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.

The Moment

Just imagine.

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.

Modernizing Government

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.


Aaron said...

Is there any report out there that quantifies the gain in government efficiencies and monetary savings associated with consolidation?

I think a working and flexible document that spells out initial intentions could go a long ways in clearing up smoke screens thrown out by opponents and educating the public. I want to support this consolidation but I want numbers and data to stand on.

Even with a clearer notion of what we are getting into, there is the issue of trust. I live in the city but if I lived in suburbs I would want to see some type of demonstration first that our new Mayor is going to appoint and look for some talented government employees that are committed and dedicated to serving their city. We have many already but more are needed.

Show me how efficient and well run our government can be first and then perhaps our outlying neighbors will be more willing to trust Memphis City Gov. While I know some efficiencies will only be significantly improved by consolidation, there are a lot of others not associated with consolidation that stand for serious improvement. Inspire the people, educate them and gain their trust!

Anonymous said...

they would have impressed me more by firing that stooge jefferson. typical Memphis.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I agree that a consolidated government would be best for us all. I am for Wharton for Mayor and back him all the way in the pursuit of consolidation.

However, I'm not holding my breath. I would hope, that in the meantime, the City and County governments aggressively pursue piecemeal consolidation of one service after another. So if formal consolidation continues to fail, it may not matter in the long run.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County should leave out Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington, and Artlington. Without those residents voting on the issue consolidation has a much better opportunity of passing. If we consolidate police, fire, code enforcement, and all of the unincorporated areas and reserves Memphis can begin to turn itself around. When the suburban municipalites realize we're progressing they will have a better city to spend their tax dollars if they please.

Anonymous said...

All of the employees of the Herenton regime will be replaced or retire when the new administration comes into office. It doesn't matter if Jefferson is fired now or later. He knows quite a bit about many public and private dealings under WW.

Anonymous said...

Consolidation will do nothing to "shake up" our government if the same politicians (or similar) continue to be elected.

Smart City Consulting said...

In reverse order:

You are right about the election of the same old people, but what has happened in other cities is that the new merged government brings new faces into the process, particularly if districts are shrunk so that more grassroots people could afford to run for office.

The towns are unaffected by consolidation. None of their duties, responsibilities, and taxing authorities are touched.

There is much research and information on the Reinventing Government website, and while monetary savings are good, they are not the most important benefit. It's about having one vision, one less government, one less set of bureaucratic redtape, etc. And for the record, city government already spends less per capita than the towns, so we think that Mayor Wharton, Mayor Pro Tem Lowery, and Commissioner Malone are right: the business model is broken and we can continue to put band-aids on the breaks or we can start over and get it right.

Finally, this isn't about people outside Memphis trusting Memphis City Government. That government ceases to exist. If the people outside Memphis do nothing, it will be the only government they'll be dealing with and they won't even have a seat at the table.

Thanks for the comments.

dwayne said...

" . . .merged government brings new faces into the process, particularly if districts are shrunk so that more grassroots people could afford to run for office."

I would hope this would happen. the current multi-member districts prevent anyone from running who isn't either rich or beholding to large amounts of special interst money.

I submitted a proposal like this to the City charter commission. a couple of them smiled at me and then Myron and company proceeded to flush my idea down the toilet.

Smart City Consulting said...

Thanks for the reminder, Aaron. Here's the website: http://reinventgovernment.org/learnmore


If it gets rid of the city council, I"M ALL FOR IT!!
That is the worst set of "representatives" I've ever sen on this planet.

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