Previously published in Memphis magazine’s City Journal column:

Finally, Shelby County has the chance to have a “strong mayor” form of government.

Through sheer force of personality, county mayors have created the perception that they are equals to their Memphis counterparts. But, perched atop a government littered with the fiefdoms of assorted elected officials and powerful public boards, the truth is that the county mayor has direct control over less than 20 percent of the county budget.

The irony is obvious: while everyone talks about consolidating city and county governments, things aren’t even consolidated inside Shelby County Government.

Cracking The Door

That could soon change. Unexpectedly, the Tennessee Supreme Court has opened the door to the potential of reducing the number of elected officials – like the register whose main job is recording documents, the trustee who collects taxes, the clerk who sells marriage and auto licenses, the assessor who appraises property, the sheriff who primarily operates the county jail, and a covey of clerks for probate, criminal, circuit, general sessions, and juvenile courts.

This kind of streamlining of county government was unimaginable just months ago. Seemingly given special status as “constitutional officers,” it was thought that these officials were as much a part of county government as the costs of sprawl. Regardless of who’s been behind the mayor’s desk in the past 31 years, he’s thought wistfully of folding some of these largely functional duties into his operations.

As one mayor described it, the county’s organizational structure is tantamount to holding Fred Smith accountable for FedEx’s performance, but without giving him control over FedEx Ground.

Killing The Hydra

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When county government was restructured in 1974, the lumbering three-headed administration was scrapped in favor of a single county chief executive to be called a mayor, an appellation that allowed him to elbow his way into a spotlight previously reserved for the Memphis mayor.

But the rhetoric far outstripped reality. Even when home rule was approved a decade later, it did not stop Shelby County Government’s repeated forays to the Tennessee Legislature to plead for powers automatically given to cities and their mayors.

In the past 20 years, there’s been no serious study of how the county structure could be changed to improve its operations and deal with an entrenched culture that repulses innovation. Unfortunately, with the opportunity now to reduce the inefficiency that comes from the county’s Hydra-like structure, county commissioners are just as likely to blink as to seize the chance to consider what county government could be.

Impact Or Not?

If they take the path of least resistance, they will ratify all of the elected offices and move on. If they have the courage, they will take the time to have serious debate about ways to make county government more businesslike – how to make public boards like the Agricenter Commission more accountable for its use of public land, how to have more oversight of powerful boards like the Airport Authority, how to align resources in a dozen economic development boards, and how to reinvent bureaucracies like the finance department so they are lean and customer-oriented.

Within county government, the costs of inconsistent policies are legend. Only the mayor is required to comply with personnel policies, purchasing rules, financial procedures, and technology guidelines. That’s why one elected official bought a multi-million dollar computer system that couldn’t “talk” to the county mainframe, another refused to put her GIS information online for public use, another paid premium prices for equipment purchased more cheaply by the mayor’s administration, and most contribute to the stupefying, fragmented online experience at county websites.

In a few years, the landmark agreements establishing Urban Growth Boundaries will virtually eliminate many of the county’s most prominent services – zoning, planning, fire department, ambulances, road construction, and more.

It’s The Beginning

If the question today about reducing the number of elected officials is seen as a beginning, rather than an end, it could actually be used to plan for that new day and to transform county government into the more entrepreneurial environment envisioned by Mayor A C Wharton.

Across the U.S., urban governments are engaged in bursts of innovation unseen in decades, and in places, a strong mayor form of government is pursued as the answer to their problems. Shelby County could join them if commissioners think beyond the immediate politics of the problem before them.

It would seem to be the perfect time to consider the kind of “smarter government” being pursued in states like New York, where there’s a call for economies of scale, efficiency, cooperation, and consolidation between governments. Before Shelby County can get to that point, it first has to do it within its government.