Sunday, November 29, 2009

Urge To Merge Leads To Urge To Surge

Overlooking and listening to the rhythmic surf of the Atlantic Ocean from a third floor condominium, it’s hard to be objective about Jacksonville.

But we’ll try.

Our professional reason to be in Northern Florida is interesting in its own right, but combined with the nine-month timetable for the newly appointed commission to write a charter for a totally new government for Memphis and Shelby County, it’s been fascinating to check in on a city that merged its city and county governments in 1968, a few years after Nashville did.

Back then, Memphis, Nashville and Jacksonville found themselves in much the same economic position. But in momentum and potential, Memphis clearly had the edge.

Changing Times

Nashville and Jacksonville were mired in government scandal. Confidence in public leadership had bottomed out and dysfunction gripped their governments. Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis was doing well.

There were early signs that the times were changing. Population was beginning tentatively to move eastward, retail stores were flirting with the suburbs and plans to widen two-lane highways out of Memphis (like Poplar Avenue) were being made.

Dr. King’s assassination punctured the general sense of progress and sent Memphis into a free fall whose results we’re still dealing with. Faced with the abandonment of downtown, the white stampede out of Memphis and economic upheaval, Memphis leaders dug in their heels, assuming that things would return to normal.

But by the time the smoke cleared, there was a new normal. The Memphis in which they had so much confidence was fundamentally changed, setting in motion troubling trends that continue even now.

Changing History

In Jacksonville and Nashville, confronted with their own crises, they chose to think differently and to shake up things, particularly the government structure that was seen as central to their problems.

It was hard in those days to conceive of Nashville or Jacksonville being competitors to Memphis. After all, Memphis thought its major rival was Atlanta. It all seems so naïve now, but it was a comparison that hung on even as the Georgia capital grew by leaps and bounds, becoming not only a major Southern city but a major national city on its way to becoming an international city.

Those Memphis delusions of grandeur are long gone, swept away by the reality that we are not even keeping pace with Nashville and Jacksonville. But, there remains the persistent attitude that we don’t need (or can’t) do anything: What will be will be.

It’s inarguable that for over 30 years, we’ve used the lack of a consolidated government as a crutch to keep from making the tough decisions or acting courageously. Nashville and Jacksonville took a “no excuses” attitude by changing their governments and it shows.

Changing Things

They had a different image of themselves – one defined by self-confidence and self-worth – that was the antithesis of the one here. Obviously, the positive changes didn’t come overnight. But they did come, and it’s hard to find anyone in either Nashville of Jacksonville – in public or private sector leadership – who does not credit the consolidated government as the spark that burned away the corrupt government, brought in innovative new leaders, flattened out increases in the tax rate (Jacksonville’s is the lowest of the major cities in Florida), turbo-charged their economies and repositioned their city’s images.

Some people in Shelby County opposed to merger of city and county governments say that Nashville and Jacksonville would have prospered regardless of their governments. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone in leadership who agrees.

Jacksonville is beginning a review of its charter to update it, and in a July 30 presentation to the commission, City of Jacksonville General Counsel Richard Mullaney said: “We in Jacksonville enjoy a competitive structural advantage in the creation of public policy that other counties in the state of Florida do not…There’s no question that 40 years ago, for those of us who were here and were observers and participants that we were in a very different place.

“At that time, not just structurally, Jacksonville at that time was viewed by many as a slow-moving, backwards Southern town with an inferiority complex…we are in a very different place. They (rest of the state) marvel at how the smallest market in the nation got an NFL team and…I think that happened because of this structure.

Changing Trajectory

“They marvel at a preservation project that acquired 53,000 acres to take them out of development. They marvel at River City Renaissance, they marvel that we brought a Super Bowl here, and they marvel quite frankly at this consolidated for of government.”

Jacksonville was racked with scandal in 1934, but Mr. Mullaney said the governments were not merged at the ballot box until 1967 because “those who fear change and those with vested interests in the current system won out” 43 years earlier.

As the charter commission in Shelby County does it work in the next nine months, we’ll probably hear a lot of statistics and data, but what finally moved us to the pro-consolidation side of the ledger weren’t the tangibles. It was the intangibles.

All the numbers aside, what we find palpable in Nashville and Jacksonville is a “can do” attitude and a sense that they can dream big and act boldly. Both cities send the unspoken message that they are places that care about themselves and are proud of themselves. Neither has the character or the culture of Memphis, but they are creating more jobs, attracting more business investment and creating the kind of quality of life that is a key competitive advantage in the new economy.

Changing The Rhetoric

Here’s the thing: we’re tired – actually, exhausted - of being told that Memphis has potential, Memphis is at a crossroads and that great things are about to happen in Memphis. We’ve heard it in every election since 1978, and it’s simply getting old.

