Batteries Not Included

Surrender the Memphis charter? Easier said than done.



Consolidating Memphis and Shelby County is the government equivalent of changing your phone service, Internet service, credit cards, bank, checking account, brokerage firm, home mortgage, termite contract, doctor, car insurance, utilities, club memberships, billing address, will, and marital status.

And it gets really hard if you have children.

Now that Mayor Willie Herenton has been reelected to another four-year term, consolidation is back in the news.

"We need to consolidate," Herenton told a Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce audience last week. "We've been singing that song, and we're going to open that hymnbook again."

In 1993, two years after he was first elected, Herenton floated the idea of consolidation by surrender of the city charter. The New York Times even did a story about it. The mayor appointed a committee to look into it. The committee included some familiar names. The chairman was Mike Cody, a Memphis attorney, former candidate for mayor, and former Tennessee state attorney general. Members included Herman Morris, who ran against Herenton in the 2007 mayoral election, John Ryder, who managed the Morris campaign, Charles Carpenter, who managed Herenton's campaign, state senator Steve Cohen, who is now a member of Congress, Shelby County attorney Brian Kuhn, and others.

Their conclusion, in short: no way.

"You can say I'm in favor of it," Cody said in a telephone call from Boston this week. "We tried to find some ways."

There were 14 pages of analysis, to be exact.

The Tennessee General Assembly would have to pass an enabling law. If the law was amended to apply to the Memphis city charter, 10 percent of the residents of the city could petition for a referendum. The committee noted, however, that the state constitution apparently only envisions dissolving cities with a city manager and commission form of government.

"No dissolution method is provided by the General Assembly for cities organized as is Memphis," the committee concluded.

As for legal and practical problems that might arise from charter surrender, the committee suggested a few: Suburban cities such as Bartlett, Collierville, and Germantown might use annexation to cherry-pick prime neighborhoods and pick up residents and/or retail. Or residents of a defined area in the suddenly unincorporated Memphis could hire a smart lawyer, incorporate, and invent a new city.

"Any contracts of the city of Memphis would survive a surrender of the charter and could be enforced," the report said. Joint boards and commissions "would require some degree of restructuring." Consolidation "would be further complicated for those authorities with holdings in their own names." The city board of education would be abolished unless provisions were made to create a special taxing district. Both MATA and MLGW "would cease to exist."

The committee fell back on the old, safe standby of "functional consolidation" of certain departments, which has been dusted off several times since then.

In 2002, Cohen requested an opinion on charter surrender from the state attorney general. The answer was no way once again.

"The General Assembly may not revoke the charter, the Memphis City Council is not authorized to surrender the city charter, and no statute authorizes the Memphis city charter to be revoked by a referendum election of the voters," the opinion said.

Case closed? Not quite. Lawmakers can do almost anything if they put their minds to it, witness those lottery tickets on sale at your neighborhood convenience store. But the lottery had popular support, and other states had shown the way.

The city most often mentioned as a model for consolidation is Louisville, which has some similarities to Memphis: river city, big college-basketball town, long-serving mayor, air-cargo hub. The big difference is that Louisville was 65 percent white before consolidation and more than 80 percent white after consolidation, which took effect in 2003 after voter approval in 2000.

You don't need 750 words to figure out that one.

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