A move to replace the current Shelby County Land Bank this week passed 6-4 in its second reading, with four members abstaining. For passage, a majority of seven commissioners would have to approve the measure on its third and final reading.

by James Coleman —

An ad hoc committee was created by Shelby County Commission Chairman Willie Brooks Jr. to evaluate the formation of a Charter Commission during the body’s Monday (Sept. 27) meeting. 

The committee will study the possible consolidation of the City of Memphis and Shelby County governments. 

Brook’s action, however, did not come without some harsh words about consolidation from some commissioners.

Commissioner Reginald Milton initially introduced a resolution to create a similar committee, but withdrew it after he said several commission members would not support the proposal.

“This is a great opportunity to bring these two bodies (a reference to the Memphis City Council) together and look at this county and city as a whole, and how we can move forward. If you have ideas, you need to bring them forward,” said Milton.

The review is estimated to take 60 to 90 days. It seeks input from all commissioners. The joint study with the City Council will include four public meetings. It is scheduled to conclude by Nov. 2. Its recommendations will be presented to the Commission and City Council. Separate votes could follow.

While the commission chairman has the power to form the ad hoc committee, getting buy-in from several commissioners might be beyond his reach.

Commissioners Mark Billingsley and Edmund Ford Jr. wanted nothing to do with the committee. Ford, in particular, criticized the proposal. 

He likened it to the horror movie “Gremlins” and cautioned that “changing the rules” via consolidation could result in squandered gains by minorities. The thought of tilting the balance of power was also raised as a specter.

“My concern is look at the makeup of the city council; you’ve got eight Black and five women, that’s never happened before. Now we’re talking about changing some rules. On this body, we have eight Democrats, seven Black…,” said Ford.

Commissioners Tami Sawyer and Eddie Jones also piled on. Although both said they may take part, they will likely be a tough sell. 

Sawyer, who initially objected to withdrawing the resolution in favor of a vote, criticized Brooks, saying the process “seemed weighted,” with the decision to form the ad hoc committee already decided.

“You’re the chair and that’s your right, but I just want to say that makes it hard for me to then engage in a process that you are saying is going to be fair and based on both sides,” said Sawyer.

Brooks, who became chairman earlier this month, defended the committee as an effort for better government and nothing more.

“This committee, our focus isn’t on consolidation but the efficiency of government. It should be data-driven versus opinionated. 

“If we are data-driven, based on facts and data, and you give your input, hopefully, whatever the decisions are that come back to this body, that you would have had some engagement. That’s the focal point by which this committee will move forward.”

He also appointed Milton chair and Brandon Morrison co-chair of the study group. Morrison, for her part, was open to the process, although agnostic on its subject of focus.

Milton, however, withdrew from consideration after the successive rounds of criticism.

“I’m not going to be the chair. I’m pulling out. I’m not going to be a part of it. I’m getting out of it completely,” he said.

“Ten years from now, South Memphis, Orange Mound, Hickory Hill, North Memphis, Frayser … these communities are going to look just the same as they are now, if not worse,” referring to the need to explore opportunities that would bring economic development and prosperity to those areas.