The vote by three Memphis City Council members against a resolution opposing the Tennessee Legislature’s interference in local decision-making is in a word, indefensible.

Some things should rise above winning a political argument any way you can and insisting on self-determination by Memphis  to control its own destiny is one. 

And yet, Councilmen Ford Canale, Frank Colvett, and Worth Morgan supported the action of the State House committee to ban residency requirements for police and fire officers in Memphis. Councilman Chase Carlisle abstained.

Memphis City Council voted 9-3 to oppose state interference.

Home Rule, Anyone?

Residency requirements are opposed by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn (C.J.) Davis, the fire union, and the police union, and it may be wishful thinking to hope they did not support this way of getting their way by going behind Memphis own legislators on City Council.  If they did encourage state action, it’s hard not to think of it as anything but a betrayal.

So far, City Council has not supported the end of residency requirements, but regardless of how each of us feels on the issue, involving the Tennessee Legislature to get your way undermines the core principle of local elected officials making local decisions.

 It also shreds the concept of home rule and sends the message to state legislators that their persistent meddling in local issues has local political support.   

It’s not the way democracy is supposed to work.   

The best decisions for Memphis are made by the elected officials closest to it.

Those people aren’t 210 miles away in the insular, highly partisan environment of the Tennessee Legislature.  After all, that body’s Republican supermajority rarely passes up an opportunity to take a shot at Memphis or to deride its people. 

Track Records Matter

General rule of thumb for the three Councilmen who voted in favor of state interference: any bill introduced by State Senator Brian Kelsey can be assumed to be anathema to Memphis’ interests at best and plantation mentality at worst.  His track record alone should give any City Council member pause to support yet another effort by him to make sure Memphis’ majority African American population does not have the power to make its own decisions.

It’s not lost on any Black Memphians that this is yet again another effort by white politicians to impose their will on the state’s most diverse city.

The state’s long arm stops Memphis again, my column in The Commercial Appeal

In addition to Mr. Kelsey, the bill is sponsored by State Representative Jeremy Faison.  He represents a district buried in rural East Tennessee, and like so many of his fellow rural legislators, he finds it hard not to stick it to Memphis anytime he gets a chance. 

Some things should be sacrosanct.  One of them is for local government to oppose mandates from state government and to insist on Memphis’ right to self-government. That’s why it’s nothing short of stunning that some Council members are willing to sacrifice this fundamental truth to win an argument with their Council colleagues.

The Biggest Issue

This is about much more than residency requirements.  It’s about standing up for Memphis to make its own decisions free of state intrusion.  And to refuse to stand with a state legislature that has encroached on local government decisions more than any legislature in history as it panders to its base with the red meat of social issues and legislation aimed at Black and progressive Tennesseans. 

Just recently, they ratified their reputation as the worst state legislature in the U.S. when they balkanized Nashville with a gerrymandering to remove the Democratic Congressman there.  They also redefined the district of Congressman Steve Cohen in hopes of weakening his reelection odds.

That’s just the latest.  It’s hard to remember all the times that the legislature has imposed its opinions on city of Memphis government, but over the years, it has injected itself to take away the city’s right to have a living wage ordinance, it tried to force Memphis to keep Confederate statues, it forces more guns in public places, including parks, it involved itself in questions about employee unions, it’s injecting itself into how Memphians vote, and so much more. 

As I said, there are so many, it’s hard to keep an inventory of them all. 

That said, there shouldn’t have to be one for these three Council members to be on the side of Memphis’ self-government and opposed to the repeated state encroachment on issues that fall under the umbrella of home rule.


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