Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is right.
The logic of consolidating Memphis and Shelby County Governments is painfully obvious. There is no city and county in the country where merging the governments makes as much sense.
And yet, we likely can’t get there from here.
It is also patently unfair that a majority of voters in Shelby County should not have the right to change their form of local government.
And yet, as every one of us was told by our parents, life’s just not fair.
Rules Of The Game
Because it isn’t, the prognosis for changing the ground rules for consolidation votes in Tennessee is about as likely as finding a pro-Memphis groundswell on Capitol Hill in Nashville.
We admire Mayor Herenton’s stick-to-it-ness on this issue, but despite his quadrennial call for change (and similar proclamations by former city and county mayors), no progress has been made in reinventing the structure of local government. We wish we could see reasons to think that things will be any different this year.
After all, Mayor Herenton’s latest plan is built on the premise of a change in Tennessee law so that a single-majority, rather than the present dual-majority, is required for approval of consolidation. In other words, no longer would the vote on consolidation have to be approved by a majority of the voters within Memphis and then also approved by a majority of the voters outside of Memphis.
Tough Road To Hoe
That would change the law so consolidation would be approved in a single countywide vote – like the one that consolidated Louisville and Jefferson County governments in 2000. But more than a law has to be changed – so does the state constitution. That’s because Tennessee law simply codified a 1953 amendment to the state constitution that was not self-executing.
The dual-majority requirement in Tennessee isn’t the reflection of a strange backwater political culture. Such requirements are found in other states, and in fact, there are places where the threshold for approval of consolidation is even more onerous, requiring approval by each city individually.
The odds of getting a fractured Shelby County delegation to lead the fight for law change in the rural-dominated legislature and succeed were already long, but the idea that the state legislature is going to call a limited constitutional convention to address this issue for Memphis or that a super-majority of the legislature will ultimately pass it is at this point unfathomable.
Surely, Mayor Herenton prefers the legislative approach to a constitutional convention, and if so, with everything falling in place, it would be late 2010 before the change would have final approval. To start the clock, the Tennessee Legislature must approve it for the first time in the current session. Any bump in the road sets back the process, making it likely that it would be 2014 before final action could take place.
Normally, the Legislature is moved to support legislation for a specific county if the county’s delegation unites behind it. That’s not going to happen here, since the Shelby County delegation can hardly unite to support motherhood. Absent this delegation unity, Mayor Herenton will have to find champions to push the bill through. That, too, is difficult, because city government doesn’t have any strong political alliances in Nashville to leverage.
Reportedly, Mayor Herenton is counting on Governor Phil Bredesen’s help in getting the law and the constitution changed, but that too seems like a hard sell. Constitutional amendments don’t require gubernatorial approval; they are totally within the province of the Legislature. With only two years left in office, Governor Bredesen is focused on the highest and best uses of his political capital, and it’s hard to imagine it including a contentious political fight on governmental structure in Memphis.
Truth be told, if we only had one wish for the use of the governor’s political capital, it would be for intervention at Memphis City Schools. To us, if you want to ask the governor to have the maximum impact on the future of Memphis, it’s the schools, not governmental structure, that matter most.
Starting The Clock
As for consolidation, when and if the state law allows passage of consolidation with a single countywide vote, another clock starts. It’s the one for the charter commission, the group that will write the proposed charter to be put up for a vote at referendum.
At its speediest, this would take a year and more likely, it would take 18 months.
In other words, people who contend that Mayor Herenton is pushing consolidation once again as an egotistical power grab should think again. If somehow this issue did the one thing that government finds hardest to do – move ahead in a timely and efficient manner – the change in government would be up for a vote about the time that Mayor Herenton is getting ready to leave office.
Already, some influential people see Shelby County AC Wharton as the best person to head up this merged government, and if he’s interested, it’s hard to see a situation where he wouldn’t be the prohibitive front runner.
Of course, that rests on the assumption that voters would at referendum approve consolidation in a countywide vote, and it’s not as much of a given as some would suggest. In Louisville, even with the most popular city mayor in history pushing for consolidation and supported by his county counterpart, a $2 million business-sponsored campaign and relentless media support, the merger passed 55% to 45%. It was also the third time consolidation was on the ballot.
The bloc of votes against consolidation came largely from suburban and African-American voters; however, here, consolidation supporters are counting on Mayor Herenton’s street cred to prevent the perennial charges in a move toward consolidation that black political power is being diluted.
No Magic Bullet
While consolidation isn’t the magic panacea that it’s often held up to be, it’s hard to disagree that it’s an idea whose time has come. As annexations by Shelby County’s cities, chiefly Memphis, take in the areas reserved for them by Chapter 1101, there will be a time when the boundaries of Memphis and Shelby County will be largely co-terminus.
At that point, the notion of having two overlapping urban governments serving essentially the same areas seems ludicrous on its face. In truth, if city and county governments have still not merged at that point, they could do it de facto with contracts and intergovernmental agreements.
As the debate on this issue continues, we hope that everyone can turn down the volume. Mayor Herenton’s continued blasts at residents of county towns only harden the political lines and minds. There may actually be common ground, but we’ll never know if the lines of communications are preemptively blown up. Town mayors need to abandon knee-jerk complaints about Mayor Herenton as a person and consolidation as a concept. They need to acknowledge that consolidation is an option that deserves careful consideration and objective discussion.
And for the rest of us, we need to fight a rush to judgment and wait for the facts. This isn’t about plugging our opinions about consolidation into existing anti-suburb hatred or anti-Memphis hatred. Rather, it’s about honest fact-finding, listening to what the pluses and minuses of consolidation are and then reaching an opinion on what would be best for the total community, not just our own enclaves or constituencies.
Consolidation may be an idea whose time has come, but we’ll never know it unless we can have the kind of reasoned discussion that the future of our local governments deserve. And who knows, if we actually talk and listen, we may just find that there are ways that every one can benefits.