A year ago at this time, we cast about for a theme worthy of editorial contemplation as we prepared to turn the calendar page for 2008. We settled on city/county consolidation as an issue worth raising and pursuing, and, sure enough, as the new year began, both Memphis
mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton made major speeches on behalf of full or partial consolidation.
Even so, the extent to which our two local eminences were committed to such an endeavor wasn't as obvious at the time as it would become. It was to the Flyer, we don't mind boasting, that Wharton would later confide the essentials of what would seem, in retrospect, to have been a strikingly original — and pragmatic — plan on the part of the two mayors to bring about consolidation. After conversations with Governor Phil Bredesen in Nashville, Herenton and Wharton had launched a coordinated initiative that would involve, first, former superintendent Herenton's resigning as mayor to resume control of the city's schools; second, a special election that would almost certainly have resulted in the elevation of Wharton (boosted by his predecessor) to city mayor; and, third, a referendum on consolidation to be overseen by the new chief executive, who presumably would still be entertaining a honeymoon with his reconfigured constituency.
There were, to be sure, some details to be worked out: How, for example, would the office of Shelby County mayor be disposed of, in both short and long term, after the planned ascension of the popular Wharton to City Hall? What would be the exact mechanics of transitioning to a unified government? What snags could develop, and how might they be neutralized? These and other conundra were not to be minimized, but there was some sense that they could be reckoned with. As things turned out, however, step one in the process was nullified by the simple fact that the city's independent-minded school board wouldn't cotton to it. Herenton didn't get the school job, which would ultimately go instead to a new face, Miami import Kriner Cash, and, instead of his presiding over his designated end of the dramatic transformation, Herenton would end up spending a visibly uncomfortable year at the helm of the city, a premature lame duck, around whom were spinning lurid, unspecified reports of his imminent arrest and indictment.
Step two of the process went ahead, after a fashion. Three years ahead of the next regularly scheduled city election, Wharton announced his candidacy for Memphis mayor and his hopes for a city/county referendum on consolidation in 2010. But cart had been put ahead of horse, and, unless events should in fact result in Herenton's suddenly leaving office — in far less ideal circumstances than the departure originally envisioned — a referendum on city/county resolution would come before, not after, a changing of the guard.
Moreover, the economics of local government are in direr straits than anyone foresaw a year ago, and, while that fact is itself an argument for pooling the two governmental systems' dwindling resources, it has led to the kind of crisis atmosphere that precludes careful planning. To put it bluntly, anything could happen between now and 2011. And we don't know how we'll get there from here.