When it comes to fast-breaking issues in a year of change, the presidential race ain't got nothing on local government in Memphis and Shelby County. Last week alone featured decisive and potentially transformational action on a trio
of matters — two on the part of the Memphis City Council, another within county government.
The council was the scene of key votes on marijuana and residential requirements for city police. The most surprising perhaps — and certainly the most controversial — was Councilman Berlin Boyd's proposed ordinance to decriminalize modest marijuana use, providing police with the alternative of writing tickets, much in the manner of traffic offenses, rather than arresting users under the state's criminal statutes.
To the consternation of professed traditionalists on the council and, as it developed, of Police Director Michael Rallings, the Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee voted 5-2 to support the ordinance, which is due for its first of three required readings on September 6th. We anticipate that emotions will run, er, high on that date in City Hall. Rallings has already resolved to do what he can to defeat the ordinance, and Governor Bill Haslam, on a visit to Memphis last week, also made known his opposition. Opponents on the council, like Joe Brown, summoned up the specter of Demon Weed, but Boyd convinced a major of committee members that recreational use of marijuana is no gateway to hard drug use and that rigid employment of criminal penalties has resulted in instances of severe injustice, especially to young African Americans in Memphis.
At a time when numerous states as well as the seat of national government, the District of Columbia, have chosen to liberalize their attitudes toward marijuana, we find it both encouraging and timely that Boyd is giving Memphis the opportunity to at least rethink the matter.
If Rallings was upset over this Council action, he was relieved about another — the council's vote last week to reject an ordinance that would have restricted his potential department hires to persons living within the city limits of Memphis. At a time when the buffing up of police ranks with quality recruits is a matter of increasing urgency, it would have been folly to impose so potentially crippling a curb on Rallings' (and Mayor Jim Strickland's) prerogatives, and the council recognized that fact resoundingly with a 10-2 no vote.
County government had its moment of clarity, too, at a committee meeting on Wednesday when officials of Mayor Mark Luttrell's administration and an apparent commission majority read the riot act to representatives of American Medical Response (AMR), whose request for post-contract modifications that would double the county's costs smacked rather obviously of bait-and-switch tactics. The upshot is a likely move by the county toward creating its own ambulance service — thereby underscoring in practical terms the difference between government's straightforward mission to perform public service and the potential risks and derelictions to be encountered within the all-too-prevalent practice of outsourcing that mission.