Mayor wants to strip suburbs say in merger

On January 3, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

Now, County residents can veto bids to consolidate governments

By Michael Erskine, Commercial Appeal
January 3, 2008

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who for more than a decade has advocated for the consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County governments, would like to eliminate a major obstacle in his way: the veto power of suburban voters.

In his annual state of the city address delivered Wednesday, Herenton said he plans to seek legislation that would eliminate the requirement that suburban voters separately ratify city-county consolidation, thus making a merger of the two governments more likely. Such a proposal could require a change to Tennessee’s Constitution.

Not surprisingly, suburban mayors did not respond favorably.

“It’s just a bad idea,” Arlington Mayor Russell Wiseman said.

“That destroys any kind of teamwork,” added Lakeland Mayor Scott Carmichael. “Obviously, I am vehemently opposed to that mentality of not having a say in where we are going.”

Herenton, who began an unprecedented fifth term in office Tuesday, said in his speech to the Kiwanis Club at The Peabody that he’s putting consolidation back on the “front burner.”

“Yes, I’m singing out of this choir book again,” he said, calling the current city-county governmental structure “wasteful.”

Under the traditional Tennessee approach to consolidating governments, Herenton would have to follow the legal process set out by both the Tennessee Constitution and state statute — a countywide referendum that requires separate majority votes of residents inside the city of Memphis and those outside the city limits in Shelby County, including residents of the suburban municipalities.

If consolidation wins inside the city but is rejected among Shelby voters outside the city, or vice versa, it fails to win approval. Two previous referendums in Shelby County — one in 1962, the other in 1971 — failed. In both, county voters rejected a metropolitan government.

Herenton wants to change the process, which could mean a constitutional amendment, though the mayor did not offer specifics.

“It is no longer acceptable to me as a citizen that Germantown, Bartlett, Collierville — those suburban communities who for whatever reason think they can be islands entirely unto themselves — should be determining whether or not we consolidate these governments,” Herenton said, noting that a majority of citizens in Shelby County live inside Memphis.

“We need to seek legislation that can change that paradigm.”

County Mayor A C Wharton said Wednesday that he and Herenton have recently talked about the idea of changing state law to eliminate “dual” referendums and require a simple majority of voters countywide to approve a merger.

“I don’t know precisely what his proposal is, but it’s a concept that seems fair and equitable,” Wharton said.

In Collierville, Mayor Linda Kerley said Wednesday she has opposed consolidation since becoming mayor in 1999 and would continue to fight it.

Meanwhile, Millington Alderman Linda Carter said as long as Millington residents pay county taxes, they have a right to have a say.

“Otherwise, it’s taxation without representation,” the retired educator said. “You’re going to alienate a group of people who pay county taxes? I don’t think so.”

State Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris, who lives in Collierville, called Herenton’s proposal to change the voting process “just nonsense.”

“It would disenfranchise … the people who would be the subject of that decision,” Norris said. “I can’t believe that that’s really what he has in mind.”

The mayor should forget about getting anything through the legislature anytime soon, he added.

“There’s not sufficient time to take up a vote like that this year. And even if we did, it would likely be tainted by the unconstitutionality of it; that would take years for something to be resolved.”

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