Shea, Please Don’t Make Me Have to Do This

Shea Flinn is one of my Super-District Councilors, and he’s one of my favorites.  99 times out of 100, he is on the correct side of issues and I will certainly support him for re-election next year.

That said, he is as wrong as wrong can be on the issue of districts for a proposed Metro Government Commission.

Bill Dries starts his article on Flinn’s appearance before the Metro Charter Commission innocently enough:

With a week off for the Fourth of July holiday, Metro Charter Commissioners have a break before diving into one of the more political decisions they will make.

What size should a metro legislative body be and how many districts should a metro council have?

Oh boy.  I was reading along enjoying the aeticle when I found THIS:

Memphis City Council member Shea Flinn warned against an all district council or a council that doesn’t have something like the super districts the council has or the multi-position districts the Shelby County Commission has.

“Politics warps everything,” he told the charter group.

The discussion is where “art meets the science of politics beyond the theater of campaigning to actual governance,” Flinn said.

“It just forces the micro view on everything,” Flinn said of the influence of single member council districts.

“There is so much parochialism that comes up through it,” he said citing the council’s recently completed budget deliberations. “Out of fear that something will be cut from their district, they’re not going to let anything be cut from anyone else’s district. … The only people in those debates willing to even discuss the issue were the super district representatives. By their population base … we’re forced to take a broader look – a big picture.”

Ah yes, the MICRO view.  You mean the one that each neighborhood takes, Shea?  In the places most affected by your decisions? Whatever happened to bringing government closer to the people?  I understand Flinn is a super-district councilor, and might not be thrilled to see his position eliminated in a Metro Government, But really, Shea?

Look, I am not opposed to a concept that includes at-large districts, as long as they are REALLY at-Large, where the entire county would vote for five out of a large pool; that makes sense.  But the vast majority of seats on any Metro Commission should be districts, and the smaller the better.  Why, do you ask?

1) Smaller, walkable districts brings the election CLOSER to each district, and candidates can walk them; it will require LESS money to ruin for Council, meaning we are more likely to get people not beholden to developers with $$$$. (No, I am NOT inferring that Flinn is like that; he is, if anything, the OPPOSITE, as independent as they come, which makes this doubly frustrating).

Don’t believe me?  OK, let me break out the writings of Steve Ross from his other blog, Vibinc:

Shelby County is the largest county in Tennessee, both geographically and by population. There are many counties in the state that have legislative bodies that are the same size or smaller than ours, but there are also some like Weakley County, with a population of just over 33k has 18 Commissioners over 9 districts, and they’re not dealing with the area, population, or economy that Memphis has. The second largest county in the state, Davidson, has been a metro government since the 60’s. Their population is 70% of ours, their land mass is 66%, and their Government has some 40 council members, 35 of which are single member districts.

It doesn’t take a math wiz to figure out that the people of Nashville, and Weakley County for that matter, have more direct representation than the people of Shelby Co. In Nashville, there is one Council member for every 18,000 citizens. Compare that to Memphis, 1:96K or Shelby Co., 1:70k.

And, Ross addresses one of Flinn’s concerns here:

But more direct representation isn’t necessarily a panacea. The Metro Council is fragmented. There are just 5 members that represent the entirety of Davidson Co. (12.5% of the Council). This means that getting things done for the good of the overall community can be more difficult due to a “what’s in it for my neighborhood” mentality. Lobbying for a project or something, like the non-discrimination ordinance that recently passed, requires interest groups to mobilize more broadly, and be more politically savvy than they might have been with a smaller council.

See?  It’s not impossible to get something done, it just makes interest groups work a little bit harder for what they do, and that is NOY a bad thing.

However, leave it to my Commissioner, Steve Mulroy, who also spoke before the Metro Commission, to bring things back into perspective:

“I think that you need to strike a balance between single member districts and multi member districts,” Mulroy told The Daily News. “I’m not opposed to having some multi member districts. I think the emphasis should be on single member districts.”

Mulroy added that he is not rejecting all of the points made by Flinn.

“I can see there’s some merit to what he was saying. The trade off is the more multi member districts you have, the larger the single member districts have to be,” Mulroy said. “The harder it then is for people to have constituent representative contact. And then the harder it is for new candidates to break into the political system. That’s the trade off.”

Flinn argues back:

Flinn is adamant that single member district council members on his body are about the politics of bringing in projects for their constituents from parks to roads.

“They don’t care. They just want their district to be taken care of. That’s not a knock on them,” Flinn told the Metro Charter Commission last month. “That’s there job. That’s good legislation. But if all you have is single member districts, all it becomes is horse trading.. You don’t close my library and I won’t close yours.”

Um, that’s what they’re SUPPOSED to DO.  Mulroy then finishes off the argument:

Mulroy counters that his experience since winning a seat on the county commission in 2002 is that parochialism isn’t that much of a factor. He said 90 percent of the issues both legislative bodies grapple with are county-wide or city-wide.

“I never did see that as being that big of an issue,” Mulroy said of parochialism. “It certainly wasn’t for me. … I didn’t see it happening as much or with as much force as Councilman Flinn said that it happened on the city council side.”

I don’t like going after people I support, but Flinn is just flat-out wrong here, and if we DO manage to create a Metro Government this fall, it needs to have a minimum of 25 seats on the Commission, with 19-20 of them being Districts.  For me personally, if they just try and create a mish-mosh of the Council and Commission jammed together, I will vote NO.

