by Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
This past May, City Council member Philip Spinosa resigned from his seat. A few weeks later, the Council appointed Ford Canale as an interim Council member. Canale will serve as interim for 10 weeks until the August 2 elections, at which time Memphis voters will get to decide who holds the seat for the next year or so.
This is understandable. Council members select a short-term interim, and the voters elect a longer-term member the first chance they get.
But, while one political transition will conclude, several others are likely to commence. Also, on August 2nd, up to three current Council members may leave the Council if they win county offices. And unless they decide to resign their Council seats before they are required to, Memphis voters may be denied the chance to elect their successors.
City Council members Edmund Ford, Janis Fullilove, and Bill Morrison are running for County Commission, Juvenile Court Clerk, and Probate Court Clerk, respectively. If any of them win this August, they face a choice. Under the County Charter, they have 90 days to resign their city office. If they resign promptly, there will be time to use this November’s election to fill the vacancy.
But if they take the full 90 days, as appears to be the practice, they can effectively prevent an election to fill their seat. Instead, the Council members will appoint an “interim” member—not for 10 weeks, as with the Spinosa seat, but 10 months, until October 2019’s regularly scheduled City Council election. This could significantly compromise fair voice for Memphis voters.
By October 2019, the “interim” will have been an incumbent for almost a year, with all the advantages that incumbency brings. And if elected, the Council member for the next year, and possibly for the next four years after that, will have essentially been chosen not by the voters, but by 7 politicians outside the purview of the general public.
These types of developments contribute to the deep suspicions and distrust many Memphians (and many Americans) feel regarding electoral politics. Pew research polls detail, “Trust in government remains at or near historically low levels across generational lines.” Only 1 in 5 Millennials report trust in government. The result is low-turnout elections and a widening gap between the politically astute and the perpetually exploited.
In November of 2017 we launched #UPTheVote901 to increase voter turnout through voter empowerment. For too long, marginalized communities in Shelby County have been disenfranchised due to inadequate access to the most righteous information – the most efficient ways to register and update our voter info, details regarding the specific election (Municipal, County, Federal, Primary, General, etc.), which vital issues are on the ballot and how these issues impact voters in their neighborhoods, etc. We face structural barriers like photo ID requirements, felon disenfranchisement rules, and generational poverty sustained by public policy.
The potential City/County seat swap is another example of how the voters’ voices are being suppressed and marginalized communities denied fair participation in choosing their representation.
Adding insult to injury, the City Council members involved could potentially end up “double-dipping” being paid out of both the City and County treasury, serving simultaneously as county and city government officials for three months of overlap.
I am a proponent of fair wages. I believe elected officials should be adequately compensated for their service. I also believe simultaneously holding a city and county seat, and being paid by both, creates a potential conflict of interest, since the interests of city and county government do not always align. And fiscal improprieties have done the most damage to the public trust and voter confidence.
Fortunately, there is a way to avoid all this. These three Council members can publicly pledge now that if they win, they will resign in a reasonable amount of time (two-weeks) to allow an election to fill their vacancy this November. Voters considering them for county office during their summer campaigns should demand that they answer this question and state their intent. I have confidence that these public servants will do what’s in the best interest to build public trust. The current climate is too tense for anyone to contribute any further to voter disempowerment.
It is best for the people when our leaders are elected by the people, not simply selected by politicians.
(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church (Whitehaven) and lead organizer of #UPTheVote901, a grassroots initiative intended to increase voter turnout in Memphis/Shelby County.)