Tuesday, September 15, 2009
City Council Acts On Urge To Merge
And we're off.
Today, Memphis City Council, which gets regularly beaten up by so many people, showed uncommon leadership in unanimously approving the creation of a charter commission. Hopefully, that commission will blow up all preconceived notions of what government is supposed to look like and will start all over to build a totally new government for our county.
With this vote, City Council set aside the misinformation being spread on the campaign trail for city mayor by the anti-consolidation candidates who are blind to the need to do something to shake up our government, our community's trends and our future.
City Council joined the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in signaling the go-ahead for a process that should be open, wide-ranging and imaginative. It should begin with an educational program to get everyone up to speed on what city-county consolidation could be if we dream big enough.
Put Out The Welcome Mat
It should be a process that welcomes all voices and all opinions. It should be about listening to the public and soliciting their opinions and it should be about giving people from all over Shelby County a seat at the table.
If there is a foundation to build this process on, we think it is that most people in our community want to have this conversation, to have a chance to talk about what better government could look like and ultimately to decide it at the polls.
To that end, and proving that hope springs eternal, we hope that the town mayors will show a willingness to engage in the debate rather than trying to shout it down.
If we are successful in creating a new government that most people can endorse, we could eliminate the inevitable moment in every meeting where someone says, "If only we were consolidated, we could..."
It’s the “consolidation moment,” the time when someone holds up the merger of city and county governments as the answer to all that ails our city.
Frequently mentioned in these merger moments is the poster child of all things virtuous when it comes to Memphians’ perceptions of consolidation – Nashville. But these days, Louisville is more and more added to the mix.
Power Of Popularity
But Nashville and Louisville did have one thing in common that proved pivotal to passage of consolidation – wildly popular political leaders who set consolidation as their priority and put all of their political chips on the table to get the merger passed by the voters.
In Nashville in 1962, it was the dominating influence of Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley. The Nashville Mayor, Ben West, was distrusted by voters outside of Nashville, who came to see the referendum as a vote of confidence for either Briley or West. That was critical, because consolidation in Nashville, like Memphis, had to be passed in a dual vote of Nashville voters and non-Nashville voters.
It's why Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton - complete with intimidating poll numbers and war chest - is possibly the pivotal figure in our long-time quest for consolidated government. And with Mayor Herenton out of office, the merger proposal is free of the personality politics that dominated this question in the past.
In Louisville, the political realities were just the opposite of Nashville’s. In Kentucky, consolidation is passed when a majority of all voters in the county approve it, so there’s only one vote total. There, the wildly popular former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson – with a 90+ percent approval rating – led the fight for consolidated government and became its first mayor.
Unlike many cities, there was no crisis or scandal in Louisville that served as the catalytic event for consolidation. Instead, it was all about creating a modern government structure that would make the city more competitive, more entrepreneurial and more successful.
There were no claims that consolidation would result in big savings and instead, the business and political leadership made it a vote of confidence about the future of their hometown.
Keep It Vague
The pro-consolidation campaign spent about $2 million while anti-consolidation forces ran a shoestring campaign that was regularly derided by the news media.
Like Memphis, Louisville had been pursuing consolidation without success for decades - 23 years there. Voters turned it down in 1982 and 1983. In 2000, consolidation passed 56% for and 44% against.
The most striking lesson for Memphis in the Louisville vote is the reminder of how simple our governmental structure is. The most obvious contradiction to the widely held perception that we are hopelessly complicated here is this: There are 8 governments in Shelby County; there were 118 local governments in Jefferson County.
Back to Nashville, it was the first Tennessee city to put consolidation on the ballot after passage of the 1953 constitutional amendment that allowed merged governments. That same amendment set up the dual majority requirement that has been the formidable hurdle that has to be cleared here for success.
We’re Not Alone
By the way, the last consolidation votes in Memphis were in 1962 and 1971. In one of those votes, the merger failed because it was voted down outside of Memphis, but in the other, it was voted down both inside and outside of Memphis.
By way of reference, the civic frustration caused by failed consolidation votes is not limited to Memphis. It failed at the ballot box in Knoxville in 1958, 1978, 1983 and 1996. Chattanooga voted it down in 1964 and 1970. It also was voted down in Jackson in 1987, Clarksville in 1981 and Bristol in 1982 and 1988.
Besides Nashville, it’s only passed in two other counties, Lynchburg/ Moore, in 1987 and Hartsville/Trousdale in 2000, with respective populations of 4,700 and 2,400.
It is nonetheless something we need to pursue, because Memphis has to do something dramatic to change a trajectory that is headed in the wrong direction, something dramatic to shake off a largely negative national media image and something dramatic to make local government as sophisticated as the economy that our community seeks to compete in.
One Last Fact
Let's get to one of government's favorite points - the proverbial bottom line.
Today, Memphis languishes in the bottom rungs of most economic indicators that matter, and as important, our national image languishes just as much as we are portrayed as divided, conflicted and in an economic freefall.
As a result, we need nothing less than a fundamental game changer for our community - something dramatic, something that serves notice that we've set out in a new direction and something that shows that we are committed to a bolder, more competitive future.
The passage of consolidation will do that, and that alone is enough of a reason to support it.