Sunday, January 06, 2008

Consolidation Depends On A Lot Falling Right

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is right.

The logic of consolidating Memphis and Shelby County Governments is painfully obvious. There is no city and county in the country where merging the governments makes as much sense.

And yet, we likely can’t get there from here.

It is also patently unfair that a majority of voters in Shelby County should not have the right to change their form of local government.

And yet, as every one of us was told by our parents, life’s just not fair.

Rules Of The Game

Because it isn’t, the prognosis for changing the ground rules for consolidation votes in Tennessee is about as likely as finding a pro-Memphis groundswell on Capitol Hill in Nashville.

We admire Mayor Herenton’s stick-to-it-ness on this issue, but despite his quadrennial call for change (and similar proclamations by former city and county mayors), no progress has been made in reinventing the structure of local government. We wish we could see reasons to think that things will be any different this year.

After all, Mayor Herenton’s latest plan is built on the premise of a change in Tennessee law so that a single-majority, rather than the present dual-majority, is required for approval of consolidation. In other words, no longer would the vote on consolidation have to be approved by a majority of the voters within Memphis and then also approved by a majority of the voters outside of Memphis.

Tough Road To Hoe

That would change the law so consolidation would be approved in a single countywide vote – like the one that consolidated Louisville and Jefferson County governments in 2000. But more than a law has to be changed – so does the state constitution. That’s because Tennessee law simply codified a 1953 amendment to the state constitution that was not self-executing.

The dual-majority requirement in Tennessee isn’t the reflection of a strange backwater political culture. Such requirements are found in other states, and in fact, there are places where the threshold for approval of consolidation is even more onerous, requiring approval by each city individually.

The odds of getting a fractured Shelby County delegation to lead the fight for law change in the rural-dominated legislature and succeed were already long, but the idea that the state legislature is going to call a limited constitutional convention to address this issue for Memphis or that a super-majority of the legislature will ultimately pass it is at this point unfathomable.

Surely, Mayor Herenton prefers the legislative approach to a constitutional convention, and if so, with everything falling in place, it would be late 2010 before the change would have final approval. To start the clock, the Tennessee Legislature must approve it for the first time in the current session. Any bump in the road sets back the process, making it likely that it would be 2014 before final action could take place.

Moving Mountains

Normally, the Legislature is moved to support legislation for a specific county if the county’s delegation unites behind it. That’s not going to happen here, since the Shelby County delegation can hardly unite to support motherhood. Absent this delegation unity, Mayor Herenton will have to find champions to push the bill through. That, too, is difficult, because city government doesn’t have any strong political alliances in Nashville to leverage.

Reportedly, Mayor Herenton is counting on Governor Phil Bredesen’s help in getting the law and the constitution changed, but that too seems like a hard sell. Constitutional amendments don’t require gubernatorial approval; they are totally within the province of the Legislature. With only two years left in office, Governor Bredesen is focused on the highest and best uses of his political capital, and it’s hard to imagine it including a contentious political fight on governmental structure in Memphis.

Truth be told, if we only had one wish for the use of the governor’s political capital, it would be for intervention at Memphis City Schools. To us, if you want to ask the governor to have the maximum impact on the future of Memphis, it’s the schools, not governmental structure, that matter most.

Starting The Clock

As for consolidation, when and if the state law allows passage of consolidation with a single countywide vote, another clock starts. It’s the one for the charter commission, the group that will write the proposed charter to be put up for a vote at referendum.

At its speediest, this would take a year and more likely, it would take 18 months.

In other words, people who contend that Mayor Herenton is pushing consolidation once again as an egotistical power grab should think again. If somehow this issue did the one thing that government finds hardest to do – move ahead in a timely and efficient manner – the change in government would be up for a vote about the time that Mayor Herenton is getting ready to leave office.

Street Cred

Already, some influential people see Shelby County AC Wharton as the best person to head up this merged government, and if he’s interested, it’s hard to see a situation where he wouldn’t be the prohibitive front runner.

Of course, that rests on the assumption that voters would at referendum approve consolidation in a countywide vote, and it’s not as much of a given as some would suggest. In Louisville, even with the most popular city mayor in history pushing for consolidation and supported by his county counterpart, a $2 million business-sponsored campaign and relentless media support, the merger passed 55% to 45%. It was also the third time consolidation was on the ballot.

