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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Should you have to live in Memphis to be on the MLGW Board of Directors?

Should the Memphis Light Gas and Water Board of Directors be limited only to people who live in Memphis?

A proposed ordinance to add two non-Memphian seats to the MLGW board faces an uphill climb, after members of the Memphis City Council expressed skepticism with the proposal. The pitch came during the MLGW Committee’s May 21 meeting.

If passed, Memphians would decide whether to add seats to provide representation on the utility’s board of directors on the November 5 ballot. The board currently has five members. All reside within the city limits of Memphis. 

“If we spend millions of dollars with the Ford Company, that doesn’t mean we’re going to have a seat on the board at Ford. The county spends several thousands of dollars with MATA. They don’t have a seat on the board,” said Council Member Jana Swearengen-Washington. 

“Just because you are a customer, it does not mean you are entitled, or even have the right to demand to have additional seats on the board,” she continued. “Especially when we know that is Memphis, Light, Gas and Water.”

Before inviting members of the utility’s board to explain their position, Swearengen-Washington also questioned if the proposal was beyond the board’s charter responsibility.

Committee chair Philip Spinosa said the questions about the MLGW charter would be provided.

Area leaders outside Memphis – like Bartlett Mayor David Parsons and Germantown Mayor Mike Palazzolo – are pushing for the expansion too. Nearly a third of the utility’s customer base lives in the suburbs and unincorporated parts of the county.

“As far back as I can remember since I’ve served this City of Memphis, the suburban mayors have been talking about this,” said MLGW CEO Doug McGowen.”Since they are served, they would like to have a voice. This is the case with most public utilities.”

McGowan made a point to add that he was not “coming down one way or the other on the discussion.” 

MLGW board members are appointed by the mayor of the City of Memphis, followed by council approval. If approved by the residents of Memphis, the city’s mayor would also appoint these new members, with input from Shelby County and suburban mayors. Terms last three years. 

In 2017, two advisory non-voting members were added to represent areas outside the city. 

“The state was pushing for that representation. That’s where they landed,” said McGowen.

The proposed ordinance follows a resolution passed by the MLGW board in April, to increase its membership. Two seats would be added to represent areas outside the Memphis city limits, particularly the suburbs. Presently, voting members are required to live in Memphis.

After revealing initial doubts, another member reversed course. Council member Jeff Warren reflected on the help Memphis needs with its systemic problems – like crime and the proliferation of firearms – particularly with the Republican-dominated Tennessee State Legislature.

“Can we use this as a way to build better relationships? To actually get things done that we need in Nashville…not just for our power supply, but for other issues?” Warren said.  “It’s going to be a tough push to get it voted through. That push is going to have the county people coming in and saying, ‘Here’s where we can help you out.”

He also said the issue could be used to leverage the Shelby County Commission to raise taxes. The money would be used to fund new construction and maintenance of Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

However, that may be a tough sell. Mayor Lee Harris is currently touting a proposed $1.6 billion budget for FY2025. It includes no tax increases.

Over the years, the utility’s charter has been amended several times.

A home rule ordinance was passed in 1983.  It requires voting MLGW board members to reside in the city. Prior to that, members were only required to live within Shelby County.

MLGW was created in 1939. A board was soon established that had three members. It was expanded to five members in 1951. In 1980, the utility’s president and vice president were no longer considered members of the board.

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