When the topic of city-county government consolidation comes up, it’s hard to figure out if the small town mayors have more in common with Pavlov or Edgar Cayce.

On one hand, like the dogs in the Russian scientist’s famous reflex action studies, the mayors immediately salivate, growling over territory and turf, personality and propaganda.

On the other hand, like the American psychic, the mayors can foretell the future and their citizens’ opinions on something that isn’t even in the form of a final proposal yet.

That’s the thing about the knee-jerk reaction elicited every time someone mentions the merger of city-county government. They profess on one hand to espouse basic Republican principles abhorring big government, but they oppose eliminating one of the two big governments here.  They say government is the enemy, but they aren’t willing to blow up the ones we have and start over.

More Questions Than Answers

They complain about not having a voice in decisions here, but they refuse to engage in a real discussion of what a better government could look like in our community. They complain that government wastes money, but they resist a change that can eliminate duplication and inefficiency.

But here’s the main thing: what are the mayors against? There is no proposal to be against.

All that Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton suggested when he appointed the members to the Charter Commission is that our community ought to have a discussion about what we could do to reinvent government here, to give the public the chance to weigh in and ultimately, to give the public the chance to vote for or against a proposal.

As Mayor Wharton has said, what he heard on his listening tour throughout Shelby County is that people want to have this discussion, to see what a new government could look like and to have the right to vote. That sounds like the fundamental principles of democracy itself.

Why Worry?

And if the mayors are so certain that voters outside Memphis will never approve this government, then what are they worried about? In an incomprehensible mangling of the “one man, one vote” principle, in the end, their voters not only have one vote, but ultimately, veto power as well.

That’s because it doesn’t matter if a majority of Shelby County citizens prefer a new government (as they do), what matters more is whether citizens outside Memphis prefer it. After all, for creation of a better government, there are two referenda and the concept must pass in both – one for voters inside Memphis and one for voters outside Memphis.

It seems a peculiar invention since we are all county residents, and it’s confusing why some votes have more weight at the ballot box than others. But it’s the law in Tennessee, and it would take a complicated, time-consuming change in the state Constitution to make it more rational.

So, the mayors and their citizens – and the increasing number of people living in unincorporated Shelby County – have extraordinary clout on whether the rest of us can get the government that we all want. In the end, however, this isn’t about unity and singing Kumbaya around a communal campfire. More to the point, it’s about doing something dramatic to change the direction of our region – yes, region, because the troubling indicators are not for Memphis only; they are regional.

Old Ideas Block New Ones

There are some who suggest that the mayors are hunkering down because of the changing demographics of the area outside Memphis and making their last stand against black Memphis. Despite the idea by some city politicians, the non-Memphis area of Shelby County is hardly a bastion of white elites.

Already, there are 60,000 African-Americans living outside Memphis, and every town but Germantown is adding African-Americans, and it’s about more than black people. It’s about Pakistanis, Indians and people of all kinds of religions. The concept of monolithic Ozzie and Harriet suburbs where every one looks alike is as outdated as analog TV.

We resist the contention that opposition to city-county merger is a manifestation of suburban racism. We know most of the suburban mayors, and while we don’t agree with them on this and many issues, we are reluctant to paint them with this brush. They are good people, and more to the point, they are logical within the world in which they live, but they can read the demographic trends. If they cannot govern cities increasingly characterized by diversity, their political futures are short-lived any way.

In their own cities, they are dedicated to processes that engage the public and they often emphasize the importance of considering new ways of doing business. As we’ve written before, there are lessons that the rest of Shelby County can learn from these towns, particularly quality of life issues such as park and outdoor recreation.

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself

As a result, it’s dispiriting to see them take such a contrary position when this public engagement and innovation involve the broad community of which they are a part and on which their futures depend. Willingness to take a seat at the table and talk about how they think Memphis and Shelby County Governments should be changed is not political weakness. It’s the essence of real leadership.

Of course, fear of change is a compelling motivator, and while we realize that it’s much easier to say what’s wrong with something than to show the leadership to fix it, we think the mayors – if they can take a few steps back and reflect on their own political values – could find places at the table where their input would be valuable and essential.

Now, they say that they are opposed to consolidation. What kind? What governmental structure? What delineation of responsibilities? What district make-up for a new legislative body? How does a new government use technology to cut costs? What is the law enforcement structure and can it fight crime better? What could a new government look like?

In other words, it’s not simple enough any more to say simply that we are for or against consolidation. It’s about being for a process to answer our questions and to consider what could be rather than what is.  And it’s worth remembering that there is no template for merging governments that you pull off the shelf.  Every merged government from Denver to Jacksonville and from Louisville to Nashville has its own distinct version.

Living In The Present

This is a question that should interest the mayors more than anyone else based on their political philosophy and their personal statements. Who knows what we, as a community, could create if we would all just agree to be at the same table to talk about what the future could be rather than fall into roles dictated by our past?

Perhaps we are probably too sympathetic at times to the town mayors, but one of us was reared in one of them and he knows full well the immediate fear and the subsequent dread that any mention of city-county merger provokes.

But that was then. This is now.

All of us, including the town mayors, must shed ourselves of our preconceived notions and our kneejerk opinions. Consolidation is a concept of governance. It does not have a template or a preordained organizational chart. It does not have a rule book.

Finding Our Unique Answers

It is just the opposite. There are as many versions of city-county mergers as there are places where it has been approved. In this way, we have the very real chance to remake a new government in our own image, reflecting our values and our aspirations.

Clearly, the current governmental structure does not work. It is too expensive, it is too wasteful and it is too bureaucratic. Perhaps, just once, our community could be the first in developing what a high-performing government ought to look like in today’s highly competitive world.

There is much that the towns have done right, notably first-class park systems. Memphians need to acknowledge that.

Conversely, there is much that Memphis has done right.  It delivers its services at a lower per capita rate than the towns.  All Shelby Countians need to acknowledge that.

Ultimately, we can play our familiar “we versus they” game yet again. But, it is a zero-sum game and in the end, it is a stalemate, and in this case, that is as good as a loss, one we can ill afford.