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VOL. 121 | NO. 23 | Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Seven Memphians to Overhaul City Charter

When elected, commissioners likely to make sweeping changes

By Andy Meek

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BEHIND THE SCENES: Joe Saino is one of the brains behind the push to form a commission to overhaul Memphis' city charter. Seven people will be elected to the commission this summer. -- Photograph By Andy Meek

When John Lunt was organizing a campaign to overhaul Memphis' city charter, he was told it would be about as easy as changing natural law.

"Someone said to me the potential of you doing that is like going down to the Mississippi River and changing the direction of the flow," said Lunt, a financial planner from Germantown. "And it was a multi-millionaire who told me that."

But in a few months, that's the extraordinary task seven mostly ordinary Memphians will be chosen to do. The premise is simple: Over the course of a year, they'll study the charter, which is more than 500 pages long and contains codes governing parks, taxes, police, elections and other aspects of daily life. Then they'll decide what needs to be changed, tossed or added.

Career politicians be warned

The seven people who'll do that will be chosen this August when voters go to the polls to elect judges, state representatives, congressmen and other officials on this year's long ballot. The group's recommendations will go before voters as referendums in a subsequent election.

The charter commission's organizers - including former MLGW commissioner Joe Saino and archer>malmo co-founder John Malmo - have made no secret of the provisions they hope are ultimately thrown into the mix. As they see it, additions to the charter should include term limits and language that curbs the city mayor's power.

And that's one reason why 2006 may be remembered by Memphians as the year a handful of determined activists wielded the kind of influence an entrenched politician might envy.

"If people realized how historic this is, they'd be jumping up and down," said Lunt, who keeps an office in Memphis and has owned more than 50 investment properties in the city.

The contenders

"If people realized how historic this is, they'd be jumping up and down."
- John Lunt
organizer of a campaign to overhaul the Memphis charter

The opportunity to tweak the charter's hundreds of pages has attracted people like Marsha Campbell, a mother of four who lives near Memphis International Airport. Talk show host Janis Fullilove also wants to be on the commission.

Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery has filed a petition to run for one of the vacant seats on the charter commission to the chagrin of its organizers.

"He's had 14 years to make a footprint in Memphis," Lunt said. "This is to give ordinary people an opportunity to have a voice on what's going on in city government."

Those ordinary people include Memphians like Campbell, who has a home-based tax preparation service and is active at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church. She's been putting the word out through her tax clients that she's running for a spot on the commission.

So far, she's hedging her bets when it comes to which issues she most wants to see addressed.

"At this time, I just want to get in and see what we have to deal with," Campbell said. "I feel like I have something to offer Memphis, and I just want to do my best so we can get this back to the great city it was when I was growing up."

Cordova resident Christine Distler, a researcher in the University of Memphis' criminology department, wants to fill one of the seats to deal with the festering ethics and budget woes plaguing the city.

Unlike Lowery, Distler said one of her strengths is having studied various issues for years as a political outsider.

"I'm fiscally conservative, so I'm concerned about what's going on with the budget," she said. "Some of the ethics problems concern me because they affect ordinary people like me - we get the fallout from whatever happens. This is a good city, but there is a lot of improvement that can be made."

The race is on

As of late last week, 30 people had filed petitions with the Shelby County Election Commission to run for the charter commission. The selection is unique in at least one way because every voter will essentially have seven votes to cast.

Unlike the selection of City Council members, in which one is chosen from each district, voters will have a say in the election of all seven members.

Saino, now a citizen activist whose Web site, www.memphiswatchdog.com, is devoted to Memphis political events, said the organizers of the charter commission will promote their own slate of candidates. In the coming weeks and months, they'll speak at neighborhood groups, churches and other gatherings.

"The goal of this is to correct some of the abuses we see in city government," he said.

Back to basics

Malmo said another goal is to return city government to the strong Mayor-City Council form that voters intended in the 1960s when they chose to do away with the commission form of city government.

"I like to use this example to show how ridiculous it's become," he said. "A few years ago, in the morning there were four lanes of traffic coming in on Union Avenue, and in the afternoon there were four lanes going east.

"The City Council decided to change that, so that there are now three lanes each way all day long."

A decision like that, he said, should have been delegated to one of the traffic-related city divisions.

"When the City Council takes its time to decide something like that, we have a committee of 13 people who are really making all the decisions for the city," Malmo said. "And that's just an awful way to run anything."

PROPERTY SALES 94 322 4,193
MORTGAGES 95 320 4,710
BANKRUPTCIES 48 211 3,096