Memphis City Council members must balance a panoply of issues throughout their terms, ranging from big and little ticket investments to revitalize the local economy and community, to addressing some of the highest poverty and crime rates in the nation.
However, under the direction of council Chairman Martavius Jones, most final votes likely won’t be cast without a good, hard look at the numbers.
“One of the things I make it a practice to do, I look at a problem, I study the problem and try to look at it from every angle.
“I may take a little bit more time looking at a problem before I come up with a recommendation, or strategy of how we need to tackle it. Once I’ve studied it – and I’m going to put quite a bit of time into studying it – I’m ready to make a decision.”
During his time on the council and as a member the legacy Memphis City Schools Board, that trait has permeated his decisions as an elected official.
A financial advisor for 28 years, Jones’ workaday life at his firm – Jones Wealth Management Group – involves breaking down numbers and offering shrewd advice to build wealth for clients.
“One thing people will never be able to say about me is that ‘I never did my homework.’ I’m going to always do my homework and use that as a justification for any recommendation that I make.”
Jones, who is term limited, stepped into council chairmanship after then-council chairwoman Jamita Swearengen resigned her council seat after winning the race for Shelby County Circuit Court Clerk in the Aug. 4 county general election.
On Nov. 15, council members, without opposition, officially elected Jones chairman for 2023, his last year as a councilman.
It was the love of homework that led to his entry into local politics. Like several area elected officials past and present, Jones put his foot in the door through the old city school board.
After relocating back to his hometown from Nashville, he started attending school board meetings.
Jones soon began building a rapport with an area lawyer, who asked him to help with her campaign for an open school board seat.
“I had worked with a woman by the name of Tomeka Hart. I worked as her treasurer for her campaign to run for the school board …When she ran, she won.”
A year later, another vacancy opened. After showing interest, Jones was appointed to fill the seat. It was soon apparent that his background in finance could prove useful.
“I thought that part of what made me the best person at the time was the fact that there was no one on the school board that had a finance background,” said Jones.
He continued, “You had a physician on the school board at the time, you had a pastor on the school board at the time, you had a lawyer… you had a former school administrator, you had somebody who was a community activist, but you didn’t have anybody with a financial background.”
As council chairman, Jones is imbued with some power. He appoints coveted committee chair assignments. He also can place holds on votes.
Yet, he also doesn’t mind being the lone dissenting voice.
An example was his recent no vote on the confirmation of former Memphis COO Doug McGowen as Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president and CEO to replace the outgoing J.T. Young.
Jones protested after the successor was nominated without having to compete for the position through a nationwide search. He argued that other candidates for city leadership posts, like current Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, emerged through a national search.
McGowen, who was nominated for the MLGW post by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, was eventually confirmed 12-1 during the Nov. 1 meeting. Jones was the lone no vote.
Other fateful votes concerning the utility loom, including the longstanding issue of coal ash removal from TVA’s retired Allen Coal-fired Plant through predominantly Black South Memphis neighborhoods. The issue has fired up neighborhood and environmental activists, along with some council members.
But, just like his approach on the school board and his career, Jones has taken a methodical, bookkeeper’s approach of examining the numbers to come to his decision.
Wednesday (Dec. 7), the MLGW board rejected signing a 20-year, rolling contract with TVA. TVA, however, will continue its relationship with the city for the foreseeable future.
The vote apparently, for now, cools the years’ long debate over whether the city should stick with the federally own electric-power supplier or find another supplier options.
If the MLGW board had voted to accept the 20-year contract, the council would have to approve the move.
Jones, who was interviewed by The New Tri-State Defender before Wednesday’s vote, had this to say about the Memphis-leaving-TVA debate.
“Right now, whenever TVA makes an investment, they are spreading that cost over 11 million ratepayers. However, if we were to go it alone … we would be spreading all of those costs amongst basically one million rate payers.
“So, to me it’s simple math. Do we want to create an extra financial burden and only have that burden born by people that live in Shelby, Co., Tennessee? To me, that’s a hard no,” said Jones.
He also feels that technology, like batteries, hasn’t caught up to the problem. With (energy) renewables like solar, batteries are a necessity since the power supply from the sun is cut at dusk.
“One of the impediments right now is, I don’t think we are where we want to be on the availability of storage options.”
But the council chair also believes like most things, the costs will go down as the availability comes online.
“I remember going into Best Buy. This might have been 15-plus years ago. It was my first time seeing a flat screen television. The price of a flat screen television, and this is when it first came out, was $9,999,” Jones chuckled. “In my opinion, that’s where we are in a lot of this stuff with renewables.”
From Jones’ vantagepoint, Memphis’ poverty rate is a more pressing issue going into his second and final term.
“We’re talking about a city that has the second-highest poverty rate of any large city in the U.S. Do we want to put that additional financial burden on them? If the costs were a little bit more in line with the realities of the people we serve, I’d be the first one to sign up for it.”
One issue he feels is ripe for council discussion that could have an impact is the Economic Development Growth Engine Industrial (EDGE) Development Board.
Created in 2011 through a joint resolution of the council and the Shelby County Commission, the economic development agency offers tax incentives to businesses that relocate to the area.
However, some of the beneficiaries fail to pay what he considers a living wage to workers. Prior to 2011, the decisions rested with elected officials instead of appointed board members.
“One of the things that has frustrated me about my time on the council is that prior council have ceded their authority to outside bodies and organizations that are not directly accountable to the taxpayers,”
To balance the scales, Jones wants to claw back some authority over who benefits from a tax break. He also wants to revisit the definition of a living wage.
Currently, the board puts the number at $13 an hour. However, that figure only considers the worker. The cost of living, however, goes up drastically once you add on children or other dependents.
To make the wage more in line with most workers’ realities, he wants to boost the rate to $16. A vote to give control back to the council failed last year.
“Even if we don’t take back all the authority, we should have some say so in what are some of the provisions under which they operate.”
Jones unsuccessfully pushed for council members and the mayor to be able to serve a third term. He was successful in getting a referendum on the August ballot, but city voters rejected the idea 66.3 percent to 33.7 percent.
Jones is at peace with letting his run as Memphis City Council Chair be his political career’s swan song.
“My full-time job, I love what I do.”