Opinion » Viewpoint

Charter Commission Tune-Up

Reinventing city government is as simple as ABC. Or is it?



The charter commission is really very simple.

Think of city government as a car. The car has 14 drivers, also known as the mayor and the City Council. The car squeaks and rattles. It has always squeaked and rattled. It always will squeak and rattle because that is what cars do.

The city charter is the operator's manual. It is 507 pages long, plus a 108-page index. There are sections on elections, lawsuits, police, firemen, private detectives, zoning, subdivisions, taxes, purchasing, pensions, streetlights, massage-parlor operators, prisoners, parks, sidewalks, and a lot of other things too numerous to mention, unless, of course, you plan on being on the charter commission, in which case you will be tested on all of them, assuming you don't get bored with the whole thing.

The idea behind the charter commission is that seven do-it-yourself mechanics can rewrite the operator's manual and stop the car from squeaking and rattling.

Thirty-five self-styled mechanics think they are qualified to do this because they each gathered 25 valid signatures from their friends, and they live in Memphis, and they can print their names, and they are not in jail or a mental institution. Those 14 hacks down at City Hall, on the other hand, run every four years in well-publicized, regularly scheduled elections.

The field will be reduced to seven mechanics in an election.

The election will be held on December 2nd or December 7th or three years from now. The Shelby County Election Commission might set the date this week, or it might not.

Some judges might intervene and overrule the election commission, or they might not.

The candidates will run by position, determined by geographic districts of the city. Each mechanic/commissioner must live in the district in which he/she is running. But their 25 nominating signatures could come from anywhere in the city.

Oh, and each mechanic/commissioner is actually an at-large representative. So each voter will choose seven mechanics/commissioners. By district. But they will all be at-large.

For Position 1, there is one certified candidate. For Position 2, there are six. For Position 7, there are nine.

One candidate, Myron Lowery, is a member of the Memphis City Council. Another candidate, Ulysses Jones, is a member of the Tennessee General Assembly. Name recognition often determines the outcome of elections. Lowery and Jones could both finish in the top seven, but only one of them would win since they are both running for Position 7.

Veteran Democratic Party operative Sidney Chism is a candidate. So is John Malmo, co-founder of the Archer/Malmo ad agency and one of the brains behind the charter commission.

Horace B. Jones, on the other hand, is the lone certified candidate for Position 1. Welcome to the charter commission, Mr. Jones, and congratulations. Feel free to scratch anywhere it itches.

The charter commission of members to be named later exists because the people who think it is a good idea gathered 10,485 signatures. That is sort of impressive until you realize that 15,000 people run in the New York City Marathon, which is harder.

All the petitioners had to do was write their names. Mad about Willie Herenton? Sign. Mad about city pensions? Sign. Mad about MLGW? Sign. Mad about property taxes? Mad about black people or white people? Sign. Mad about Bush? Sign. Mad about Kerry? Sign. Mad about the Yankees or the heat or your piles? Sign.

Unless the judges get involved, the election probably will be held on December 7th because that is the date of the runoff election in the District 7 school-board race.

That is an excellent time to choose people to reinvent city government because there is nothing that energizes voters and puts democracy in action like a school-board runoff election, especially a month after a presidential election. The last two such elections had turnouts of 4 percent and 2.5 percent.

After the mechanics/commissioners cut their greasy deals and form their alliances and are elected, they will meet for a year or two to figure out how to tune up the charter and thereby stop the squeaks and rattles. Their proposals will go before voters in the form of referendum questions like the two that were on the ballot in the election last week.

They might want to ponder these lines engraved in stone outside City Hall in 1968 in commemoration of the mayor-council city charter:

"Not by her houses neat, nor by her well-built walls, not yet again,/Neither by dock nor street. A city stands or falls but by her men."

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