Main Street Journal

The Consolidation Campaign


Pyramid & Roads 200
The following is an excerpt from our December issue. Subscribe now.

By: Michael Roy Hollihan

It began again at the well-attended Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce breakfast in October. This was Mayor Herenton’s highest profile appearance after his record-clinching fourth re-election. He had the ears of many of Memphis and Shelby County’s biggest and most powerful business leaders and politicians. Herenton announced a lot of things, but he made sure to note that consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County governments was high on his list of priorities in his coming term.

The mayor’s been lying low ever since but the bugle call to consolidation is echoing around.

This war has been going on for many years now, and consolidation is no closer than it’s ever been. But this time it looks as though the consolidation campaign might actually gain some ground. Three fronts have opened up: education, police and charters. Each may gain a foothold.

From a chance, offhand discussion at Legislative Plaza in Nashville, a proposal has been crystallizing that would freeze the Memphis and Shelby County school districts. By changing State law to re-allow “special school districts” the boundaries for both systems would be set for years to come, regardless of geographical changes in city/county status. Both school systems could end the tricky negotiations and over-long logistical planning that goes into deciding where to build new schools. The County would no longer have to build schools with half an eye to an encroaching, consuming Memphis.

How might this help consolidation? Wouldn’t it mean the two systems end the forced collaborations they’ve known up to now? And wouldn’t that mean they just go their own ways, parallel and separate?

Possibly, but it also means a source of jealousy and conflict is removed. The heat and spark go away; the two systems can see each other as colleagues and maybe even friends. Eventually, the continued growth of Memphis into Shelby County will mean more and more city children will be in county schools, and the impetus to adjust the situation might become a reasonable argument to consolidate, to sort it all out.

Second, Memphis and Shelby County put together a task force earlier this year to explore realigning the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. It’s been slow to meet and move forward but November’s action by task force member and County Commissioner Mike Carpenter prodding some reactions. Carpenter released a plan of action that outlines new, realigned duties for the police and sheriffs, and brings back some disbanded city-county crime-fighting units. It a first step of crime-fighting consolidation.

Predictably, there’s some territorial barking and nipping going on. But the MPD is the larger dog in this fight, and as growth continues it will only get bigger. While the County government is the base unit of local law enforcement under State law, it is over-matched by the behemoth that is Memphis. Nashville and Knoxville both sidestepped this imbalance by going metro years ago. Shelby County will walk the harder path.

Politics is a part of this discussion, as you’d expect. Some in Shelby County would prefer to see an elected and independent Sheriff in charge of law enforcement. Others believe a law enforcement chief accountable directly to the elected executive (City Mayor) – who can discharge him at will – means a more responsive police department. Both MPD Director Larry Godwin and Shelby County’s Mark Luttrell believe they should be the top dog and have the arguments to back that up. But Godwin is hitched to Herenton’s wagon (He stood right beside Herenton on election night, with a cat-eying-the-mouse grin.) and Herenton has promised consolidation.

These concerns can be addressed by the contiguous charter revision efforts going on in both Memphis and Shelby County.

Voters in Memphis elected and empowered representatives to the Charter Commission this year. Its brief is expansive and fundamental: it can recommend any changes to the City Charter (amendments to our city constitution, if you will) that it sees fit. It will be up to voters this Fall to approve or reject the proposals. Much is still being discussed, including the way proposed changes will be presented to voters, but if consolidation gains steam this Winter and Spring, don’t be surprised to see charter amendments bubble up that smooth the way for mergers.

At the same time, the Shelby County Commission is also exploring changes to Shelby County government. The County Commission’s work is less publicly known, and sometimes confused with the City Charter Commission, but it too is looking to make changes to how Shelby County government is structured. It may have been entirely innocent and coincidental, but the timing of the County Commission’s move following the steady, sensible and low-key progress of the Charter Commission does, to some consolidation supporters, seem felicitous. The County Commission’s work is in the earliest stages still, but come late Winter the tale will begin to unfold.

It’s the broad intermingling of political, legislative and law enforcement officials at the highest levels of Shelby County and Memphis, combined with the backing of both mayors, and the wide reach of these efforts that gives hope to supporters of consolidation that their time is come ’round at last. The beast may only be slouching along still, but it may yet rise to its feet and walk more quickly toward a combined Memphis – Shelby County metro government.

Watch this Spring to see if these buds bloom.

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