The Future of the Charter Commission

Activists will get their say, but George Brown’s narrow view should prevail

| August 09, 2006

Running for the Memphis Charter Commission, as I did, was like running for jury duty. If you wanted it too much you probably shouldn't have it.

Expectations should be low for the unpaid charter commission, and that would be so no matter who won last week's election of seven members running by City Council district but chosen at large. George Brown, a former judge and school board member, figures to provide leadership and a steady hand. Based on his public comments and questionnaires, Brown takes a narrow view of the commission's powers. Another leader figures to be City Councilman Myron Lowery, the leading overall vote-getter.

The other five members have little or no political experience or working knowledge of city government or the charter. They tend to have activist agendas. Janis Fullilove favors more collaboration between city and county school boards and law enforcement. Sylvia Cox favors elimination of city council super districts, requiring council members to hold at least four community forums annually, and says "any and all questionable expenditures and/or funds allocations should be evaluated and/or mitigated in an expedient manner." Sharon Webb is for combining the school boards and mayors and says "the City Council should never come before the people divided. They should vote by consensus and not by majority rule."

Recommendations must be approved by voters in another election, probably some time in 2007. They can be presented as separate items. Rhodes College Political Science Professor Steve Wirls says that more than two proposals on a ballot tends to overwhelm voters. City Councilman Tom Marshall says he will suggest a budget of $100,000.

The push for term limits, such as it was, may have lost a little of its steam. Six of the seven charter commissioners are black, and the 1994 Shelby County adoption of term limits was driven by white Republicans. Mayor Willie Herenton and most of the black members of the City Council oppose them, although if Herenton follows through on his promise to run for a fifth term, that could reignite the issue. In their questionnaires, Lowery, Willie Brooks, and Webb indicated some level of interest in term limits.

The way the charter commission and its membership came to be is probably more instructive and historically significant than anything it proposes. The idea was hatched by John Malmo and John Lunt in 2004. They got at least 10,600 signatures of Memphis voters - a very low threshold because of the low turnout in the 2003 mayoral election - and hoped to wrap up the whole process by the end of that year. Had they been able to ramrod through the election of members in a 2004 school board runoff election, they might have elected some or all of the members of the Concerned Citizens group that wound up getting blanked instead, Malmo included.

"We knew we would live or die as a ticket," Malmo said last week.

They died, big time. So did Memphis Tomorrow and its political offspring, Coalition for a Better Memphis. Their voter guide at least gave voters some indication of where candidates were coming from, but only about 350 people visited the website and it's doubtful that many of them read all the questionnaires. The candidate with the highest rating, Dean Deyo, got less than 6,000 votes, finishing dead last in Position Two.

But in an election in which voters knew little if anything about most candidates, the best strategy was to be endorsed by one or more of the groups claiming to represent the Republican or Democratic Party in some incarnation and passing out ballots at the polls which showed the chosen candidates' names and faces.

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