While we’ve been talking about our potential, other cities like Nashville and Jacksonville have been reaching theirs. In the end, this is why we think that creating a new government for Memphis and Shelby County is our last, best shot at moving past the rhetoric about our potential to actually realizing it.

Simply put, we have to change Memphis’ trajectory, and it will take something profound and earth-shaking. It seems clear from the history of Nashville and Jacksonville that the earth-shaking event can be blowing up the existing government and starting over.

After our visit to Jacksonville, we volunteer to buy the dynamite.


antisocialist said...

If consolidation is such a good idea, the other six Shelby County municipalities will join Memphis in consolidating, right?

Aaron said...

Clean up the City government first so that the rest of the County wants to consolidate with you.

The City has lots of house cleaning to do before focusing on a much loftier goal. Or maybe work on both but don't let the consolidation distract the city from restoring the basics such as a efficient, citizen-friendly/responsive government.


Zippy the giver said...

Memphis problems are cultural.
Why would it have a can do attitude when you are publicly and wholeheartedly engaged in slavery?
Doublespeak about regionalism, your shills (local news) says regionalism and your actions say Memphis First. WHY?
Sorry, no one but scum wants to get in bed with a liar and a cheap prostitute. They filed a movie about a Memphian in Atlanta and debuted it in NOLA! WHY?
The president routed the technological advancements AROUND Memphis when they could have gone through. WHY?
CULTURE of criminal behavior starts at home no, school, no, work. It's "all of the above".
We used to say "it's kids having babies", well, those babies grew up and had kids, their kids had kids while they were still kids, just like mom and dad, their kids had kids while they were kids too.
What you have HERE is a cultivated culture with little education. A CULTIVATED condition, and a CULTURE as a response, designed to be exactly what it is, uneducated and not mentally lature in any area, including and especially conflict resolution and education, coupled.
Without those two things they will FOREVER BE THE SLAVES OF THE PAST.
It's a condition, with elements of institutionalized slavery handed down as a system, as taught by the past, economic slavery as a developed condition as the main effect, and the condition is called CULTIVATED SLAVERY.
In Memphis, all you had to do was live in a poor neighborhood to get your taste and going to a public school and many churches, the instruments of it's administration IN MEMPHIS, your chances of catching the disease were greatly increased.
This is just now beginning to see daylight.
You NEED to consolidate, but, you have a history of not doing what you should do ever.
I have to go ride around in circles in a trolley, in a part of town without enough police protection to guard people from assault and robbery while walking to the cleaners and grocery store that doesn't exist in that area. I'll take the bus to the hospital that will be closed once I get mugged and shot, if one shows up in time.
You keep trying to save a dead city while political parasites, city council and shelby county commissioners, suck the absolute last breaths of life out of it.
All talk, again.
Get rid of your human ticks, and you won't look or act like such a junkyard dog to the rest of the country. You may save enough money to save the school system, the hospital, the busses, and downtown in the bargain.
You want it to be more complicated than that, because you are a drama queen city, full of rumor and gossip, with no relationship to your own statistics, but, it's not complicated.

Anonymous said...


whatsamatta, slow news day inside the parkways?

gatesofmemphis said...

This post way oversells the power of consolidation. Memphis has been in a freefall since 1819. Dr. King's assassination did not change our momentum or potential. A city that has systematically left behind 1/2 the population had none in the modern world. Consolidation won't fix that system. It won't make it worse, but probably will use a lot of Mayor Wharton's mental energy and political capital.

Lots of small ideas cooperatively federated, ala Sustainable Shelby, would not shake the earth but it could bring about the same rationalization. For instance, de-duplication of services and taxation between county and Memphis (possible with Memphis majority on County Commission) and elimination of the Shelby County Mayor position (perhaps via charter vote).

Tom Guleff said...

I have a hard time accepting the notion that the problems we face in our community are caused by non-consolidated governments.

The "real sell" for consolidation is outside of the city limits (what's the value proposition for them?). I don't think anyone has enough political capital to do this, except for maybe Fred Smith, only if he uses FEDEX as a hostage.

Anonymous said...

The reason we are not consolidated is because of race. Democgraphics are different here than in Jacksonville and Nashville. Have the most honest and the most efficient city government you can and suburbanites will still say we aren't good enough. The reason? They do not want to be part of a majority black municipality.

The only ways to achieve consolidation is to 1) convince them that a government under a good african american Mayor isn't so bad, 2) shame them into accepting consolidation, or 3) force them into it by new State laws or threats.

Just so you'll know, I am white.

Anonymous said...

Just because B follows A does not mean A caused B. These posts on cosolidation by SCM are always heavy on stories of cities that succeeded post consolidation without really explaining why consolidation was responsible for the success. Atlanta has numerous counties around it and several cities and it has done fine without consolidation. What we need to shake things up is not consolidation necessarily, its visionary grown up and responsible leaders. That's what the city has been missing. Wharton is a good start; the city counsel and county commission needs to be next. Where are the leaders who will put aside the arguments of the past and focus on what is important - building an attractive modern city that business wants to be associated with, and an educated populace? Until we find those, and until the voters are willing to back them, we will fail no matter how our governments are structured. After all, consolidation with Herenton at the head would have still been a failure.

packrat said...