The bloc of votes against consolidation came largely from suburban and African-American voters; however, here, consolidation supporters are counting on Mayor Herenton’s street cred to prevent the perennial charges in a move toward consolidation that black political power is being diluted.

No Magic Bullet

While consolidation isn’t the magic panacea that it’s often held up to be, it’s hard to disagree that it’s an idea whose time has come. As annexations by Shelby County’s cities, chiefly Memphis, take in the areas reserved for them by Chapter 1101, there will be a time when the boundaries of Memphis and Shelby County will be largely co-terminus.

At that point, the notion of having two overlapping urban governments serving essentially the same areas seems ludicrous on its face. In truth, if city and county governments have still not merged at that point, they could do it de facto with contracts and intergovernmental agreements.

As the debate on this issue continues, we hope that everyone can turn down the volume. Mayor Herenton’s continued blasts at residents of county towns only harden the political lines and minds. There may actually be common ground, but we’ll never know if the lines of communications are preemptively blown up. Town mayors need to abandon knee-jerk complaints about Mayor Herenton as a person and consolidation as a concept. They need to acknowledge that consolidation is an option that deserves careful consideration and objective discussion.

No Rush

And for the rest of us, we need to fight a rush to judgment and wait for the facts. This isn’t about plugging our opinions about consolidation into existing anti-suburb hatred or anti-Memphis hatred. Rather, it’s about honest fact-finding, listening to what the pluses and minuses of consolidation are and then reaching an opinion on what would be best for the total community, not just our own enclaves or constituencies.

Consolidation may be an idea whose time has come, but we’ll never know it unless we can have the kind of reasoned discussion that the future of our local governments deserve. And who knows, if we actually talk and listen, we may just find that there are ways that every one can benefits.


Anonymous said...

willie is facing the facts that his thug constituentcy can't pay his bills. and the suburban mayors will be a convenient whipping boy when he starts cutting services.

typical willie

joe in Midtown said...

The consolidation issue would have a much better feel for everyone if Wharton were spearheading it, and Herenton would back off. No matter what majority is voting, the county needs buy-in from suburbia.

Anonymous said...

i agree with you. the mayor is right on the issue of consolidation, although he hasn't explicitly stated the shape or form of the consolidated governments. i believe, this causes fear and does not promote good discussion. i think, the mayor has approached this as a race/class issue but, i believe, people have legitimate concerns. the major problem is very few people know exactly where their taxes end up. so the approach should be about easing concerns/fears not alienating the county residents. in other words, make a case for it including a picture of how government structure would look under consolidation. for example, pre-consolidation, status quo, and post-consolidation scenarios can be done to illustrate tax flow, organizational structure, savings, if any, or dollars for investment.

in order to frame this discussion, i believe, we need to address some fears/misconceptions:
what is the proposal, city government taking over the county, county government taking over the city or a new government elected by the county; which, form is advocated by the mayor.

what role will the new consolidate government have with suburban mayors? will these mayors also be bundled into a metro government or will they maintain separate governments?

what will the school system look like? county run system or city run system? these questions shape the discussion and eases the uncertainties; which, promulgate fear.

without answering questions such as these the banter becomes woven with racial tension, what-if's and non-productive name calling. furthermore, there should be a catalog or report to show where your tax dollars go. how much city subsidy is given by the county and vice-versa. any examples of consolidating departments for efficiencies should also be reported on, this begins to set the stage for a productive dialogue with mayors and voters.

Anonymous said...

SC makes a great point; when Memphis and all the other Shelby County municipalities annex everything in their reserve areas, what is the point of having two governments doing the same thing?

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 12:22:

We hope to address some of these questions in later posts this week, but here's a few answers:

1) A consolidated government is the county government taking over the major city (or any other cities in the unlikely event they want to be part of it). It is not the city taking over the county. The county is the surviving entity because it is a constitutional arm of the state and cannot be abolished.

2)The towns outside Memphis are unaffected by consolidation. They continue to exist and they continue to elect their own mayors and officials. The county, by law and mandate, has to continue to provide them schools, justice, health care, etc.

3) The county school district is the surviving district, but does include city schools, and Mayor Herenton's previously announced recommendation for four districts makes a lot of sense.

Great suggestions for beginning a real discussion on these issues, rather than political theater that so often clouds it.

