Our small town mayors have more herrings than a Scandanavian fisherman.

The only difference is that theirs are red.

They switch from one talking point to another, playing “what if” in an effort to poison the well before their constituents have had a voice in the charter for a new government being written by the Memphis/Shelby County Charter Commission.

Despite their Greek chorus of fear and anxiety, it is an idea whose time has come.    Put simply, it’s time to get rid of one of the governments that overlap, duplicate services and waste our money.

In one respect, we do agree with the town mayors.  We are against consolidation too.

New, Improved

Rather, as we said a couple of years ago, we are for using the Tennessee Metropolitan Act to create a totally new government – rather than simply following Nashville’s example and welding together city and county governments.

It’s not as if time has stood still in the about four decades since Nashville got the jump on our community by streamlining its local government.  The payoffs are obvious.  Yes, we can learn from the lessons of the wave of traditional consolidations in the 1960’s, but we have the chance to think about how we can have the most innovative, economical government in the U.S., something totally new and something totally different.

That’s why we like the approach of Charter Commission Chair Julie Ellis and her colleagues.  They could have done the simple thing – take both city and county org charts and put them together and adjourn after a couple of meetings.

But small ideas and simple notions won’t fix the broken business models of our governments.  And suggestions that functional consolidation and interlocal agreements are the answer are absurdist thinking since the government we have today comes from 30 years of this approach.

Boss Crump Lives

And yet, the town mayors call for scrapping our chance to invent a new government before it’s even started.  It’s the suburban reincarnation of Boss Crump as they tell Mrs. Ellis that she’s not welcome to hold public hearings in their towns, deciding unilaterally that their citizens don’t deserve the opportunity to get involved in the charter commission’s work.

All of this is pulsating with political irony since the mayors have spent years complaining about both Memphis and Shelby County Governments – as recently as last week when they got down to griping about a 75-cent fee to Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford.

Of course, they are not alone.  It seems often that the people most tenaciously fighting a change are the ones who’ve complained the loudest about Memphis for years, and now, given the opportunity for a countywide government in which they have a fuller voice, they cling to the status quo like a life preserver.

Deja Vu

The fact that all of it is cloaked in a faux populism makes it no less easy to see through it, and the racial overtones expressed by the town mayor on the Charter Commission in a recent visit from the Jacksonville General Counsel put it all in a pretty graphic frame.  We’ve said before that we refuse to believe that the town mayors are motivated by prejudice or racism, but like the McCain/Palin campaign, they stoke the raw emotions of those who are motivated by those ugly feelings, and like Senator John McCain, the mayors need to call a halt to the ugliest rhetoric and use of code words once and for all.

In the meantime though, the mayors continue to stridently oppose “consolidation” although they don’t even know what will be written into a new charter yet.  It seems obvious that they’re not really motivated just by the fear of the unknown but by the preferential treatment that they’ve received from county government for decades and decades.

There was a time when county government was controlled by the small towns.  Although Memphis represented the majority of Shelby County, the forerunner to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners – the Quarterly Court – was governed by a majority elected from outside Memphis.  It took the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling – Baker v. Carr, the so-called “one man, one vote” case – to force fair representation on Shelby County.

Despite this change, county government’s agenda – and its skyrocketing – debt has been driven by its obsession with delivering the roads and schools that developers wanted outside Memphis, fueling sprawl and subsidizing the largest out-migration in Memphis’ history.  The town mayors haven’t grasped yet that those days are over – county government is financially strapped and all property tax revenues are spent today for schools, justice and health.

Doing Nothing Is Not an Option

Absent the creation of a new government, the future will feature more annexations by Memphis and fewer services from Shelby County, and if nothing changes, voters outside Memphis will continue to have a mere 3 of the 26 votes on the city and county legislative bodies that will decide the future of their community.

In other words, we think there are compelling reasons that every Shelby Countian – including those living outside Memphis – should consider a new government as godsend, but first, we’ll have to listen hard to hear the facts over the roars of the mayors.  And we’ll have to read closely and watch closely to get the facts from a news media whose default mode is to define everything in the public sector by conflict and as a horse race.

We believe the Charter Commission voted right when it didn’t include schools in its work.  There are legal reasons that it was questionable that it had the authority to tackle them in the first place, but we don’t subscribe to the view that the solutions for Memphis City Schools can be found in Shelby County Schools.  It’s the former that understands the challenges and realities of urban education and in dealing with that overriding purpose, the county schools offer nothing.

During Mayor A C Wharton’s “listening tour” about government merger, the mayors howled that it was all a ploy to consolidate schools, but taking that off the table did little to assuage their stated concerns.  It simply morphed into a conspiracy theory about this all being the set-up for it to happen later and that it’s all about shifting school funding to county taxpayers (although it’s easier to do that now under our present structure).

Open Mouth, Close Mind

They worked hard to block the listening tour from coming to their towns, and then one complained that Mayor Wharton never came there.  Now they deliver the same message to Mrs. Ellis in a classic example of “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.”  More to the point, last time we checked, the towns were part of Shelby County and the Charter Commission doesn’t need their permissions to have meetings with the public there.

Lately, they’ve taken to arguing that The Med shouldn’t be funded with county taxes because it primarily serves Memphians.  However, they forget that The Med was transferred from City of Memphis to Shelby County in an agreement between the two governments before county government was restructured in the mid-1970’s.  In addition, health care should be on the largest tax base since it’s a regional service.

The mayors say that city government is financially unstable and irresponsible, but Memphis delivers services cheaper than the largest county towns.   In these psycho-drama, Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy is a dependable source of complaints whose solutions seem to rest in creating a better government, but the faulty syllogism seems to elude her.  In her meeting with Mrs. Ellis, she said Memphis’s finances are scary and that Memphis can’t be “trusted to do the right thing.”  Her answer: keep it like it is.  For the record, City of Memphis goes away.

Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner said that if county government can’t tell him how his 75-cent vector control fee is being spent, how would a metro government?  Perhaps the answer is found in putting the safeguards and the accountability in a new charter to make sure it happens.

Bad Faith

And to top it off, he and Mayor Goldsworthy said that they just can’t get comfortable with Memphians being the voting majority in a new government.   Of course, that’s just like it is now but perhaps they want to have the unreasonable veto power that suburban voters have over the will of the people in a metro consolidation vote.

In other words, for the town mayors, there will always be something to complain because the truth is they aren’t engaging in the discussion in good faith.  That said, the rest of us shouldn’t let them distract us from the important work of talking to each other – not to mention listening to each other – about what a new, improved government could be.