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VOL. 121 | NO. 159 | Friday, August 11, 2006

After Election, City's New Charter Commissioners Ponder the Task at Hand

By Andy Meek

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CHARTING A COURSE: Now that Memphis' seven-member Charter Commission has been elected, commissioners may begin the task of reviewing the city's 500-page charter document. It's the basis of how city government is run. -- Photograph By David Yawn

In her free time, Sylvia Cox volunteers at The Orpheum Theatre and also works with a local group that hosts a science fiction convention, MidSouthCon, in Memphis each year.

She says she enjoys sashaying across a ballroom dance floor, a hobby she's pursued for about 10 years. But with her election Aug. 3 to the Memphis Charter Commission - admittedly a victory that surprised even her - the latest pursuit Cox has added to her day comes with considerable influence.

She joins six other mostly ordinary Memphians, one from each City Council district, who were elected last week and now have the power to tinker with city government in a way that could affect Memphis for decades to come.

Just regular folks

Exactly 40 years since a group of Memphians last got together to amend the city charter - the document that outlines how city government operates - another group of Memphians is set to do so again. This time, aside from a colorful radio personality and a well-heeled city politician, most of the new charter commissioners are people like Cox.

"I've lived here for more than 30 years, and I wanted to do more than just vote and complain."
- Charter Commissioner Sylvia Cox

Some are unassuming, some are unashamedly activists. Most are armed with distaste for the status quo and little to no political experience. And the conventional wisdom is their election now makes them all part of "the big one" that threatens to rumble across the fault line of Memphis municipal government.

"I've lived here for more than 30 years, and I wanted to do more than just vote and complain," said Cox, who works in customer systems development for FedEx, about the reason she chose to run for a seat on the body.

Said Marsha Campbell, who also won a seat on the seven-member Charter Commission last week: "I just want to do my best to help get this city back to being the great city it was when I was growing up."

The Memphians joining Cox and Campbell on the charter commission include former city school board member Willie Brooks, former radio talk show host Janis Fullilove, Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery, attorney and former judge George Brown Jr. and Sharon Webb, a minister.

Learn as you go

Thus far, much of the process of establishing a Charter Commission, the group that will review and suggest changes to the more than 500-page-long city charter, has been done on the fly, and that continues to be the case. Earlier this week, for example, the seven new charter commissioners arranged a brief meet-and-greet at the Crescent Club.

Lowery, a 15-year veteran of the city council, decided to alert the media a few hours beforehand via a fax sent on City of Memphis letterhead.

The Memphis Charter Commission
Position 1: Willie Brooks, former city school board member
Position 2: Sylvia Cox, FedEx employee
Position 3: Marsha Campbell, tax consultant
Position 4: Janis Fullilove, radio personality
Position 5: George Brown Jr., attorney and former judge
Position 6: Sharon Webb, minister
Position 7: Myron Lowery, Memphis City Council member

At that meeting, Lowery was tapped to be the group's temporary chairman, with the idea of serving as a go-between for the charter commissioners, the city council and the city attorney. Still undetermined is when, where and how often the new group will meet or what staff, budget and legal counsel they will need.

And perhaps most important is the issue of what exactly the scope of their work should be.

"I think the first thing we need to do is educate ourselves as to our responsibilities," Brown said. "The second is to make an assessment of the present charter."

Cox is one of the group who has been trying to wrap her arms around it all. So far, she's printed out just the amendments to the city charter, which top 300 printed pages.

Campbell suggested the group will be branching out and meeting with voters, either by hearing public comments in meetings or going out into the community to gauge what citizens feel the commission should address.

Twist of fate

The whole thing, it seems, has been one surprise after another. The Concerned Citizens of Memphis, the group that spearheaded the drive to create a charter commission in the first place, distributed some 46,000 brochures and launched a heavy media blitz to get the word out.

And yet they came up short on Election Day. Not a single candidate from the slate of seven individuals the group was promoting was elected to the charter commission.

In her race, Sylvia Cox trounced her closest competitor, former Shelby County Assessor of Property Bill Boyd, by more than 1,500 votes. The victory was a shock to her most of all, she said, because of the well-known figures running for the seat she won.

"I ran a few ads and distributed a few flyers, but my Web site wasn't getting many hits," she said.

Cox's next closest competitor after Boyd was John Malmo, co-founder of the local advertising firm archer>malmo. He was also a former member of the Memphis Parks Commission and involved with the charter commission effort almost since its inception.

One of the biggest shocks to John Lunt, the Memphis businessman who led the push to create a charter commission, was the defeat of Fred Davis for a spot on the commission.

Davis, the first black member of the city council, was part of the last charter commission 40 years ago. He was also involved in negotiations related to the sanitation workers' strike of 1968.

Fullilove beat out Davis, her closest competitor, by almost 20,000 votes.

In the future

A hint of what's to come can be seen by reviewing the answers of commissioners on questionnaires prepared before the election by the Coalition for a Better Memphis.

Fullilove, for example, said she thinks the commission should hold public meetings in every part of the community and that each district representative should hold individual meetings on their own. Brown takes the view that the charter commission is not a legislative body and has narrow powers and responsibilities.

As to what he would do to prepare for the task at hand, Brown answered: "Study, listen, confer, reflect and pray."

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