This is the last week to file papers to run for the Memphis City Council, where all 13 seats are up for grabs and seven of those positions are wide open. So what does the job offer, aside from the usual clichés about public service?
Well, the council-mayor form of government in Memphis has only been around since 1968; in fact, some of its original members, including J.O. Patterson Jr., Fred Davis, and Lewis Donelson, are still active in professional and civic affairs. So it's possible to make a few generalizations and predictions based on its history.
First, a couple of things the council is not: a path to temptation and ruin or an easy road to the mayor's office. Events of the day make it seem like the council is a sewer, and in the game of politics the scent of corruption is often in the air. But actual convictions for corruption in the line of duty are rare. Rickey Peete was convicted of bribery twice, most recently in 2007. John Ford was also convicted of bribery but for something he did long after his service on the council 25 years ago. Ditto Michael Hooks. All things considered, the Hall of Shame is a pretty elite club.
And while several current and former council members have run for city or county mayor — Patterson, Ford, Mike Cody, Pat VanderSchaaf, Jack Owens, Bill Gibbons, Jack Sammons, Joe Ford, Shep Wilbun, and Carol Chumney, among others — they all lost. The exception was the late Wyeth Chandler in 1975. Mayor Willie Herenton is a former school superintendent. His predecessor, Dick Hackett, was county clerk before moving to City Hall. Henry Loeb, the mayor when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, came from the old City Commission.
More common is the City Council member who gains some name recognition and connections and either wins or is appointed to a full-time government job or something close to it. The ranks include Gibbons, John Ford, Owens, Wilbun, and, more recently, Herenton appointees Janet Hooks and TaJuan Stout Mitchell. Jeff Sanford, a councilman in the Chandler era, is head of the Center City Commission, which pays more and has fewer employees than the sheriff, district attorney, or clerk's offices.
Some council members move over to the Shelby County Commission, where the pay is the same but the hours are lighter and so is the public scrutiny. That group includes James Ford, Gibbons, Wilbun, Joe Ford, and Michael Hooks.
Council members get to vote on some big deals, but they don't originate them. High-profile building projects such as The Pyramid and FedExForum were ideas whose time had come, and their champions were outsiders. The same is true of big ideas like consolidation, term limits, selling MLGW, and freezing taxes, which are often discussed but have not come to a vote in the city of Memphis in nearly four decades. The standard brawls and debates are over such mundane matters as setting the tax rate, approving the budget, putting in or cutting out favored items, and haggling with the mayor over his nominations for the jobs of division directors and head of MLGW.
The coolest thing about being on the council is that people suddenly pay attention to you whether or not you have anything interesting to say simply because you have a title. Council members get lots of face time on television, especially if they are as accessible and quotable as Sammons, Chumney, and Peete. This is the real 15 minutes of fame, although in the case of Sammons and Peete it was more like 15 years. And they get very nice pensions (about $9,000 a year) after 12 years, thanks to an ordinance passed by, you guessed it, the City Council.
For more than a decade, the council has been divided racially with either six whites and seven blacks or seven whites and six blacks. This is likely to change next year because the city of Memphis is now approximately 63 percent black. Women, who had only token representation on the council until the 1980s, are also likely to increase their representation. Six of the seven members not running for reelection are men.
All in all, it is no ordinary job, not the best and not the worst, and apparently nice work if you can get it, which plenty of people seem to want to do judging by the filings at the Shelby County Election Commission. John Branston, a Flyer senior editor, writes the City Beat column.