As a historic majority-female Memphis City Council prepares for the body’s first meeting of 2024 Tuesday (Jan. 9), the five new members will face a variety of decisions inherited from the previous council.
Jerri Green, Pearl Eva Walker, Philip Spinosa, Janika White, and Yolanda Cooper-Sutton will join returning council members Rhonda Logan, Jana Swearengen-Washington, Edmund Ford Sr., Michalyn Easter-Thomas, Chase Carlisle, J. Ford Canale and Dr. Jeff Warren.
Leading the group will be new council Chairman JB Smiley Jr.
Their working relationship with new Memphis Mayor Paul Young may be inherited also, especially regarding the mayor’s working relationship with Smiley.
“Towards the beginning of 2023, that’s when you saw a change in tone and demeanor in how the council interacted with the mayor’s (term limited Jim Strickland’s) administration,” said Smiley.
Under the direction of then-chair Martavius Jones, the council began a more assertive approach in governing, which Smiley intends to continue.
In addition to introducing a slate of to-be-decided ballot questions, Jones began to challenge what he and then-vice chair Smiley saw as an obsequious relationship with the Strickland administration, along with previous mayors.
“For quite some time now, the council essentially echoed…acquiesced to the priorities, the budget, the directors that the mayor has put forth,” Smiley said. “However, there was a time when the council took a more proactive approach…”
Smiley referenced former mayor Willie Herenton’s first term, where the council rejected a list of directives.
He also mentioned the council’s power to confirm appointments. They also control the city’s purse through the budget process.
The confirmation issue could be heated Tuesday after Young said he intended to reappoint Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis. Some council members have said they still have not made up their minds whether Davis should be retained.
That decision will be made in the context of the city’s record number of homicides in 2023, the anniversary of the fatal bludgeoning of Tyre Nichols by MPD officers assigned to a specialized crime–suppression unit created by Davis, and a flood of carjackings, auto thefts and vehicle burglaries.
“Our charter is not written that way. Our charter is very specific … checks and balances. I don’t think the council has done a very good job of being that check and balance. The city ultimately suffered because of that,” Smiley said.
Smiley continued, “If you look back on the last four years, how have we’ve improved in many of the main areas? Are the streets cleaner? Is crime lower? Are there more potholes, still? Is your utility, MLGW, performing better? I think if you put a poll out in the community, the community would send back responses to those questions with an emphatic, ‘No!’”
Many of these long-festering issues have been addressed by holdovers from previous administrations with little success.
The new mayor already has announced he is keeping some directors from Strickland’s administration, but Smiley worries that, once they are reconfirmed, the familiar faces will settle into a sense of complacency – with familiar results.
“We have to find a way to have them operate in a constant state of urgency. What you see…in the city of Memphis for people who live here…it’s urgent. The trash not being picked up in a timely manner is an urgent concern for them. Crime running rampant…that’s an urgent concern for people. We have to do more.”
Like his predecessor as council chair, Smiley also flexed his political muscles towards the end of 2023. In December, while vice chair, he sought council representation on the University of Memphis Auxiliary Services Foundation board that oversees the Simmons Liberty Bowl Stadium.
He made the move after a deal emerged to transfer ownership of the stadium to the university.
While Smiley eventually acquiesced after a backroom conference, the deal still faces a third and final vote from the council Tuesday.
Over the break, Smiley has been in touch with several key players in the deal, including Southern Heritage Classic founder Fred Jones, U of M leadership and others.
Smiley said a “minor term” still is being discussed.
“They’re all talking about trying to reach a deal…I know they’re close to reaching a deal that will put everybody on the same page,” said Smiley. “That’s the goal when you’re talking about something that completely changes how something operates. You want all the major players to be on the same page.”
Among council members, Smiley is trying to do likewise.
While many of the incumbents have their minds made up on several issues, Smiley has been in touch to help new members get up to speed.
“It’s like drinking from a firehose, it’s a lot of information (to take in),” he said.
He also has been in touch with Mayor Young. “We speak often. We’ve met a couple of times. We speak often, because it’s our goal to figure out how the council and the mayor’s administration can work together…”
However, if the council runs into the same headwinds with the mayor it experienced with previous administrations, Smiley hopes the non-partisan council stays true to its current theme of “change and unity.”
“You will see Democrat and Republican working together to say, ‘Hey, this is what’s best for Shelby County. This is what’s best for the City of Memphis,” said Smiley. “We’re going to create some change, but the goal is for us to be unified.”