CITY BEAT: Because It's There 

Many friends, neighbors, and strangers have asked me recently why I'm running for the Memphis Charter Commission. Actually, that's a lie, but if you're getting into politics you have to start somewhere.

The truth is, like 32 other people, one reason I'm running for the charter commission is because it's there.

It's there, in case you weren't paying attention, because organizers obtained more than 10,485 signatures on petitions in 2004. Contrary to popular belief and some newspaper stories, there was no public referendum. The charter commission was created by petition signatures of 2.5 percent of the registered voters in Memphis -- the first and only time that has been done.

At any rate, the charterists said they gathered thousands more signatures than they needed. I don't doubt it. We live in a time of unprecedented ability to identify and organize communities of football fans, ping-pong players, or fed-up citizens thanks to the Internet. Gathering valid signatures still involves knocking on doors and standing on street corners because electronic signatures don't count, at least not yet. But spreading the word and building the base are easier than they were in 1966 or 1996.

We also live in a time of unprecedented apathy when it comes to voting in local elections. In 1991, 248,093 people voted in the Memphis election for mayor and City Council. In 2003, only 104,852 people voted in the city election.

The city charter doesn't say anything about petitioning for a charter review commission. The guidance comes from the Tennessee Constitution, which says a charter commission can be created by petition of at least 10 percent of those voting in the most recent general municipal election. In 2004, that meant 10,485 signatures.

By coincidence or design, charter commission organizers got cranking when the magic number was the lowest it had been in modern history. If petition organizers had had their way, charter commission members would have been chosen in December 2004 in conjunction with a District 7 Memphis school-board runoff election that drew a turnout of less than 5 percent.

The turnout, of course, might have been higher with charter commission candidates on the ballot. But the question was moot. The election commission reopened the qualifying process and bumped the election back nearly two years to August 3rd.

Meanwhile, another petition drive was brewing to recall Mayor Willie Herenton. The charter says a recall election requires petition signatures of at least 10 percent of the voters in the last mayoral election. (In a municipal election, some voters don't vote for mayor, so the numbers are slightly different.) But before the petition drive started, city attorney Sara Hall said the state constitution trumps the city charter as to recall requirements. The constitutional standard is 15 percent of the registered voters in the city, which translates to something like 64,000 signatures. For whatever reasons (the section was written in 1953), the constitution imposes a higher standard for removing someone from elected office than it does for a charter or amendment.

The August election figures to draw a big turnout because the ballot is jammed with candidates for Congress, governor, state legislature, county offices, and judgeships. Oddly enough, the trigger for the charter commission election is the Memphis City Council seat vacated by Janet Hooks, the lone city office on the ballot.

The election of charter commission members may still be confusing. For one thing, voters haven't done it before. Candidates run by district but are elected at large -- in other words, you can vote for seven of them. What the commission will do or even discuss -- term limits, pensions, the balance of powers, MLGW, whatever -- won't be known until the members are chosen. Any recommendations must pass legal muster and be approved by voters in a future election.

For a highly readable history of the charter and how it came to be, go to the library and get David M. Tucker's book, Memphis Since Crump: Bossism, Blacks, and Civic Reformers 1954-1968.

My name is John Branston and I approved this message and didn't even have to pay for it. And if you see me pounding in signs outside the election commission, please hit me with a hammer.

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