If there’s ever been a question about our wonkish predilections, it has been answered. We’ve spent Friday night reading responses by Charter Commission candidates to questions from the Coalition for a Better Memphis.
We’ve been concerned lately that some of the candidates see their roles, which are already potent enough, as expansive vehicles to enact a set political agenda. For example, term limits seems to be the mantra by a slate of candidates and treated as a precondition for being “qualified” by an active base of voters, when in fact, the position often doesn’t seem to spring from any philosophical core, but from an intense hatred for the current city mayor.
If term limits are on the table for consideration, hopefully, it will not be driven by a specific personality, but in reaching a decision on whether term limits produce better, more dynamic leaders for city government. It’s easy to point to a mayor like Daley in Chicago, who, despite 17 years in office, continues to innovate and transform his city and wonder why term limits is so often seen as a magic bullet. Then, too, the county term limits requirement, passed in the wake of Mayor Bill Morris’ 16 years in office, now will truncate Mayor A C Wharton’s public service although he is unquestionably the most popular person to ever hold that office.
In other words, term limits deserves careful study and serious consideration, from all sides and all perspectives, so the Charter Commission can make a well-reasoned decision about whether it really produces better government or is just sloganeering.
There are other similarly important issues (such as the mayor’s contracting authority, when the action of City Council becomes final and whether the mayor’s signature should be required on resolutions, what the effect of a resolution really is, to name a few) that seem to be more a reaction to Mayor Herenton than an action to improve government. The 1966 charter amendment that established the mayor-council form of government ended a five-headed administrative structure (five commissioners, one of whom was mayor) that caused confusion and obscured accountability. Before any authority is taken away from the current mayor, we hope the Commission will remember that it will apply to city mayors for decades.
We are also puzzled by some candidates who are actually spending money on political signs to get elected. Some signs are even seen in Germantown, which may not be an error since a large reason that the Memphis Charter Commission exists is because of a Germantown citizen’s persistence.
While we think the Charter Commission is a good idea (in fact, county government could use one itself although it’s charter is so sound that the Memphis Charter Commission should start by reading it), we chafe enough over all those letter writers to The Commercial Appeal who heap criticism on all things Memphis, who find the embodiment of evil in its elected officials and who seem to despise anything found within the city limits, and then sign their letters as residents of Germantown, or Bartlett or Lakeland.
So, for that reason, we need to thank the Germantown leader for the Charter Commission movement, and it would be a good time for him to bow out. While there is no question about his sincerity and his commitment, the slate of candidates endorsed by him and others puts an overlay of “politics as usual” on a process that should be a breath of fresh air.
While it’s probably easier to get elected by issuing opinions before you even hear the evidence, we’d prefer that Charter Commission members take the same oath as juries – to be fair, impartial and act solely on the facts. Serving on the Commission is a solemn duty (in the full import of the word) and candidates who are running because they think they can cure the ills of the city are off track.
We like the straightforward and honest approach taken by John Branston and Buckner Wellford, the former a highly-regarded local journalist and the latter a highly-regarded local lawyer. When asked one of the wide-ranging question by the Coalition for a Better Memphis that encourages an inflated view of the Charter Commission, Mr. Branston answered:
“I have opinions about these issues, but I don’t think they are relevant to the Charter Commission. Government consolidation and school system consolidation are decisions for elected officials, voters and fulltime administrations.”
Bosnia and Abortion
His answer conjured up the memory of a classic response by County Mayor Morris. During the years when abortion was being used as a litmus test in local races, he was asked his position, and replied: “I feel strongly about abortion. I feel strongly about the war in Bosnia, but as mayor of this county, I don’t have the power to do anything about either of them. That’s why I’m concentrating on the things I can actually do something about.”
When asked by the Coalition for a Better Memphis about serious new issues that the city government could face in the future, Mr. Wellford said that there are regional competitive concerns, net loss of population, limited options on annexation, terrorism and natural disaster, to name but a few.
“I used this example because I think it would be a mistake for the Charter Commission to think of itself as visionaries who need to anticipate future issues or trends in municipal government. I think it would make more sense to focus people’s attention on current issues: ethics in government, accountability and transparency in governing, a proper balance of power between the executive and legislative branches…”
In the end, the words of Mr. Branston seem definitive enough. In making the point that the Charter Commission should not be the vehicle to accomplish political goals or make public policy, he put it best: “The Charter Commission’s guiding rule should be the same as for doctors: First, Do No Harm. Then do as little as possible, do it as openly as possible and explain it as clearly as possible.”
We can only hope that it becomes the consensus opinion of the entire Charter Commission, because misunderstood, its impact on city government can be profound, either positively or negatively.
The Charter Commission was set in motion in 2004 when 30,000 voters – about three times more than required by law – signed a petition calling for its creation. The original Memphis Home Rule Charter was created with the advent of home rule government approved by voters in 1966 and the only changes since have been those amendments approved at referenda. (Before home rule, all amendments had to be approved by the state legislature rather than by Memphis voters.) The new Commission will have about two years to report back to the public, and its recommendations will be put on the city ballot for a vote.
As one savvy, long-time observer of Memphis politics suggests, if the Charter Commission really wants to engage the public in the process and allay any fears of special agendas, it should issue its recommendations as a series of free-standing amendments voted on by the public separately, rather than a single, “take it or leave it” document that would be voted up or down. That way, voters are given real power, allowed to approve some and disapprove others.
Without question, there should be no argument that the City Charter should be reviewed, in light of changes in technology, if nothing else. Overall, the responses of Charter Commission candidates are thoughtful and sincere, but their charge, first and foremost, should be “do no harm.”