A Decent Proposal? 

The Metro Charter Commission is drafting a plan for a new consolidated government, but will voters say "I do"?

Darrell Cobbins and Brian Stephens at Rebuild Government in East Memphis

Justin Fox Burks

Darrell Cobbins and Brian Stephens at Rebuild Government in East Memphis

On a recent Saturday evening, in a quiet Bartlett subdivision with streets named after flowers and lots for sale, about 10 people gathered to talk about consolidation. The meeting, hosted by Rebuild Government, is one of hundreds happening around the county this year.

"Mostly we want to find out what you like and what you don't like about government," Rebuild Government executive director Brian Stephens tells the group. "I'm not trying to suggest a metropolitan government is the only way to change course."

After 10 years of informal talks, consolidation is back on the table. Last fall, the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission voted to create the Memphis and Shelby County Metropolitan Government Charter Commission.

State law allows the largest city in a county to merge with that county. The metro charter commission is charged with writing what could become a new constitution for the consolidated government. A referendum to vote on the document — as yet unwritten — is set for November 2nd.

After Julie Ellis graduated from the University of Florida law school, she was hired at the Jacksonville general counsel's office, working with the city, the local port authority, and the local transportation authority.

Jacksonville consolidated with Duval County in 1968. Richard Mullaney, general counsel for the city of Jacksonville, credits the merger with downtown revitalization, getting an NFL team, and improving the city's self-esteem. Ellis feels similarly.

"I didn't understand it was such an advantage at the time," Ellis says. "When I moved to Memphis, I was amazed to find two of everything."

After getting a job at FedEx, where she worked for more than 17 years, Ellis moved to Germantown and then to the city of Memphis. But she spent most of her time traveling to places such as Washington, D.C., Geneva, Switzerland, and Montreal, Canada.

She says she kept up with the news but didn't keep a close watch on the issues. When she heard about others' frustrations, however, she always brought up the idea of consolidation. "I guess word got back to Mayor Wharton," she says.

Now at Butler Snow law firm, Ellis was appointed chair of the metro charter commission. The commission — a 15-member entity whose members include Memphis city councilman Jim Strickland, former Collierville mayor Linda Kerley, Millington mayor Richard Hodges, and Memphis Small Business Chamber of Commerce head Andre Fowlkes — has heard from speakers such as Mullaney and former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith. (See "Why Is It So Hard To Reform Government," page 21.)

With joint funding from the city and county, the group is charged with writing a new charter for a metro government, a task Ellis calls "the elephant." The document is to be completed by August 10th, and it will take a majority of both city and county voters for it to pass.

As the metro charter commission moves from civics lesson to forming a civil union, it is still trying to bring in a representative from Louisville. That city consolidated with Jefferson County in 2003 and was the first large-scale consolidation in the country in 30 years.

"I believe in the form of government," Ellis says. "There has not been one consolidation in this country that has failed. They are successes. They are successful cities."

Ellis believes the merger would eliminate an adversarial relationship between the city and its suburbs, help economic development, and foster accountability.

Though the metro charter commission will begin hearing recommendations from its task forces this month, the commission is continually seeking community input. But with decades of hypothetical debate behind them, many people in Memphis and Shelby County don't seem to realize that consolidation isn't a theoretical discussion anymore.

Still, since the charter and the government start from blank slates, Ellis urges citizens to have an open mind.

"People from the suburbs say, I don't want it if it raises taxes and makes me have to get my car inspected. What if it does neither of those but gives you a representative government you don't have now?" Ellis says. "I think everyone should be willing to look at what's put in front of them August 10th and ask, Could this be a better structure for our whole region?"

Last year, Shelby County Commission chair Deidre Malone, then-Memphis City Council chair Myron Lowery, and Memphis mayor A C Wharton began hosting a listening tour to discuss the possibility of consolidation.

The first meeting was held in Cordova.

"Mayor Wharton came to talk to me about helping with a listening tour," says Stephens, a Cordova resident and the founder of the Cordova Leadership Council. "The first thing I said was, 'No, sir, I won't touch consolidation. I have no desire to talk about that subject.'"

Stephens previously led two successful grassroots efforts: one against a proposed Walmart; the other to curtail sexually oriented businesses. (See "Personal Stakes," this page.)

After talking to the mayor, he began researching other cities and decided he could at least host a meeting of the listening tour.

"The amount of fear on the topic was overwhelming," Stephens says. "People were so scared of even discussing it that they weren't even exploring any model that could be better."

After the metro charter commission was formed, Stephens reached out to his friend Darrell Cobbins, one of the founders of the political action committee New Path and the community group MPACT Memphis, about soliciting public opinions about the new form of government.

