After last week's election, the city of Memphis charts a new course
Last Wednesday afternoon, City Council and Charter Commission chair Myron Lowery was "grinning like a Cheshire cat."
Barack Obama had won the presidency the night before and every single one of the Charter Commission's referenda had been approved by more than 70 percent of local voters. The amendments to the city charter included term limits for the mayor and council, staggered terms for the council, and suspensions with pay for officials charged with misconduct.
A proposal that would require a public referendum prior to a sale of the city's MLGW division — the idea that was the birth of the Charter Commission process — was approved by 80 percent of the voters.
"We did go over every piece of data we got from the public," said Charter Commission member Sylvia Cox. "The votes show that what was on the ballot was very acceptable to the people of this city."
After more than 50 Charter Commission meetings and seven public hearings, Lowery was optimistic about the outcome prior to the election.
"The only issue that came from an individual was instant run-off voting," Lowery said. "That came from [county commissioner] Steve Mulroy, but it gained wide support. Every other issue was a community-based issue."
Instant run-off voting, which allows voters to rank candidates and eliminate run-off elections, was approved with 71 percent of the vote.
"We made history nationally, and I think it's fair to say we made history locally," Mulroy told Charter Commission members at a meeting last week. "We achieved election reform that will change the way Memphis democracy goes forward for years to come."
Mulroy, who appeared in television and radio advertisements advocating instant run-off voting, argued that instant run-offs would be more fair and more efficient. The change is expected to save $250,000 annually.
Proponents also have argued that instant run-off voting makes candidates run cleaner campaigns. Call it the "Miss Congeniality" strategy.
"I think it puts Memphis on the map of a growing number of cities using innovative voting strategies," Mulroy said. "Voters wanted change, and they didn't just want change for change's sake. They wanted reform."
Instant run-off voting is now in the hands of the Election Commission, which needs to buy new equipment that can accommodate voter rankings. After last week's election, where the country knew who the new president was before local results were in, there is some skepticism about the Election Commission's capacity for change.
"Their activities were simply atrocious, waiting as long as they did," Lowery said. "Instant run-off voting will become effective whenever the Shelby County Election Commission wants to implement it. This is left to their discretion as to when they receive the hardware and software to make it happen."
The Charter Commission will cease to exist December 31st, but their work isn't done yet. A proposed version of the charter is available online at memphischartercommission.org, and Lowery expects both lawyers (including former city attorneys Robert Spence and Sara Hall) and citizens to review the document.
"If we agree with the final document, we will have a new city charter. If we don't, we'll have a hodgepodge of stuff like we already have," Lowery said.
And there are still questions about what the implications of the changes will be. At a Change Memphis forum prior to the election, citizens asked whether termed-out councilmembers would be allowed to switch districts and run again. Another question was if the percentage of voters needed to recall a councilmember is derived from the total number of citizens who voted in the previous election or from the number of voters from the councilmember's district.
At the Charter Commission meeting, member Willie Brooks asked about the provision that would suspend officials charged with misconduct from their official duties. Because each citizen has four representatives on the council — one from their home district and three from their superdistrict — a suspended councilmember might not make that much of a difference. But the measure also covers other elected and appointed officials, such as the city court clerk.
"Should an elected official be suspended, it doesn't say who assumes those roles," Brooks pointed out. "We're not removing them from office."
The commission now has recommended that the City Council look at the issue.
"At the beginning we said we could not answer every 'What if?' And we did not attempt to answer every minute question," Lowery said. "Every eventuality cannot be considered by this commission."