Friday, August 05, 2005

Maybe Term Limits Should Be Aimed At Public Boards and Commission

If term limits are an idea whose time has come, perhaps a good place to start would be the members of the more than 150 public boards in Memphis and Shelby County.

Media attention regarding terms limits concentrates on elected officials, particularly those in Shelby County Government who were limited to eight years in office by a public referendum about 12 years ago that delivered a resounding mandate. The argument for term limits is that no one should become entrenched because they stifle new leadership, and that cities benefit from new ideas and new energy for the mayor and board of commissioners.

Meanwhile, the members of most boards turn over about as frequently as the U.S. Supreme Court justices. There are members of city boards who pre-date Mayor Herenton, and county boards are filled with people who have been there through multiple mayors. For example, the head of the Agricenter Commission has not changed since it was created 24 years ago, back when Mayor Morris was in only the third year of his 16 years in office, before Jim Rout’s eight years in office and before Mayor Wharton’s three years.

Even the most highly-coveted boards, like the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority and Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division board, sometimes have the feel of an exclusive club, where members are appointed and reappointed until they simply get tired of serving. Sometimes it feels some members of the Airport Authority were appointed in the days of the bi-plane.

Shelby County Government’s policy is that even when a board member’s term ends, that person continues to serve until a replacement is appointed. There are some people whose terms have been expired for a decade before another appointment was made. The policy had the added benefit of silencing the board of commissioners when it attempted to enforce the terms for boards. No action was taken by the administration, so the members remained in place, because no replacement had been named.

City of Memphis Government has been more dutiful in keeping its boards current, but it has the same tendency for people to serve extended periods. While the willingness of any citizen to serve on a board is admirable, the injection of new blood is vital to the basic concept of democracy. In the end, the ultimate goal of boards is intended to engage more citizens in the business of their government, but this doesn’t happen when membership stagnates.

Also, there is the often overlooked problem caused by the coziness that comes to exist between the boards – designed to serve as a check and balance – and the services they are appointed to direct. An example is the Agricenter Commission and Agricenter International, where the public board members cede authority to the private nonprofit board that they are supposed to be monitoring. As a result, Agricenter International, despite having 1,000 acres of public land under its control, has never been called on by the Agricenter Commission to justify the abandonment of its founding mission or to justify why it’s in the public best interest for this valuable real estate to be controlled by the organization.

Various public boards exert significant influence over certain government policies and services, and at the least, it’s time for all membership to be brought current and for broader representation, especially of young adults and women, to be made a priority

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