The challenges this metro area faces are formidable and many. And they are basically rooted in race, the historical aftereffects of slavery and 100 years of legal Jim Crow prejudice. Consolidation isn't going to happen, b/c people in the county believe they can still keep themselves separate from the problems of Memphis and prosper, and they can, for a short while. But inevitably, the poverty and crime demogrpahics of Memphis will overwhelm Shelby, AND the rest of the metro area. Fedex, WILL eventually re-locate, probably to Indianapolis. Then, it's lights out.
50 years ago, we still had s chance, but it was dependent upon a bunch of mostly segregationist whites being able to see the handwriting and moving proactively to aggressively bring the black folks in this city into the mainstream. Maybe it was too much to ask of them to see beyond themselves. Now we're reaping what they sowed. MLK getting murdered here was a SYMPTOM, not a cause of Memphis' malaise. He died here b/c we didn't have the leadership to deal equitably and fairly with the black underclass. (you know, treat them like they mattered)
At any rate, since people of money and means can and will move elsewhere, there isn't much hope for this area to prosper in years to come. Kind of a downer, but it's true.

antisocialist said...

There really isn't a lot of duplicated or replicated services between Memphis and Shelby County governments. Most of the duplicated services are found when you compare services provided by Memphis to the services provided by the th six other municipalities. Services such as police, fire, engineering, planning, construction code enforcement, parks and rec, etc. are generally in most or all of the six other municipalities as well as Memphis.

On top of all that, there is already considerable functional consolidation of services between Shelby County and Memphis (planning and code enforcement to name a couple of them).

The idea that consolidation would eliminate a lot of duplication is really a canard absent the participation of all seven Shelby County municipalities.

Zippy the giver said...

Wow, that's a lot of bS arguments against consolidation, but, none of them had an ounce of evidence, just a buttload of supposition surrounded by poppycock, rumor, superstition, parochial attitudes, and just plain BS.
Too many vested interests in keeping money flowing into the tax structure unchecked and unsupervised.
ANY time anyone says, "it's too complicated and YOU wouldn't understand it" YOU are being hoodwinked.

SHANGHAI CHINA, A labor town of slaves, has 7000 miles of maglev running through it for public transportation.

What does Memphis have?

A lot of pissed off citizens and people saying "poo poo, to you".
The highest taxes in TN.
The highest violent crime rate in the state, almost in the whole country.
Aaron has it the closest, but, don't make excuses for sloth.

I just heard that FEDEX IS leaving! WHAT????
uh oh, times is UP!

Anonymous said...

"it was dependent upon a bunch of mostly segregationist whites being able to see the handwriting and moving proactively to aggressively bring the black folks in this city into the mainstream."


packrat said...

So anon; you must believe history and actions have no consequences, or are you so ignorant of the history of this city that you believe that black people 50 years ago were responsible for the legal 2nd class status they were in? White people DID create and uphold segregation, fool. That's a historical fact, and with such a large black population, we're dealing with the aftereffects still. to deny that requires either complete ignorance or a lack of honesty. Now go ahead and rattle on how you didn't do anything to any black people and tell us how hard you've had it. Typical.

Anonymous said...

Actually I think MLK died here because a loon with no connection to Memphis chose to shoot him here. Memphis' race problem didn't kill him. And Memphis is hardly the only city in the world with race problems then or now. To argue that somehow Memphis' racial tensions caused the death of MLK is a hard argument to make, accurately anyway.
But the issue is whether it makes sense to consolidate or not. This diversion about Memphis' racial problems has little to do with the issues raised by SCM in the post.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:07,

Even though MLK was murdered by an outsider, the reaction of the racist Mayor we had at the time who was the reason King was here, ruined the racial atmosphere.

The ghost of Henry Loeb is unfortunately still with us.

Zippy the giver said...

When Dr King came here, a BLACK man came on the news and said, "We don't need no Dr. King here, We'll solve this Memphis way!"

Memphis way.
He got shot here because there was no plan to make sure he was kept alive, by black or white people.
There was only a plan to kill him.
Then there was all that Jesse Jackson nonsense the next day showing up on TV with somebody's blood on his shirt, LYING that it was Dr. King's blood, LYING that he held him in his arms for his last breath, when he was actually hiding behind the dumpsters, dumpsters, Ironic eh, on the other side of the building. Why was he even there? Nobody trusted him, and for good reason.
Memphis way.
Big fat-headed, egomaniacal, narcissistic, Memphis way. Never worked, did it. The poor in Memphis only to serve as a contrast for the rich.

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