The challenge of being a change agent is always the pressure to deliver on it.

That’s the test facing the administration of new Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

The Shelby County elections were a harbinger of the change election that was to take place two and a half months later with the national Congressional elections.  Both produced Democratic waves.

In our county elections, Mr. Harris was swept in as the head of a slate of Democrats who took every county office with their promises of a new day for the 199-year-old government.  It was the most consequential county election since 1974 when the present mayor-board of commissioners form of government was approved at referendum with the promise that it would be more proportional in its attention to urban issues.

Previously, county government had been largely focused on rural issues with the legislative body having more members from outside Memphis than inside.  It resulted in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1961, Baker v. Carr, which established the “one person, one vote” principle that required the redistricting of many legislative districts in the U.S.

Getting The Footing

Even with the Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County Government – despite a more proportional legislative body – continued to show preference to the towns outside Memphis.  The restructure of county government was supposed to change all that, although for most of the 42 years, the occupants of the newly created office of county mayor relied heavily on votes from outside Memphis,  While county government did give urban issues more attention, for half of those years, it still had preferential policies for the county towns, such as paying for their libraries and subsidizing their major roads.

All this is prologue. With the election of Mayor Harris, former state senator, a greater focus on Memphis and its issues was promised and a more progressive approach driving it.   While his administration has been in office little more than three months, so far, expectations remain high but not fulfilled.

Every new mayor has to find their footing, and that’s particularly true for some who move from the legislative to the executive branch.  Often, they continue to see themselves more as legislators and as a result, they judge success by how good their relationships are with the legislative body.

There’s been some of that already in county government with the mayor measuring progress by how well he is getting along with the board of commissioners.  His endorsement of the board of commissioners’ getting its own attorney might seem benign, but it erodes the underlying principle of a strong county mayor that was built into the county charter.

Setting Up Conflict

Shelby County Government was restructured because the lines between legislative and executive branches had blurred, and creation of a strong mayor form of government with clear lines of responsibility between that office and the legislative branch rationalized the structure for the first time since the turn of the 20th century.

That’s why the decision of the mayor to erode the role of the county attorney’s office is more important than meets the eye, because that change, if City of Memphis government is any indication, will result in the legislators’ attorney rising to a level commensurate with the county attorney herself, creating internal conflict and confusion, because free from the Shelby County Attorney General’s Office, the commissioners’ attorney will treat them as private clients rather than interpreting decisions within the context of public law applying to county government as a whole.

The role of the county attorney, as set out in the county charter, was to ensure that individual elected officials did not get legal opinions designed to justify their whims independent of the framework of applicable government law that applies to everyone.  The motivation became clear when a former commissioner complained that she was tired of being ruled out of bounds legally by the county attorney and wanted a lawyer who would pursue her ideas.

What made the comment laughable to people in the various administrations is that most can recall county mayors railing against an opinion of the county attorney limiting their options, so the notion that the mayor gets the favorable opinions he wants is a favorite fiction in some parts of county government.

Unfortunately, the commissioners now have their own lawyer, and we predict a new era in more complicated executive-legislative relationships will unfold in the years to come

Accommodation Is Not Always Progress

The impulse to stress accommodation was also seen by many in support for the Juvenile Assessment Center.  Mayor Harris tweeted: “Great work by the County Commission in approving the Juvenile Assessment Center.  This pilot program is one of the first in the country.  It will be a place that law enforcement can use instead of arresting young me and sending them to court.”

It was a strongly optimistic appraisal seen through rose-colored appraisal of a concept that deserved much more analysis and skepticism, considering where it came from and who its most ardent supporters are, but in the end, the Harris Administration was a disappointment in its first major policy test, agreeing to the Juvenile Assessment Center which at this point gravitated more from law enforcement than child advocacy quarters.

It cannot just be just another alliance between police, prosecutors, and judges.  Rather, it should be an alliance of community groups whose collaboration includes those public entities and a broad community-based framework.  Anything less is an admission that the Juvenile Assessment Center is really being designed for law enforcement and prosecutors and are being cloaked in “services” to make it more palatable for a community concerned about the risks for too many of its children and youth in the cradle to prison pipeline.

At this point, there’s no guarantee that the process isn’t likely to widen the net and bring in more and more children of color rather than the opposite.  Even if they are diverted, there will remain a record of police contact and prosecutorial handling.  This is a very slippery slope, because it has the potential to simply become a new feeder system that exacerbates racial and ethnic disparities.

More Due Diligence Needed

We are not saying that the philosophy behind a youth assessment center is not laudable.  The  research is clear about the negative impacts that result from the detention of children and youth.

It puts young people at greater risk of self-harm, increases the likelihood that youth with special needs won’t return to school, reduces chances of success in the labor market, it disproportionately affects children of color, it may in fact increase recidivism, and it can slow the natural aging out of delinquency.

We prefer two models.  One is the Multiagency Resource Center (MARC) in Calcashieu Parish, Louisiana, where the number of children and youth removed from their families and homes has dramatically dropped and with no negative impact on public safeaty, and there is also the model program in New York City – DOOR— which is a safe place that “empowers young people to reach their potential by providing comprehensive youth development services in a diverse and caring environment.”  It meets the needs of 10,000 disconnected youths a year and its success is based on “wraparound services” that embrace each young person with an individual intervention plan and with the regular contact and updates to ensure progress.

Better Alternatives

The proposal for the Juvenile Assessment Center for Memphis and Shelby County falls far short of what is needed, and if it is to have the credibility and the confidence that achieves the policy goals of giving children and youth the kind of alternatives that offer better opportunities for the future, there is much, much more that needs to be done.

The fact that the Juvenile Assessment Center was born more from a law enforcement perspective rather than from a child advocacy perspective is reason enough for the administration – and even commissioners despite being part-time elected officials – to go the extra mile in its due diligence.

Unfortunately, the absence of fact-finding missions to visit model centers with proven records of intervention and the failure to take a much deeper dive into best practices and philosophy  sets up a kind of willful ignorance that makes decisions on the current concept so problematic.

At this point, sadly, approval of the Juvenile Assessment Center feels like it was based more on expedient politics than smart policy, and that’s a really bad look for any new administration, particularly one that promised progressive change.


Join us at the Smart City Memphis Facebook page for daily articles, reports, and commentaries relevant to Memphis and the conversations that begin here.