Grassroots Group Charters Path To November Ballot
Change Memphis, A Coalition Created To Educate Voters About Potential Amendments To The Memphis City
Special to the Tri-State Defender
by Kavita Pillai
“Change” might be a national buzzword, but it doesn’t start — or end — with a presidential campaign. And a new grassroots group has formed to remind voters that all politics is local.
Change Memphis, a coalition created to educate voters about potential amendments to the Memphis City Charter, is kicking into high gear now as officials near the end of a two-year-long journey.
The Memphis Charter Commission, an elected non-partisan city body created in 2006, held its last meeting Aug. 21, at which the amendments to appear on the November ballot were scheduled to be finalized. In addition, two proposed amendments to the Shelby County charter will appear on the ballot.
After that last meeting, the commission’s work basically ended. If voters are going to know anything about the referenda, they’ll have to figure it out themselves or hear about from Change Memphis, which comprises The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, New Path Memphis and Concerned Memphians United.
“Change Memphis started as a grassroots effort to bring about systematic change in Memphis and the changes to the city charter are certainly a starting point,” said Jacob Flowers, director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.
“It all begins with an informed and active electorate, and the charter changes are a perfect example of an important issue that would get lost in the ballot if no one gets out there and educates people on the importance of voting to our democracy.”
Change Memphis will work to get out basic information about the charter as well as explain the pros and cons of the proposed amendments. The work will be crucial because not only is misinformation about the amendments bound to spread, it’s likely many Memphians don’t know anything about the city charter itself or why it matters.
The charter is the city’s constitution — it’s as important to the operation of local government as the U.S. Constitution is to federal government, though the process of amending it is certainly less involved. Still, since its inception in 1966, the charter has only seen minor changes. In 2004, 30,000 Memphis residents signed a petition urging the formation of a charter commission to examine the document and suggest improvements.
Flowers said it was high time for this process to begin if the charter was to keep up with the evolution of the city and the rest of the country. He said the 30,000-plus residents who supported the Charter Commission are evidence that voters can become engaged on an overarching issue like change.
“Unfortunately, the impetus that was generated by the overwhelming support of the creation of the Charter Commission has not followed through to the actual charter changes on the … ballots.”
Those changes include limiting elected officials to serving two consecutive terms, requiring a public referendum before a sale of MLG&W and implementing a new election process called Instant Run-Off Voting.
In addition to those, the commission has approved three other amendments — staggering elected officials’ terms so no year sees full turn-over of the city council; updating ethics requirements by requiring the suspension of a government official charged with official malfeasance until the issue is resolved; and authorizing the city council chairman to take over mayoral duties temporarily if a vacancy occurs.
Those issues alone could be controversial and would have wide-ranging effects on city operations.
“I think that these changes could permanently alter the way of life for most Memphians,” Flowers said. “Let’s face it. Things get done in Memphis because powerful people … want them to get done. These charter amendments would affect everything from the way we vote to who we would be voting for, so it will alter the face of politics in Memphis.”
And what might seem an obvious choice, isn’t always so, said Brad Watkins, Change Memphis campaign manager, citing the ethics reform amendment that would suspend any official charged with wrongdoing. Watkins emphasized how slow the justice system sometimes operates.
“In the meantime, who is representing your district?” he said.
“This amendment has the potential to open some pretty scary doors as far as lack of representation, as well as political witch hunts. These are the kinds of questions and points we hope to raise in this campaign.”
Watkins said the organization is trying to avoid the information void that plagued the Shelby County referenda voted on in August. With no education campaign associated with those amendments and because several issues were grouped together for an up or down vote, Watkins said the voters were ill-served.
“A lot of people were just confused and either didn’t vote or just guessed,” he said. “We want to make sure people have all the tools to make the right decisions.”
Two of those issues are back on the ballot in November — allowing five county offices to once again operate legally under the county charter and limiting terms, this time to two consecutive four-year terms.
Watkins said that the Change Memphis coalition already has worked with commission members to ensure each amendment to the city charter would be voted on separately in November. He added that the commissioners will be involved in the education of voters.
“Various members have agreed to come to our community forums where we will go out to low turnout, low income areas to have town hall meetings to explain what these issues are … and what their passage or failure would mean.”
The final language for the amendment is due to the elections commission Sept. 5. A few other issues may make the cut, including:
• Expanding the local judiciary body by considering the creation of part-time judges.
• Making the Charter Commission’s work a regular event every 10 to 20 years;
• Altering charter language on recalling the mayor to bring it in line with state law;
• Allowing citizen petitions to change the charter directly;
• The city council also may include on the ballot:
Change Memphis is chomping at the bit to get the word out about these historic amendments, especially as voters’ minds are continually pulled in other directions, Flowers said. Information is located at www.changememphis.net.
“This is a very exciting election year throughout the country, and while national politics are tied up in the race to see who is going to ‘change’ this country, we cannot forget that change is also needed on the local level here in Memphis.”
(Kavita Pillai is a Memphis native, a graduate of White Station High School and the University of North Carolina and a former journalist. She is an intern for The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center.)
Friday, October 03, 2008
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