VIEWPOINT: Rethinking Power 

City charters, old and new, may give the council more leeway, says new member.

On January 1, 2008, nine rookies and four veterans will be sworn in as Memphis City Council members. It is the largest number of first-termers since the original council in 1968.

Since the elections, the nine of us have been undergoing an extensive educational process on the substance of city government and the procedure of the council. Fulfilling our campaign promises will be more difficult than making them and depends on relationships with council members and the administration and the merits of our positions.

The most interesting area of my education has been the opportunity to review the city charter. Among the things I - and we - have learned: The 1966 Home Rule Amendment changed much of the 1930's-era charter, but many of the articles of the older charter are still in effect because the newer charter did not revoke them.

Enter Dr. Stephen Wirls, a Rhodes College professor who has studied the charters exhaustively and led our review of them. Dr. Wirls disputed the widespread public understanding that the charters provide for a "strong Mayor" form of government. On the contrary, he opined that, in some ways, the Home Rule Amendment Charter ("HRA") gives more power to the Council than the U.S. Constitution gives to Congress.

The HRA provides that the Mayor "shall be responsible to the Council for the administration of all units of the City government under his jurisdiction and for carrying out policies adopted by the Council." The Council "shall have full power [my italics], as now provided, to pass, for the government of the City, any ordinance not in conflict with the Constitution or laws of the United States, or the State of Tennessee, within the specific limitations set forth herein below...."

Further, the Council has approval power of the appointment and removal of division directors, the President of MLG&W, and members of all boards and commissions. The Council has Athe right...to approve and adopt all budgets."

Of special interest: :[T]he Council shall be vested with all other powers of the City not specifically vested in some other officer or officers of the City." This catch-all provision appears to give the Council a great deal of unexpected authority. (One problem: no one on hand for the orientation could identify any "powers of the City not specifically vested" in some other office.)

Just think of the implications of the first proviso quoted above: The Mayor shall be responsible for carrying out policies adopted by the Council. On the face of things, it would appear that the Council could adopt "policies" and the Mayor would have to follow them.

Ay, but there's a rub. "The Council shall not, however, exercise executive or administrative powers nor interfere in the operation of the administrative divisions." On one hand, the HRA gives the Council the power to set "policies," but on the other hand, the charter prohibits intrusion into "executive or administrative powers."

The HRA also gives the Mayor the power to contract and prohibits council members from "suggesting or promoting the making of particular...contracts with any specific organization."

It is not hard to imagine that a Council's definition of a "policy" interfering with a Mayor's definition of an "administrative power." At the orientation, we discussed a scenario whereby the Council might pass an ordinance mandating that every public school have a police officer assigned to it full-time. Dr. Wirls opined that the Council had such power, but warned that a Mayor could dispute it as an intrusion on administrative decision making.

Many issues may fit into this grey area, and both sides would appear to have a good faith basis for their respective positions. As one of our facilitators suggested, conflict is not so bad if it involves a serious and respectful disagreement as to public policy.

However, such conflict, and the resulting court battle, should be avoided if possible with the council and the administration working together. The mayor and each member of his administration with whom I have met has expressed the desire to work with the new council.

At this early stage, I do not have an opinion as to the correct interpretation of the charter, but I am optimistic that we can avoid the conflict and come together for the betterment of our city.

(Jim Strickland, a lawyer and former Democratic chairman, will represent the city's 5th District.)

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
    • GOP’s Lee Puts His Hat In

      The 2018 gubernatorial field expands, with more likely on the way.
    • Two Takes

      Corker and Herenton try to get their messages across to different audiences.
    • District 95 Showdown

      Ten aspirants for the state House seat vacated by Mark Lovell turn up for a TNA forum.

Blogs

News Blog

Live at the Garden guests prepare to party

News Blog

Bike Lanes and Plazas to Pop Up Downtown

Intermission Impossible

Nuremberg Revisited: An Indie Theater Company Does its Homework

Beyond the Arc

Game 6: Spurs 103, Grizzlies 96: The End

News Blog

Contemporary Media Inc. Hires Michael Donahue

News Blog

Circuit on Street Safety Kicks Off

Fly On The Wall Blog

Memphis is Ugly. Cleveland Still Uglier, According to BS List

ADVERTISEMENT

More by Jim Strickland

  • The Big Three

    To stem an outflow of residents, the Memphis City Council must focus on crime, schools, and taxes.
    • Apr 25, 2013
  • Abusing Liberty

    The photo-ID law and the effort to subpoena the names of online commenters are clear examples.
    • Aug 9, 2012
  • The City's Way Out

    Getting from here to there on the budget requires clear thought and sacrifice.
    • Jul 1, 2010
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • The Buddy System

    Harris and Kelsey hope to effect a good public outcome on the TVA/aquifer issue.
    • Feb 2, 2017
  • Filling the Space

    For all the in-fighting, we’re all looking for the same thing, and sometimes we can realize it.
    • Jul 14, 2016
  • Jill Stein in Memphis

    An impressive turnout for Green Party presidential nominee at Amurica.
    • Oct 6, 2016
ADVERTISEMENT
© 1996-2017

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation