Friday, July 07, 2006

Charter Commission Needs Impartial, Fair and Reasonable Recommendations

If there’s ever been a question about our wonkish predilections, it has been answered. We’ve spent Friday night reading responses by Charter Commission candidates to questions from the Coalition for a Better Memphis.

We’ve been concerned lately that some of the candidates see their roles, which are already potent enough, as expansive vehicles to enact a set political agenda. For example, term limits seems to be the mantra by a slate of candidates and treated as a precondition for being “qualified” by an active base of voters, when in fact, the position often doesn’t seem to spring from any philosophical core, but from an intense hatred for the current city mayor.

If term limits are on the table for consideration, hopefully, it will not be driven by a specific personality, but in reaching a decision on whether term limits produce better, more dynamic leaders for city government. It’s easy to point to a mayor like Daley in Chicago, who, despite 17 years in office, continues to innovate and transform his city and wonder why term limits is so often seen as a magic bullet. Then, too, the county term limits requirement, passed in the wake of Mayor Bill Morris' 16 years in office, now will truncate Mayor A C Wharton's public service although he is unquestionably the most popular person to ever hold that office.

In other words, term limits deserves careful study and serious consideration, from all sides and all perspectives, so the Charter Commission can make a well-reasoned decision about whether it really produces better government or is just sloganeering.

Strong Mayor

There are other similarly important issues (such as the mayor's contracting authority, when the action of City Council becomes final and whether the mayor's signature should be required on resolutions, what the effect of a resolution really is, to name a few) that seem to be more a reaction to Mayor Herenton than an action to improve government. The 1966 charter amendment that established the mayor-council form of government ended a five-headed administrative structure (five commissioners, one of whom was mayor) that caused confusion and obscured accountability. Before any authority is taken away from the current mayor, we hope the Commission will remember that it will apply to city mayors for decades.

We are also puzzled by some candidates who are actually spending money on political signs to get elected. Some signs are even seen in Germantown, which may not be an error since a large reason that the Memphis Charter Commission exists is because of a Germantown citizen's persistence.

While we think the Charter Commission is a good idea (in fact, county government could use one itself although it's charter is so sound that the Memphis Charter Commission should start by reading it), we chafe enough over all those letter writers to The Commercial Appeal who heap criticism on all things Memphis, who find the embodiment of evil in its elected officials and who seem to despise anything found within the city limits, and then sign their letters as residents of Germantown, or Bartlett or Lakeland.

Impartial Jurors

So, for that reason, we need to thank the Germantown leader for the Charter Commission movement, and it would be a good time for him to bow out. While there is no question about his sincerity and his commitment, the slate of candidates endorsed by him and others puts an overlay of "politics as usual" on a process that should be a breath of fresh air.

While it’s probably easier to get elected by issuing opinions before you even hear the evidence, we’d prefer that Charter Commission members take the same oath as juries – to be fair, impartial and act solely on the facts. Serving on the Commission is a solemn duty (in the full import of the word) and candidates who are running because they think they can cure the ills of the city are off track.

We like the straightforward and honest approach taken by John Branston and Buckner Wellford, the former a highly-regarded local journalist and the latter a highly-regarded local lawyer. When asked one of the wide-ranging question by the Coalition for a Better Memphis that encourages an inflated view of the Charter Commission, Mr. Branston answered:

“I have opinions about these issues, but I don’t think they are relevant to the Charter Commission. Government consolidation and school system consolidation are decisions for elected officials, voters and fulltime administrations.”
Bosnia and Abortion

His answer conjured up the memory of a classic response by County Mayor Morris. During the years when abortion was being used as a litmus test in local races, he was asked his position, and replied: “I feel strongly about abortion. I feel strongly about the war in Bosnia, but as mayor of this county, I don’t have the power to do anything about either of them. That’s why I’m concentrating on the things I can actually do something about.”

When asked by the Coalition for a Better Memphis about serious new issues that the city government could face in the future, Mr. Wellford said that there are regional competitive concerns, net loss of population, limited options on annexation, terrorism and natural disaster, to name but a few.

“I used this example because I think it would be a mistake for the Charter Commission to think of itself as visionaries who need to anticipate future issues or trends in municipal government. I think it would make more sense to focus people’s attention on current issues: ethics in government, accountability and transparency in governing, a proper balance of power between the executive and legislative branches…”
In the end, the words of Mr. Branston seem definitive enough. In making the point that the Charter Commission should not be the vehicle to accomplish political goals or make public policy, he put it best: “The Charter Commission’s guiding rule should be the same as for doctors: First, Do No Harm. Then do as little as possible, do it as openly as possible and explain it as clearly as possible.”


We can only hope that it becomes the consensus opinion of the entire Charter Commission, because misunderstood, its impact on city government can be profound, either positively or negatively.

The Charter Commission was set in motion in 2004 when 30,000 voters – about three times more than required by law - signed a petition calling for its creation. The original Memphis Home Rule Charter was created with the advent of home rule government approved by voters in 1966 and the only changes since have been those amendments approved at referenda. (Before home rule, all amendments had to be approved by the state legislature rather than by Memphis voters.) The new Commission will have about two years to report back to the public, and its recommendations will be put on the city ballot for a vote.

As one savvy, long-time observer of Memphis politics suggests, if the Charter Commission really wants to engage the public in the process and allay any fears of special agendas, it should issue its recommendations as a series of free-standing amendments voted on by the public separately, rather than a single, "take it or leave it" document that would be voted up or down. That way, voters are given real power, allowed to approve some and disapprove others.

Without question, there should be no argument that the City Charter should be reviewed, in light of changes in technology, if nothing else. Overall, the responses of Charter Commission candidates are thoughtful and sincere, but their charge, first and foremost, should be “do no harm.”


mike said...

I agree that Commissioners coming in believing they have some mandate for sweeping "reforms" and some duty to inflict "ethics" controls on local government will do much more harm than good.

It's important to remember that it was the pension change (reducing the number of years needed to draw full pension) that precipitated the Charter Commission movement. Herenton's expansive and imperial treatment of his office has only made things more heated.

I am one of those tempted to "rectify" the situation by going to a strong Council / administrative Mayor arrangement. Go ahead and make the City Council a full-time paying job with the Mayor subordinate, not co-equal and separate. This would also give the City the opportunity to undo a lot of the wasteful things, like political appointments, Herenton's done.

But I also realise such tinkering is dangerous. And so I hope the Commission simply arrives at a handful of recommendations for the voters to approve.

Smart City Consulting said...

Mike, Thanks for the comment. We're always struck by your thoughtful approach to issues, your refusal to be doctrinaire and the ability to rise above the ad hominem attacks that too often pass for debate around here. As one of the pioneer bloggers in Memphis, we appreciate your reminding us what blogs should be all about.

yoyoyo said...

Seems you remove anything that isn't flattering. What are you afraid of?

Smart City Consulting said...

We're certainly not afraid of anything anonymous is saying, particularly his mantra about gutless leaders while he refuses to sign his name. However, we've decided that this blog is about encouraging a conversation about issues, not diatribues, not unbridled emotion illuminating nothing, not the way that some people use any issue as the club to beat up someone they dislike. We're looking for people who have something to say and then back it up with facts. Want to try?

Anonymous said...

Here's my advice to anonymous and yoyoyo: we love this blog like it is, because it doesn't feel like a bunch of children on the playground expressing opinions. You'd probably feel more at home if you'd become a regular at Thadeus Matthews website.

contrarian said...


anonymouse said...

We're certainly not afraid of anything anonymous is saying, particularly his mantra about gutless leaders while he refuses to sign his name.

Haha, so I guess your first name is Smart and your last is City?

Smart City Consulting said...

anonymouse, we can't even interpret what you're trying to say anymore.

chjingtown said...

I vote for less rants and diatribes and more discussion. The people who only want to throw bombs just get in the way of real decisions in this city.

Anonymous said...

I think I know what is being said. Your profile doesn't reveal a name, so you "smart city consulting" is a nom de plume much aking to the ubiquitous "anonymous". Don't deride others for not signing on, when you aren't exposing your identity any more than an anonymous entry.

Smart City Consulting said...

Sorry we didn't get your point, but frankly, it had become one of those distractions that we just didn't want to devote any more time into. That said, Smart City Memphis is a blog of Smart City Consulting. We're also proud that the Smart City syndicated radio program was created here as another way to have meaningful discussions about issues that really matter. Four to six staff members with the firm can contribute to the blog, and it represents our company's view on issues based on our experience and our work in this and other cities. In 13 months of posting this blog, we don't believe we've ever called anyone gutless.

Anonymous said...

Four to six staff members with the firm can contribute to the blog, and it represents our company's view on issues based on our experience and our work in this and other cities.

So who are these four to six people? Why not put your names on your blog? I don't use my name because I am shy, but you appear to be so sagacious and courageous, unlike me.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: Over the past 13 months, we have posted the names of every person at one time or the other, one as recently as last week. No need to be shy in the blogosphere.

BraveCordovaDem said...

Getting back to the subject, I agree with John Lunt getting out of the process. I assisted John by standing at grocery stores and other locations getting signatures.

He called me earlier this year to attend a meeting for his selected candidates. I may vote some of them but I cannot blindly go with them. First of all, there are only two African Americans in the group. I am white but I realize the importance of better racial parity in something like this.

There is one issue I do not see discussed, that of the method in which council members are selected. The "super districts" have not worked. The primary elements in being elected to these positions are name recognition and lots of money. Therefore, it is close to impossible to unseat a bad or medicre council member. We really need to look at 13 single member districts again and the Charter Commission would be the ideal group to do just that.

Larry said...

SCM, you must be part of the "Coalition". If you are, or if they're reading this blog, then please ... if there is a next time ... put out a SHORT, coherent questionnaire.

It was eleven (11) pages of essay questions. For the record, after reading the rambling questions, I set it aside and moved on to more pressing matters.

I think the question that amused me the most was: "What will you do to make sure you’ve reached the best possible answers?" ... Consult the Runes???

A person needs a firm set of values, a logical mind, and a spine. You do a gut check and make a decision. In a political situation you may choose to compromise ... in that case, you won't have the "best possible answer".

Of course, the "best possible answer" is subjective. You put a socialist and a libertarian in the same room and the "best possible answer" will be 180 degrees out of sync. In short, there is no way to "make sure you've reached the best possible answer".

Of course then that was followed by, "What major issue might the city government face in the future that’s different from those it faces now?" ... Guess I better break out the Runes again.

Quite frankly, and as I told the lady who called me from the Coalition, I don't think the Coalition understands the role of the Charter Commission ... or maybe I should say that we have greatly diverse opinions about the role of the Charter Commission. The survey might be more applicable to someone running for City Council rather the Charter Commission.

In fact, I have been mulling over the idea of blogging in more detail about the survey on my blog ... maybe when I don't have other more important issues at hand.

FYI, I talked to several other candidates about the survey and the consensus seemed to be that the survey was a more a rambling of questions. One of my opponents told she was in the processing of answering them but the questions seemed to be the same question from a different angle so her answers were getting progressively shorter.

Needless to say, I don't expect an endorsement from the Coalition.

branston said...

This blog is unusually interesting, well-informed, and civil. Sorry to see the digs on this string. Anonymous, how about cutting smartcity some slack? I suspect they've gone to some trouble and expense without a lot of return so far. And I'd say this whether or not they agreed with me.