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VOL. 124 | NO. 224 | Friday, November 13, 2009

Charter Commission Prepares for Nine-Month Mission

By Bill Dries

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QUEST FOR EFFICIENCY: The 15-member Metro Charter Commission held its first meeting Tuesday at the Shelby County Courthouse. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. told the group to work on making government more efficient. – PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The 15 members of the Metro Charter Commission will need some time to get organized before they wade into the details of what a consolidated local government should look like.

The group met for the first time Tuesday in the “historic courtroom” of the Shelby County Courthouse, a third-floor courtroom restored to its original early 20th-century appearance including a rubber-tiled floor.

The commission next will meet Tuesday at 4 p.m. on the fourth floor of the Shelby County Administration Building.

The charter group could elect a chairman at its next session. At least for now, attorney Julie Ellis is serving as organizational chair.

“We will be spending a great deal of time together,” she said at the outset of the first meeting.

Time to get going

Ellis is a former counsel to the city of Jacksonville, Fla. Jacksonville consolidated its local governments in 1968 and Ellis said the consolidation quest there could serve as a model for the Memphis/Shelby County effort.

“We really don’t have a lot of time,” Ellis said referring to the nine-month time frame under state law for the commission to write the proposal, publish it for the public to see and debate and then put on the Nov. 2 ballot.

For at least the first few meetings, members of the group will be reviewing items related to what every local government must have under state law, how the city and county governments work now and what has happened in other cities that merged government functions.

“I must admit I ask myself, ‘Why did I volunteer for this?’” said Rufus Washington, who was nominated based on his leadership of a neighborhood coalition in Southeast Shelby County.

Washington took the coalition through a City Council annexation debate several years ago that ended with the council delaying annexation of the area at least for now.

“We have got to get over the prejudice and the wives’ tales,” Washington said of lots of opposition as well as support for consolidation based on rumors and past plans as well as political personalities.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. urged the group to remind the public at this point that they will be voting on “something yet to be born.”

“You’re not representing me. … Forget about who recommended you. Forget about who appointed you. Your only boss now are the people of Memphis and Shelby County,” said Wharton, who

appointed 10 members of the group as Shelby County mayor and unofficially recommended the other five as he was Memphis mayor-elect.

“I request no loyalty to any of my preferences. I think most of you know how I feel about this. But that is not a dictate to you. The only request that I make to you, again, is to keep an open mind.”

‘Hard work’ to come

Wharton favors consolidation of the two governments that does not include a merger of the Shelby County and Memphis public school systems.

“This is not about what kind of fairgrounds plan do we wish to have or what should we do with The Pyramid. We’re asking you to take a look at our varied government – what changes, if any, should be made in the way we govern ourselves in this county,” Wharton said.

“This is critical. We’re losing middle-class families. You look at any large city. It’s not the poorest of the poor or the richest of the rich that determine the fate of that city. It’s that middle class.

You show me a city that does not have a good strong middle class … and I’ll show you a city that’s not going to do well. … You don’t have to be an expert. I talk to people every day.”

The group got some organizational advice from City Attorney Herman Morris Jr. and Memphis attorney John Ryder. Morris chaired the mid-1980s group that drafted Shelby County’s Home Rule Charter, approved by voters in a 1986 countywide referendum. Ryder was a member of the charter group.

“It’s as aspirational as the founding fathers. … They had a blank slate,” Morris said of the metro effort before warning them, based on his own experience. “It’s hard work.”

Ryder urged the group to divide the tasks and have a committee on drafting and style to craft the legal and governmental language of the charter’s different parts. He said the home rule group based the technique on how the framers of the U.S. Constitution worked.

Ryder also gave the metro group what he termed a Miranda warning.

“You have the right to an attorney. … And remember that anything you say can be used against you or the city or the county in a court of law,” he said before urging them to “keep it simple” in writing the proposed charter.

“Stick to major principles of government. Don’t try to substitute the constitutional process for the legislative process. We will be electing some kind of legislative body, I presume. … You don’t have to go into that kind of detail. … Stick with dealing with the framework issues.”

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