The MLGW Groundhog 

click to enlarge groundhog-day.jpg

The issue of county participation on the board of the city-owned Memphis Light, Gas & Water is, for the time being, moot. Or as Shelby County Commissioner Heidi Shafer, one of the supporters of the now lapsed proposal, puts it, it's a Groundhog Day matter that will surface again when the political weather changes.

The weather wasn't right on the commission when Commissioner Terry Roland raised the issue of a county member on the MLGW board in an effort to include it on the commission's official wish list to present to the Tennessee General Assembly, now in session. 

It became a city vs. county controversy, with commissioners representing inner-city districts, like Reginald Milton, defending the right of Memphis, which owns the giant utility, to operate it strictly according to the terms of its current charter, which limits direct participation in the administration of MLGW to a five-member board appointed by the mayor of Memphis. The board oversees a management corps that handles the utility's various operations.

Milton and other Memphis members of the commission objected to Roland's proposal for county participation because they saw the idea, in Milton's words, as "a slippery slope," something which could lead to further demands for direct participation from each of the county's six separate suburban municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Millington, Arlington, Lakeland, and Bartlett.

The Roland proposal met with resistance also from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and with some concern from the county administration of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

Given that MLGW is owned and operated by the city and is governed by a charter that specifically limits the manner of its administration, the kind of change sought by Roland and his allies would unquestionably transform the nature of MLGW governance. Roland invokes the vintage term "taxation without representation" to describe the voiceless nature of county representatives who pay the fees and submit to MLGW policies without having input into either.

One matter that exacerbates the issue is city council member Patrice Robinson's proposal that customers' bills be rounded off to the nearest dollar, with the additional revenues, estimated at $2.5 million annually, going to help the city's low-income residents weatherize their homes. Roland cites the proposal — which has been amended to allow county residents to decline the rounding-off on their bills — as the very kind of matter that county customers should have a direct voice in. There may be equivalent needs among disadvantaged county residents, he and others note.

Though his effort to put the commission on record as lobbying for a change has failed, Roland says that state Senator Mark Norris and state Representative Ron Lollar (R-Bartlett) are even now looking into possible legislative remedies. And he himself intends to make an appeal for change to the Tennessee Regulatory Authority. One way or another, this groundhog is an issue that hasn't gone away.

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