Anonymous said...

thanks, SCM!
i asked those questions tongue-in-cheek because they seem to be the majority of the arguments, for not consolidating, from the uninformed.
this information also eliminates the naysayers argument that, "herenton wants control of the county" because he would essentially have to win a majority vote in shelby county, next to impossible for him.

on a more serious note, i think a potential drawback against consolidation is the inequities of the school system in many metro governments. it seems that across the country there is a re-segregation of schools, increasingly kids are more likely to go to school with kids from the same ethnic, social and socio-economic backgrounds. the four zones that herenton has proposed is a good start but needs to be thought about from the bottom up as not to exacerbate an already entrenched problem, in memphis. the funding for the schools should not be tied to the zone but the county should collect the tax and pay for schools equally or based on needs. i've lived in cities where the schools were funded by property taxes collected in that zone. the result is a cycle of poverty for those zones. the zone can't attract new residents; therefore, the schools remain under funded and the cycle continues for generations.

another thought...
i wish we would stop some of the "anybody but herenton" rhetoric. if consolidation is good for the county and; presumably, memphians and shelby countians, alike then who cares that he is the champion? if you love memphis you should want to do the right thing no matter who's idea. otherwise you are no better than the one you despise.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous: Thanks for the update, and you're so right. It's about progress, not personalities.

The truth of the matter is that in most cities and counties where consolidation takes place, the schools are already in one system. In fact, Memphis/Shelby County is the only large metro county in Tennessee that still has a divided school structure.

Anonymous said...

Ha Ha - consolidation will never fly in this city. When King Willie is out of office - someone else will be in that the people of Germantown, Bartlett, etc. will hate!! The "tiny towns" surrounding Memphis should form their own county and school system. Then after that - put a huge wall up around the new county. Have one highway in and one out. They should also form their own power and public works plant. Then they can live in peace without thinking about Memphis/Shelby County.

Anonymous said...

Hehe. I agree 100% with the person that posted the following:

"Ha Ha - consolidation will never fly in this city. When King Willie is out of office - someone else will be in that the people of Germantown, Bartlett, etc. will hate!! The "tiny towns" surrounding Memphis should form their own county and school system. Then after that - put a huge wall up around the new county. Have one highway in and one out. They should also form their own power and public works plant. Then they can live in peace without thinking about Memphis/Shelby County."

My family and I moved to Arlington to get as far from the city as our work allows. If the consolidation does indeed become a reality, we will again be moving as well as alot of other residents we have spoke with in Arlington and Bartlett. We don't trust those running the City of Memphis. We're definately not ecstatic about our taxes going up to "level out" with the city. I believe (according to recent figures) that 80% of Arlington residents moved from the city of Memphis because we don't want anything to do with King Willie and his corruption. He can't even handle the problems in Memphis and now he wants to take on even more people? The crime rate, the taxes, the hiring of corrupt people, the "you owe us" attitude that's present, etc? No thanks. Memphis has a lingering gloom that hangs over it. It's a depressing violent city being ran by thugs.We don't want anything to do with it and would be content building a wall that seperates us from the city....and building a power and public works plant so that we don't even have to deal with MLG&W. At this point, Fayette county is starting to look real good to us, but who knows. We may even go further than that. King Willie has not done a bit of good for the city. His priorities are misaligned and his work has been inconsequential since the first day he stepped foot in office. Then again this is just my opinion, but I am also speaking for the majority of Arlington.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 10:43:

We understand your feelings and your attitude, but here's the thing. This isn't the city taking over the county. It is a whole new government. There is no City Hall, there is no City council, etc. And towns like yours would have a seat at the table. Otherwise, city of Memphis will consume most of Shelby County and you're simply on the outside looking in.

And don't move to Fayette County too fast. It may look cheap, but there's no emergency service, no good schools, etc. That's why I moved my mother out of it and back into Shelby County.

Anonymous said...

