As Shelby County mayor A C Wharton proceeds on his public "listening tour" to prepare the way for what we hope will be a referendum next year on city/county consolidation, he and the other officials taking part in these proceedings stress
the benefits to the community of an alleged greater efficiency that joining the two separate governmental systems would bring about.
Efficiency has indeed become the major watchword of the push for consolidation, supplanting somewhat the purported cost savings of a metro government, which, as Wharton and such fellow drum-beaters concede, may not fully materialize.
We, too, have supported consolidated government for the aforementioned two reasons, as well as for the overriding reason of somehow involving the communities of greater Memphis in a positive common purpose. But certain realities of the day suggest that there are legitimate grounds for the debate over consolidation to continue and that the outcome of that debate should not be a forgone conclusion.
And we do not mean thereby to pinpoint concerns about varying standards and procedures in the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, though these divergences have been newly vented in revelations about cell-phone abuses by Memphis City Schools personnel. We are aware that Wharton and other advocates of consolidation (including, off and on, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton) have proposed to leave school consolidation off the table.
Our major reason for dragging our feet just a tad is this: For all the excesses and alleged (and, undoubtedly, actual) waste of divided government, the status quo also arguably preserves some citizen safeguards. One of these is the fact of two overlapping legislative bodies — a council of 13 members representing the city's separate districts and its totality via at-large members and a commission of 13 members representing districts within the whole county (and including the city). The existence of these two bodies and the fact of their shared responsibility for specific functions and institutions are often cited by consolidation proponents — notably Herenton — as reasons enough to abolish divided government. Herenton has specifically cited the impasse between the two legislative bodies over the future use of the Pyramid.
Aye, and there's the rub. The most recent initiative, whereby the city would gain exclusive control over the Pyramid in exchange for temporary financial help in maintaining a joint Health Department, has so far been blocked by the same bipartisan hard core of county commissioners who have resisted all efforts to give the city such operative authority.
Herenton and others call this obstruction. For their part, the reluctant commissioners privately express misgivings not only about the city-favored Bass Pro Shop as a prospective Pyramid tenant but about a recent pattern of underscrutinized public contracts, including the now notorious FedExForum deal and certain well-publicized city zoning arrangements currently under federal investigation. Moreover, they see themselves as upholders of the same bicameral tradition and system of checks and balances that have been built into both the federal and state constitutions.
On both the abstract and concrete levels, this is a point of view that should not be dismissed out of hand just now.