Opinion » Editorial

The Dividing Line



One thing that we have learned already in the still early tenure of the City Council elected last year: Despite the prevalence of new — and for the most part young — council members (nine out of 13), there won't be a guaranteed Young Turk majority on issues relating to fundamental change. Existing ethnic and political loyalties continue to be pre-eminent. Case in point: a resolution brought this week by new District 5 councilman Jim Strickland that would allow emergency personnel, currently required to live within Shelby County's limits, to live within a de facto 100-mile radius of Memphis.

The resolution came before the council's personnel committee Tuesday morning and was supported by committee chairman Shea Flinn. Besides Strickland, a variety of spokespersons from the police and fire unions spoke in favor of the measure. But no dice. Only Flinn and Strickland were willing to vote yes. Predictably, council holdover Barbara Swearengen Ware was opposed, but so were council newbies Edmund Ford Jr., Wanda Halbert, and Harold Collins. All four opponents are from Memphis' inner-city districts and apparently saw the dawning threat of suburbs dominating city affairs. As Ware put it, citing the criterion set forth in the resolution, "To be two hours away? If you drive fast, you could be in Nashville!"

Such arguments made sense, but so did the resolution. As Strickland, backed up by the testifying policemen and firemen, pointed out, the city has experienced difficulty in recent years in getting the hires it needs for emergency duties. Strickland also attempted to make the case that the work of first-responders often requires their intercession in activities beyond the city and county limits.

It is difficult to see how issues of this sort become subject to compromise, though the residency rule — established by popular referendum, as pointed out by Ware and the other opponents of the resolution — has already been amended once to allow emergency personnel to live in Shelby County, in addition to the city of Memphis proper.

The issue did indeed come down to city interests versus suburban ones, however parochially based. In that sense, the problem spoken to by the resolution belongs in the same Pandora's box as the panoply of others relating to the now-and-forever modish issue of consolidation.

Later on Tuesday, that larger issue was addressed again — this time by Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who, in remarks to the Memphis Rotary Club, set forth his attitude toward consolidation of law-enforcement services. Luttrell's rule-of-thumb ran this way: If there is no larger city/county consolidation, then police functions might still be subsumed under the office of sheriff. As Luttrell pointed out, "Only the sheriff is elected by all the people of Shelby County." On the other hand, if governmental consolidation should occur, the sheriff allowed that a city police chief might well be the superintending official.

The bottom line: City vs. county is still the major dividing line in local governmental affairs and dissolving that line is going to take a magic eraser the likes of which we haven't yet seen.

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