton served four full terms and part of a fifth term. Interim Mayor Myron Lowery has been on the City Council since 1991. Such longevity would not be possible under the proposed metro charter.

The catch: If Wharton were to run for metro mayor in 2014, it would be his fourth time around, counting two terms as county mayor and one term as city mayor. Not exactly new blood.

Nonpartisan elections. Unless forbidden by state law, all elected metro officials would run in nonpartisan elections. No more Republican or Democratic primaries for clerical offices or positions such as trustee or property assessor.

The catch: Shelby County Republicans did extremely well in down-ballot races in last week's election and see local Democrats as wounded. In their view, what's not to like?

Other elected offices that would go away. There is exactly one — city court clerk. All other elected offices remain, although some of their duties and titles are redefined.

The catch: Why bother?

Tax rates. There is a three-year cap on property taxes, meaning taxes can't be raised during that period but could be cut. Memphis has the highest combined city and county property tax rate ($7.21) in the state of Tennessee. Germantown's rate is $5.48 and Nashville's is $4.13.

Memphis would become "the urban services district" under consolidation. The suburbs outside of Memphis would be in the "general services district." The districts would have different tax rates.

The catch: "No city taxes" has been a suburban rallying cry and real estate sales pitch for decades. In southeastern Shelby County, there are neighboring subdivisions where the tax rate varies from $4.06 to $7.21 even though they use the same streets, stores, sewers, and schools.

It could be 2017 or later before anyone gets a tax cut or increase. For Memphis residents who already feel overtaxed, the waiting period may be too long; for suburban municipalities, the wait can't be long enough. There is a widely held feeling that suburbanites would be required to pay more in taxes to prop up Memphis.

Police. The Memphis Police Department would become the sole law enforcement agency for all of Shelby County. The sheriff's duties would be limited to running the jail and corrections center.

The catch: The sheriff's department has approximately 2,000 employees. About 1,000 work in the jail or in jail support. That leaves 1,000 jobs in limbo.

Ethics. Quoting from the charter: "The code of ethics is hereby established and requires all employees, appointed and elected officials ... to conduct themselves in a manner that promotes public trust and confidence in the metropolitan government." The charter sets up a seven-member ethics commission and a head honcho.

The catch: Excellent words, but no one went down in Operation Tennessee Waltz for failure to understand the ethics code. Rogues will be rogues.

Pensions. The city and county retirement "shall continue unimpaired for the duration provided in such plans and shall be an obligation and liability of the metropolitan government."

The catch: Debt hawks won't like this.

MLGW. Any proposed sale of Memphis Light, Gas & Water or any of its divisions can't happen without voter approval in a referendum.

The catch: This section recognizes the firestorm after former Mayor Herenton explored selling the utility company 12 years ago.

Suburban independence and boundaries. The annexation areas of Collierville, Germantown, and other suburban municipalities stay in place. And Memphis cannot annex new areas without approval of a majority of voters in the target area. That's new.

The catch: Memphis will continue to suffer from a declining tax base as residents and businesses move to other locations in Shelby County.

What happens between now and November 2nd? The 80-day campaign. Former Memphis city councilman Jack Sammons will lead it, with help from Wharton, Rebuild Government, and the business community.

What are the chances? When Louisville voted to consolidate in 2000, every living city and county mayor supported the change, as did the daily newspaper and most business leaders.

The mayors and former mayors of Memphis and Shelby County — Wharton, Luttrell, Ford, Herenton, Jim Rout, Bill Morris, Roy Nixon, Dick Hackett, Myron Lowery — are not united. Hackett and Rout are openly skeptical. Luttrell is opposed.

And Louisville had one vote. We will have two.

Two cities often mentioned as examples of successful consolidation are Nashville and Indianapolis. But they consolidated 40 to 50 years ago and their demographics were and are different from Memphis and Shelby County.

Voters respond to carrots and sticks and pocketbook issues. The carrots in the proposed charter are one voice for economic development and a promise of more efficient, ethical, and effective government at some time in the distant future. Without an unprecedented campaign led by the key CEOs in Memphis Tomorrow, this is a long shot.

If consolidation fails, there will be no more "wait and see." City and county governments will have no excuse not to take action independently to cooperate, clean house, cut budgets and jobs, or face the consequences.

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