Charter Course 

On one end of a long conference table in City Hall sit three older, white men. They are dressed in suits and each of them has gray hair. Across from them are six middle-aged people: two black men, three black women, and one white woman.

Such was the scene at the first meeting of the new Memphis Charter Commission last week, providing perhaps a visual clue to how much Memphis has changed since the 1960s.

The commission, initiated by a group calling themselves Concerned Citizens of Memphis, will review the city's charter and recommend changes much as a similar commission did 40 years ago. And the seven-member board, including councilman Myron Lowery, former radio personality Janis Fullilove, and former Memphis City Schools board member Willie Brooks, had invited members of the original Charter Commission to explain how Memphis changed from a five-seat city commission to the 13-member City Council Memphis uses today.

"We were trying for a strong mayor/council form of government. Before, five commissioners were elected at-large," said Judge Harry Wellford. But that system put minority and female leaders at a disadvantage. "Only one group of people -- white men -- had been elected. ... Many of us felt we needed to have district representation."

The five-member City Commission was enacted in 1909 and ran city government until 1968. At that time, the original Charter Commission's changes -- proposed and accepted two years earlier -- were put into effect.

"We discussed how much the City Council should be paid and whether it should be a part-time job or a full-time job," said Lewis Donaldson, the only living commission member to also sit on the council. They determined the first council members would get paid $6,000 a year to prevent career politicians from holding the seats.

"We decided the council should be a citizens' council. A salary of $6,000 required you to have another job," he said.

Donaldson, Wellford, and Tommy Powell (the third "old" Charter Commission member at the meeting) said they thought the new commission should focus on pensions, a living wage, term limits, and whether the council should have authority on contracts over a certain amount of money.

The mayor is the sole contractual authority for the city, but the council sets the budget. Hypothetically, the mayor should not contract above the amount specified in the budget.

City attorney Sara Hall also addressed the commission, presenting them with background on what the document is and how it functions. She also explained that ambiguities such as the mayor and council's joint authority over city funds can be viewed as a protection against government corruption.

"There are gray areas in the charter," said Hall. "Everyone has their own opinion whether you should avoid gray areas or keep them in the charter. ... [Longtime city attorney] Dorothy [Osradker] felt they were part of the whole political process."

For instance, the mayor appoints his division directors. But their appointment -- and their termination -- has to be approved by the council, so the mayor cannot simply choose anyone he likes or control them by threatening their job.

"By practical matter," people in those director positions "usually resign," said Hall, "but it's an anti-corruption thing."

In the coming weeks, the Charter Commission will continue to hear from other members of the previous commission, but the meeting seemed like a good start. After some initial confusion, Wellford explained that the commission should look at governance structure, such as term limits, rather than trying to set policy, which is the City Council's job.

"None of us was able to foresee all the things that would happen," said Wellford, "and neither will you."

But perhaps most interesting at this stage in the commission is simply the make-up. When the original Charter Commission began meeting, an African American couldn't get elected in an at-large race. But most of the newest charter commissioners did just that. Even though they ran by City Council district, voters chose one from each district.

It could be the result of a simple population shift, a 180-degree change in the 40 years since the last Charter Commission. And if that's the case, maybe we're just as stuck on color as we were then. I don't think anyone would argue Memphis is where it needs to be in terms of race and equality. But I hope some progress has been made.

I guess the question we should be asking ourselves is: Have we changed our minds -- or just our demographics?

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