CITY BEAT: A Century of Change 

“Reinventing” city government has been marked by false starts, stability, and surprises.

Tinkering with city government is not new, and the results are not always the ones that were intended.

As G. Wayne Dowdy explains in his new book Mayor Crump Don't Like It: Machine Politics in Memphis, the city charter was amended in 1905 to limit the power of the mayor and increase the size of the City Council. Four years later, at the urging of a young fire and police commissioner named E.H. Crump, the charter was revised once again. Crump was elected mayor later that year by 79 votes in a disputed election, and he ruled the city as the political boss for the next 45 years.

Crump served only six years as mayor, but he found other ways to run things. The charter he pushed through was pretty much unchanged for 54 years.

Memphis voters approved the modern city charter in an election in 1963. It was adopted by the City Commission in 1966 and approved by voters in a referendum the same year. This created the modern Memphis City Council of 13 members. The first council took office in 1968. The current mixture of district and at-large positions was approved by voter referendum in 1996.

The minimum age to serve on the City Council is 23. The charter says council members must have been a resident voter for at least five years. The voting age is 18, hence 23 is the minimum age. The youngest Memphians elected to the City Council were current members Tom Marshall and Brent Taylor, both 27 years old when elected.

The minimum age to be mayor is 30, and at least five years as a resident of Memphis is required. And you can't owe any back taxes. The city mayor can serve as long as he or she wants to. Willie Herenton has held the job since 1991, which is a record. The Shelby County mayor is limited to two consecutive terms.

Pat Vander Schaaf served 28 years, the longest tenure of any council member. A member of the Ford family has served on the council since 1972, starting with John Ford and including James Ford, Joe Ford, and Edmund Ford.

The charter says, "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 1966 charter set the mayor's salary at $25,000 a year, starting in 1968. The current salary is $160,000. The salary for City Council members was set at $6,000 a year. It stayed there for 30 years. That was amended in 1995 and raised to $20,100 and later raised again to the current salary of $30,100. The amendment pegs the city council salary to the pay earned by members of the Shelby County Commission.

The 1966 charter provides for municipal runoff elections when no candidate gets a majority even though the mayor at the time, William Ingram, disapproved of the measure so strongly that he had his opposition written into the amendment.

The runoff provision kept J.O. Patterson Jr. from being the city's first black mayor in 1983. A federal judge overruled this section of the charter in 1991, and Willie Herenton was elected mayor that year with 49 percent of the vote. He was reelected in 1999 with 46 percent.

The charter of the Memphis City Schools Board of Education is part of the city charter. For practical purposes, so is the charter of Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, which was established by charter amendment in 1939 and redefined in 1980.

The charter includes amendments prohibiting busing for school integration (enacted in the wake of massive busing in the early Seventies), distribution of obscene material to juveniles (enacted by referendum in 1968, long before cable TV and the Internet), and allowing parimutuel betting (approved by referendum in 1987). Today Memphis has busing and obscenity, but the only legal gambling is the Tennessee Lottery.

The charter commission was created in 2004 by certified petition signatures of less than three percent of the registered voters in Memphis. The ballot in the August 3rd election is the longest in Shelby County history, taking up 15-23 computer screens.


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