It looked for a while that the issue of redistricting, which has bedeviled several other jurisdictions in the wake of the 2010 census, would be a piece of cake for the Shelby County Commission.
This was unlike, say, the case with the City Council, whose district map for this year's municipal election was provided relatively late in the game by council attorney Allan Wade, after private consultation with his members. Several potential council candidates were disgruntled, both by the wait and by the attendant secrecy. By contrast, the commission's alternatives were prepared by the office of planning and development (OPD), and preliminary discussion was held in public sessions.
Moreover, there was very little disagreement over the general aims of the commission reapportionment. Everybody acknowledged that representation in the outer county, where population has grown at a faster rate than in Memphis itself, should be enhanced. Everybody, too, was intent upon seeing that African Americans, now a majority in Shelby County at large, got their proper representation in line with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And there was general satisfaction with the outlines of OPD's Scenario 1, which, in its several basic permutations, remained essentially the same — offering six two-member districts plus one single-member district, to reach thereby the requisite charter allotment of 13 members.
Oh, there were adjustments to make. Commissioner Mike Ritz, a Germantown resident who for the past several years has represented a largely Memphis-based district, made a persuasive case for hewing closer to municipal lines. The map was accordingly rearranged with that idea in mind. Hence a Scenario 1-E, incorporating that and some other relatively modest changes, that was overwhelmingly approved by the commission on first reading Monday.
So why is District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy so adamant in his continued opposition? It certainly isn't because he's directly affected. Mulroy, like several other commissioners in the class of 2006 (including some firm supporters of Scenario 1-E), is term-limited and can't run again. His objection is based primarily on a conviction that multi-member districts, by increasing the geographic area a commissioner must serve, amount to a form of incumbency protection — making it more difficult for a newcomer to make his mark on a district already served by an incumbent (and more difficult for either to serve post-election).
So far, Mulroy, an advocate of OPD's Scenario 2, which offers 13 single-member districts, has convinced only James Harvey of his point of view, though Commissioner Justin Ford was brought to abstain on Monday. Most commissioners still like Scenario 1-E and seem convinced that commissioners and constituents alike can profit from having alternative representation within a given district. Mulroy, however, makes much of a statement made in debate by commission chairman Sidney Chism, a term-limited Scenario 1-E supporter, to the effect that unseating an incumbent should not be made easier. That's a gotcha moment that Mulroy seems disinclined to let go of.
In any case, there would seem to be room for some enlightening further debate on the subject before a final version is approved on a required third reading by December 31st.
Which leads me to put on my Dr. Phil face and say what has to be said: It's time for Memphis and Shelby County to start seeing other people. We've tried for years to patch things up, to come to some sort of mutual understanding, but we need to admit that we have irreconcilable differences. We don't even know each other any more ...