In the end, we will have maybe one person representing Arlington and Lakeland together, one person representing Germantown and Cordova, and so forth. Then, there will probably be 5 people representing Memphis. Who do you think is going to end up with making the final decisions for our town? We don't see any reason for it. It's all about the money. Not the people. We may have a seat at the table like you say, but that's about it. We won't have a say in important matters. If Memphis wants something bad enough they take it...even in corrupt ways if need be. As far as Fayette county goes, we're not planning on moving there because it's cheap. It's for other reasons. I am even willing to homeschool my children if it comes down to that. I was just wondering, you said that you moved you mother back to Shelby County because of the lack of emergency services, no good schools, and other things as well. I'm not sure what the school thing had to do with her, but if they are that bad in Fayette County I am homeschooling. What is the crime rate in the schools there? It's hard for me to believe they are as bad as Memphis though. My oldest son (that was 8 at the time) had a knife pulled on him (3 kids involved) at school. When the parents were notified and we met, my husband and I were threatened by one of the parents. They said we need to take our (then they referred to a It won't let me post it) and move if we know what's best. The principal thought this was funny and said "We're all adults here. I'm sure they don't mean no harm by it". I was shot at while on my way to pick up my children from school. (Fox Meadows). These things are hard to put in the back of your mind when these corrupt officials told me there is nothing that can be done because the violence is so widespread. My husband went to Kirby High as a teenager. He witnessed the busing of students first hand. It was a pretty decent school then, and Hickory Hill (now Hickory Hood) was the place to be. They brought in students from the over crowded schools near the airport. Went downhill from there. My husband is a police officer with MPD and makes MANY calls to that school now along with other surrounding MCS and it sickens him to see the way things are now. He has been there to watch it all go to crap and can nearly pinpoint it to the day it began. That didn't do a bit of good for Memphis and they still think the busing idea is an answer to solving over-crowding. This is a perfect example of a "quick-fix" gone bad. Memphis' blood from the violence and hate is beginning to spill into the surrounding cities already and this has us worried. Now they're wanting to say "screw it" and let it flow. My best-friend is asking that I take custody of her 12 year old son long enough for her to get on her feet and move out of Memphis. (She lives in the nut-bush area) Her son was shot at while standing on their porch. The day before the shooting, he was threatened because he wouldn't get involved with some gang. See, it's one thing for us to feel threatened, but when we feel our kids are threatened we go into fight or flight mode. Many of us have tried to fight it, but there's nobody to back us when we do. OR, my favorite, it becomes a race issue. Violence is color-blind. When officials learn to be color-blind as well, maybe they will finally decide to take the matter head-on. Many of us choose the flight option. Memphis is not the place to be raising children and this is the reason alot of us have moved. We do not want anything to do with Memphis. I mean, what exactly are supposed to be the short-term and long-term benefits of consolidation?

Smart City Consulting said...


This isn't anything to do with Memphis. Memphis ceases to exist, Memphis City Hall ceases to exist, Memphis elected officials cease to exist.

If you now only have 3 people of the 26 people who're now running things, wouldn't you rather have more like 8, and those 8 would likely have shared concerns with representatives for East Memphis, etc. You'd have the chance to put together a coalition, something you don't have now.

Anonymous said...

To add to what I just posted, I do understand that we will remain our own city. Yes, we would still give our votes, BUT Memphis will also give their votes on the same matters together (as one). Look at the population difference of Memphis and Arlington. Can you really tell me that we (Arlington residents) would have some pull in regards to issues in our own city? I think not. Our votes would not have the same weight as they do now. Memphis would hold the majority of the votes and we feel, in a sense, that we will be controlled once again by Memphis and the corrupt officials that have their geedy hands in everyones' pockets because they feel everyone owes them.

Smart City Consulting said...

By law, legislative bodies are proportionally drawn up. So your vote counts the same as a vote for anyone else in Shelby County, but if you think that Memphis would swamp your vote in a new government, that's what's happening now on the county commission. The new government gives you more opportunity to create a coalition, which you don't have now.

Anonymous said...

Yes, me again, lol. I should probably turn off the computer huh? Anyhow, I am reading more about the consolodation and trying to understand all of it. I wanted to say thank you for your insight.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for the conversation. Please keep in touch.

By the way, the person answering lives outside Memphis.

Anonymous said...

It is the duty of everyone in Shleby County outside of Memphis who cares about maintaining the quality of Shelby County schools and about fiscal responsibility to oppose consolidation with every means possible. For the people of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Arlington and Millington there is no positive benefit whatsoever to consolidation. If you truly care about the future of your child's education and the value of your home you will do everything you can to stop this latest consolidation drive before it gains much more ground.