by James Coleman —
Memphis City Council members kept their powder dry Tuesday (Aug. 17) on creating a charter commission that would examine creating a metro government through the consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County governments.
Instead, members of the council’s Personnel & Governmental Affairs committee meeting delayed taking action on the proposal for three weeks so council members can study the issue.
“I’m sure we have all these different groups working on this issue over the past couple of months. Who knows, maybe a year?
“It wasn’t shared with the general public. We need to have an opportunity for the general public to get involved and find out exactly what the charter commission actually does,” said councilmember Cheyenne Johnson.
Advocates of the proposal maintain it will streamline economic development in the city and the county. Their goal is to include a consolidation referendum on the 2022 general election ballot.
The referendum would have to be approved independently by city and county voters. An unsuccessful similar proposal in 2009 provided the framework for the current bid.
“When I started researching the law, I found the one in 2009 has some provisions I didn’t think were consistent or could be challenged,” said Allan Wade, the council’s attorney.
Wade said the process would be initiated by the City Council and the Shelby County Commission, who adopt resolutions creating a charter commission, like the latest proposal before the council committee.
It would feature 20 members. Eight will be appointed by the mayor of Memphis, who will then be confirmed by the council. The county mayor will get 12 picks. The appointees would have to meet the approval of the County Commission. To meet the deadline for the 2022 election, the charter needs to be filed by Aug. 1, 2022.
“All of these things have to be lined up to make sure they are done in sequence,” cautioned Wade.
The pitch was met with apprehension by many on the council. In addition to the unknowns that the charter commission could foster, there are fears that newly won political gains, especially by African Americans. could be lost, tipping the balance of power away from the city’s interests. “It is my opinion that we have a more Memphis-friendly Shelby County Commission than we have ever had. What can they not accomplish that a combined government could not accomplish?
“I have seen the damage that a non-Memphis friendly County Commission has done, and it’s been that way up until 2014 or 2018. Now that we have one (commission) that is Memphis-friendly, why do we damage that?” asked councilmember Martavius Jones.
He also argued that a metro government will allow communities in the county to have a say in how Memphis is run.
“If I can’t go out to Germantown and tell them how to run Germantown and Arlington and Collierville, why should we have a body where people who live in the county already have a voice on the county commission? How does that benefit Memphis?”
Proponents argued that the current makeup of the county would ensure those wins would be preserved. To act as a guardrail, the statute also calls for the charter commission “to include various representatives from various political, social and economic groups…”
“They’ll have experts, they’ll have attorneys involved that are constitutional attorneys, economic advisors, grassroots, neighbors, community charrettes, engaging the people with what they want. I can tell you what they don’t want is the status quo,” said councilmember Chase Carlisle.
Still, the idea continued to receive pushback. Some councilmembers wanted more information made available to the public before decisions are made. One even proposed a committee be formed to perform the task.
“In a city where we have such high poverty, blight, crime, COVID-19, which is an anomaly, and our infrastructure issues, this is just another way of getting us off track.
“We need to stay on track, get what we can done as a body, allow another group to come together as a committee. That committee will make a recommendation to this body because this is more permanent. You are allowing someone else to make decisions before us and we don’t have all of the information on the front end,” said councilmember Patrice Robinson.
Councilmember Edmund Ford Sr. made his feelings known when Carlisle attempted to call on Ted Townshend, chief economic officer at Greater Memphis Chamber.
“We are not going to bother him right now. Please sit back down,” interrupted Ford. “I’m going to get pissed off in a minute because, first of all, this should have been stopped a long time ago,” Ford said.
He continued, “Don’t bring somebody out here, if you got something to say, I want you to talk. Please hurry up so I can talk. We need to hold this for three weeks. Do not bring something and think everybody’s going to do something today and nobody did no research on it.”