"At minimum," Stephens says, "if we're going to do this, let's do it right and have whatever is prepared be from the people, from public involvement and public input."

Cobbins and Stephens approached a variety of community members, including school board member Tomeka Hart, Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones, and Memphis Tomorrow president Blair Taylor, to be a co-chair of what would become Rebuild Government.

Instead of holding town hall meetings, the group decided the best way to involve the public was to host small groups in private homes, where people could ask questions and talk about their concerns. At the end of each meeting, citizens fill out comment cards with suggestions for the metro charter commission and any questions they want answered. Rebuild Government then submits all the comments to the commission.

"My gifts lie more in getting people engaged," Stephens says. He hasn't chosen a side in the debate. "In August, everyone has to look at this charter and decide if they will be for it or against it," he says, "and that includes Brian Stephens."

How Rebuild Government's 29 co-chairs react to the commission's document will determine the path the group takes after August, Stephens says.

At the same time, Stephens believes that Memphis and Shelby County have problems that need to be addressed.

"People say: Government's a nightmare; it's a train wreck, but don't change it," Stephens says. "If you agree that what we've got is great, then you're probably not going to waste time talking about this, but I've never found anyone who says that."

Traditionally, consolidation has been one of the area's most controversial issues, popping up every few years to inspire fear or hope.

Memphis City Council member Wanda Halbert was appointed to a consolidation task force in 2005 under then-Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.

The group met a few times but fizzled out after people decided that anything attached to Herenton would never come to fruition.

"I felt even then that I could never hear the pros and cons of consolidation," Halbert says. "We would hear from those strongly for it or against it."

Halbert says she still doesn't have a position on consolidation but became suspicious of the advocacy.

"They told us consolidation would save us money, and then reports came out saying no, it wouldn't," Halbert says. "That now puts the question in my mind: What's the real purpose of consolidation?"

Though Rebuild Government calls itself "a group of concerned citizens" and does not purport to be either for or against consolidation, some disagree, asking why a group would collect public input for something they have no desire to see accomplished?

One of those questioning is Tom Guleff. A self-described politico, Guleff recently started Save Shelby County with Ron Williams as a counter-group to Rebuild Government.

"It appeared to me that there was only one side of the argument, and that was Rebuild Government," Williams says. "The only information I could find were all of the reasons why Shelby County should consolidate. ... Somebody had to present the other side of the story."

Williams lives in unincorporated Shelby County; Guleff lives in Midtown. Williams is a Democrat; Guleff is a Republican. But the two agree that consolidation won't solve anything.

"Consolidation won't save any money," Guleff says. "I tracked the argument closely. Everyone was excited when they tried to sell it on cost savings. ... Now they're trying to sell it on government efficiency."

"The only reason for consolidation would be to improve delivery of services," Williams says. "Memphis has shown it can't do that with the annexation of areas outside Memphis. They don't have streetlights, sidewalks, or trash pickup."

They also point to the fact that the city recently enacted its own charter commission. The result was several changes to the Memphis city charter, voted on and approved by city residents in 2008.

"We have a new administration. We're finally at a point where there's a ray of hope, and all of a sudden, we're going to focus on consolidation," Guleff says. "Either you're buying time or wasting time, when we ought to be doing the hard work that has not been done."

Williams and Guleff also are suspicious of who or what is driving the consolidation effort. They've questioned who is funding Rebuild Government, and the group says it will put a list of citizen and corporate donors on its website in the near future.

"The basic question," Williams says, "is why is consolidation the path to choose, given so many alternatives that could be taken to fix the problems of Shelby County and Memphis. Crime, poverty, high taxes — we don't believe consolidation will fix any of that."

Save Shelby County argues that the city could fix these things by implementing a 2007 study by the consulting firm Deloitte and making the city government more efficient without merging it with the county's.

They also think that business interests could be served through a combined metro council that would develop a regional plan without combining any of the local governments.

"Their idea is to take what you have and throw it all away," Williams says. "Starting over is a high-risk approach."

Though the commission is still working on the charter document, some things have been decided.

Early on, the metro charter commission voted to omit the Memphis City and Shelby County schools from any consolidation plan. Germantown, Bartlett, Millington, Collierville, Arlington, and Lakeland also will remain independent municipalities and provide services for their citizens.

Under consolidation, the city of Memphis would lose its annexation areas, but the suburban cities likely will keep theirs. Ellis says the commission will discuss those reserve areas at its meeting this week. "We want to honor their future plans," she says.

"Many things are still undecided, however, and both sides are looking for citizen involvement.

"We do a lot of reading the paper and complaining," Cobbins says. "Here's an opportunity to take some action and play a role in recasting the look of government."

Both Cobbins and Ellis stress that the decision isn't about what the community wants to see right now but what it wants for the future.

