Challenge the Candidates 

Voters should press those running for office to commit to true structural reform.

Though we're supposedly in the middle of a Memphis city election campaign, there've been precious few chances for voters to press candidates (especially incumbents) on where they stand. Our city government isn't as responsive to the will of the voters as it should be. Institutions like the police, and the Memphis City Council itself, are insulated from public opinion.

If you get a chance to press the candidates, emphasize issues of structural reform. Unlike some other (certainly important) campaign issues of funding priorities, these reforms would last a long time, well past the current budget cycle. Moreover, they'd make it easier for voters' other priorities to pass through the filter of self-interested incumbents.

click to enlarge Steve Mulroy
  • Steve Mulroy

Candidates should commit to structural reforms like the following. Seven council members could vote to make these happen, either by ordinance or through a charter amendment referendum.

Single-Member Districts. Memphis currently elects its city council using seven single-member districts plus two overlapping super districts. Each super district takes up half the city and elects a total of three members. So each Memphian has four different city council representatives. This system is unnecessarily confusing for the voter. The super districts, each with 192,000 voters, are simply too big and sprawling. Campaigning in them is so expensive, it unfairly disadvantages challengers and favors incumbents.

Last decade, the Shelby County Commission switched from a similar system to one with 13 small single-member districts. It has worked well. These manageable, neighborhood-based districts made it easier for first-time candidates to campaign and for constituents to reach their incumbents. If we did the same for Memphis, each district would have 30,000 voters rather than almost 200,000. Activists have been asking the council to do this for years, but the status quo favors incumbents, so nothing changes.

Implementing Ranked Choice Voting. Speaking of incumbents protecting their own ... Over the last two years, the council has repeatedly spent your tax dollars fighting an election reform approved by voters in referendums. In three referendums in two elections over the last 10 years, Memphians have said they want to try Ranked Choice Voting (RCV, also called Instant Runoff Voting), where voters can pick their first, second, and third choice. (There is another form of RCV, which would work well in the existing super districts, that is a viable alternative to the 13-single-member district system discussed above.) The council should stop using tax dollars to fight it in court and should adopt the technical policy guidance requested by the local election commission. They should be facilitating the people's will rather than fighting it.

Plain English Referendum Language. Voters have complained in recent years that ballot question language is too confusing. In the best of times, it's dense legalese; at worst — like last November's term limits and anti-RCV referenda — they are deliberately misleading.

Our charter should require that in any referendum, in addition to any required legalese operative language, there should be a statement in plain English explaining how the law stands now, how it would change if the referendum were approved, and specifically saying "A YES vote would ... [explain]" and "A NO vote would ... [explain]." This language should be written by a neutral party, like the city attorney or the League of Women Voters. Similar "plain English" ballot measure requirements have worked well in other cities and states.

CLERB Reform. The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), our civilian oversight body for police conduct, has no teeth. The current police director ignores its recommendations and refuses to cooperate with its requests for documents and witness testimony when it investigates allegations of police misconduct. Worse, the state legislature this year passed a law preventing local governments from giving such boards subpoena power, requiring instead that every request for investigative information be accomplished through a subpoena approved by a full vote of the entire city council. This cumbersome procedure is designed to frustrate CLERB investigations, especially given the council's disinterest in challenging the MPD.

City council adoptions of CLERB subpoena requests should be routine. Only a showing that a CLERB request for documents or testimony is severely burdensome, or harmful to a sensitive ongoing investigation, should overcome a strong presumption of city council cooperation. Candidates should pledge to act accordingly. There are other important structural reforms, but these will do for now. Memphis voters should insist that they'll vote for no city council candidate who fails to make his or her position clear on these issues. Steve Mulroy is a University of Memphis law professor and a former Shelby County Commissioner.

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