"The last time we had this opportunity to reshape government was in 1971, and I wasn't even born then," Cobbins says. "Today I'm a father and a business owner. I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Why Is It So Hard To Reform Government?

- by John Branston

Where to begin? How about with two cities often mentioned as role models for consolidation: Louisville and Indianapolis?

The following comments are from key people in those cities whom I interviewed about consolidation.

Taxes: "Then why would anyone vote for it?" said former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith when I explained the discrepancy between property taxes paid by city and county residents and the likely increase in the taxes of county residents. "Clarity on the tax issue is really important," Goldsmith said.

Truth in advertising: "The antis can say anything. We had to tell the truth," said Ed Glasscock, a Louisville attorney who was one of the leaders of the consolidation drive there.

Schools: It is off the table in the Memphis consolidation movement. And it was not an issue in Louisville or Indianapolis either. Voters in Louisville and Jefferson County approved the merger in 2000 by a 54-46 margin after two failed votes in the 1980s. The public school systems, both majority-white, merged in 1975. Indianapolis and Marion County merged in 1970 but kept separate school systems.

Clout: "We spoke with one voice," said Glasscock of the Louisville consolidation group, which included the business community, every living mayor and county executive, and state and federal politicians. Backers spent $1.6 million. "With all due respect, it can't be one person," Glasscock said.

Better services: Goldsmith said county residents outside Indianapolis benefited from better services after consolidation. But Memphis is a low-density city of more than 300 square miles, and suburbs are as well or better served than Memphis.

One voice: On most big issues for the past 25 years — St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, FedExForum, the Pyramid, the NFL drive, tax incentives for business — the city and county mayors have spoken with one voice. The suburban mayors are another matter.

Race: Louisville, before consolidation, had a population of about 250,000, which was 63 percent white and 33 percent black. After consolidation, metro Louisville's population was 693,000 and 77 percent white and 19 percent black. White suburbanites don't merge with black urbanites unless the numbers are in their favor.

Personal Stakes

Political careers are on the line in the forthcoming battle over consolidation.

- by Jackson Baker

Brian Stephens, the co-chairman of Rebuild Government, an ostensibly neutral but widely considered stalking-horse organization for consolidation, and Tom Guleff, who founded Save Shelby County to oppose the merger of city and county governments, have a few things in common.

Both are amiable, gregarious sorts, easygoing on the surface. Both also are certifiable alpha males, Army veterans who served in elite units — Guleff as a Ranger and Stephens in airborne Special Services.

Both are politically ambitious and have run for major public office, thus far unsuccessfully, though Stephens was named last year by his fellow Republicans to be one of their three representatives on the Shelby County Election Commission. He had previously run unsuccessfully for the Memphis City Council, narrowly losing in 2007 to veteran Bill Boyd for the seat in District 2, a quasi-suburban area focused on Cordova.

Guleff ran for Congress in the 9th District in 2006, finishing a distant second to Mark White in the Republican primary. Earlier this year, Guleff announced a candidacy for Shelby County mayor but dropped out before the filing deadline when Sheriff Mark Luttrell, a sure winner in the GOP primary, declared for the office.

Both Stephens and Guleff are Republicans though of the decidedly heterodox variety. Stephens had ample support from Democratic activists in his near-miss against Boyd and on the Election Commission has served notice he will go his own way.

Guleff, too, is well known for his connections across partisan lines. During his short-lived mayoral candidacy, a majority of the well-wishers who posted online comments to a Flyer story about his proposed race were known Democrats.

It was therefore no great stretch for either Stephens or Guleff to partner up with Democratic opposite numbers: Stephens with Darrell Cobbins, his Rebuild Government co-chair, and Guleff with Save Shelby County co-founder Ron Williams, a hard-core member of the Germantown Democrats. But there the political pathways diverge. Though Stephens adamantly insists his role is that of a facilitator of discussion, he acknowledges being urged to form Rebuild Government by Memphis mayor A C Wharton, the leading local advocate of consolidation.

Though his conservative and Republican credentials are in good order, Stephens' career path is clearly aimed toward the nonpartisan middle of the road, in the direction of another citywide race or for a position in a newly consolidated government.

Guleff's dynamic works in the opposite direction. His cross-partisan relationships, serio-comic "Joe Citizen" blog, and Midtown residence all help anchor him in the community at large, but his political talking points are those of the largely suburban GOP rank and file. As his previous political bids would indicate, his trajectory is more likely that of a partisan exemplar though by no means a zealot.

Neither Stephens nor Guleff has yet quite reached the proximate political gravity to make either the ultimate mover and shaker he aspires to be. But, depending on how the consolidation battle develops, either — or both — could emerge quite formidably indeed in the politics of the future.

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