Your thoughts?

8 comments for “Shea, Please Don’t Make Me Have to Do This

  1. Scott Banbury
    July 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    At bare minimum 30, hopefully closer to Davidson’s 40 and only a half dozen supers at most.

  2. Dwayne
    July 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Steve, you know I agree with you here. I have long been a proponent of single member districts for BOTH the City Council and the County Commission. In fact, I spoke to the City charter Commission about this issue which was quickly dismissed (one reason I did NOT vote for Myron Lowery for Mayor).

    At Large and “Super Districts” in both bodies has been one of the main barriers to local government changing with the times and to bringing in new blood into local politics. Memphis and Shelby County have had either at large Districts or huge multi member Districts forever but they have never produced the quality that he imagines.

    When you have a grossly large constituecy, whether it be 300,000 or 950,000, for one council or commission seat, it requires a tremendous amount of money to have a chance of winning. To be elected from these districts you either have to be rich, have a well known name (both of these apply to Shea), or take lots of money from special interests. Once someone gets elected from one of these districts, it’s extremely hard to get rid of them. If you look at the history of these positions, you will see politicians who keep getting elected year after year with little or no opposition.

    What you wind up with is more special interest influence and members who have less regard from their constituents.

    With single member districts, you have a better chance of electing more concerned citizens with modest means and if the member doesn’t perform, then a better chance of replacing them in the next election.

    The parochial argument that Shea makes has never been a major factor. The ideal would be to have all single member districts and the closer we come to that will produce better local legislative bodies.

  3. Jonathan Cole
    July 2, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    I’m with you on this Steve. The only chance of our local government electing an openly gay candidate is if smaller districts are created. We need a small one in Midtown.

  4. Shea Flinn
    July 2, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    Oh Steve,

    I am going to make you go there. Becuase, in my opinion, y’all are hopelessly “blue skying” what comes next from a governance level. In reverse order:

    Johnathan: If smaller districts are the wave of the future, then the TEP is going to be left way out in the cold. What would be the largest unifying force in small districts where “money” doesn’t matter? The churches. So those who hope to serve in these districts better join the biggest church in the district.

    Dwayne: State legislative districts are smaller and single member, and not exactly known for massive change over. Incumbency is incumbency, and the idea that single member districts is some sort of cure for this, seems tremendously overstated. The Super Districts seems no more “safe” than the single.

    Steve Steff/Steve ross via his quotes: I am talking more about budgetary matters than the social issues, which necssarily appplly to all. Budgeting is much more provincial, and can easily be described as NIMBY with a vengeance.

    Mostly, I think we can all agree that we like how the framers incorporated this idea into congress with a house and senate, which is what I am arguing for. We seem to be arguing about the numbers mostly, I would agree that the majority raw vote should be single member districts (like on the council), but it should also be a small majority ( again like on the council).

    I understand the intent of the smaller districts and recognize that I, for the reasons that Dwayne pointed out, am an imperfect messenger to rail against it. But intent is no gaurantee of result, and the actuality of small single member districts would not look at all like the progressive cry for it imagines. look forward to agreeing with y’all on something soon. Hope you all have a happy 4th.


  5. July 2, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Welcome to the discussion! I think we took into account the prospects of NIMBY Hell, and I am not opposed to the concept of at-large; I just think that they do not need to be over 25% of the total representatives.

    Excellent point on the churches’ involvement in small district races, I had not thought of that.

    Enjoy your 4th as well!

  6. July 3, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Weren’t the superdistricts created by a court order? Perhaps I am imagining things, but I seem to recall that the superdistricts were of a piece with the abolition of citywide runoffs in the 1991 consent decree.

    Would we have to go to court to make any changes to it, or would the charter commission have authority to override a federal court order?

  7. Dwayne
    July 4, 2010 at 12:34 am


    Unfortunately, state legislative districts have been carved in a more sophisticated manner over the last couple of decades, to protect the Party of the incumbents…if you go 15 years before then, there was a lot of change going on in state house districts.

    You do not address the major problem of special interest money electing candidates. I likely disagree with some of my friends here, but I had much rather a church influence the election of a Councilman than 2 or 3 big developers. With that said, I don’t that churches, even in Memphis would influence individual elections except on rare occasions.

    Autoecrat, the courts allowed a referendum on “Superdistricts.” If the referendum failed, another solution, including all single members districts cold be allowed, just not at large districts. The referendum passed barely despite no organized opposition.

  8. July 4, 2010 at 12:13 pm


    I was also under the impression that the 1991 consent decree created the “Super Districts”, but I was wrong, the “Supers” were created by ordinance in 1995 (Source), and approved by the voters in Nov. of 1996 as you note Dwayne.

    The Consent Decree is not currently available online, though I know the number – 91-2139 and will be looking it up later this week hopefully.

    Based on what I have read about the decree, without having actually read it myself, it notes that the former practice of runoff elections in citywide elections was put in place to disenfranchise minority voters, in this case African Americans. So, if the Metro Charter Commission adopts a runoff scenario absent IRV, it seems quite plausible that a court would again rule that such a practice is designed to disenfranchise some sector of the population.

    I know that IRV is a hot topic with the Charter Commission, but I don’t believe any conclusion has been arrived at yet.

    Lots of questions. Not sure when the next official meeting is, but once they put out the agenda I’ll try to get a post up about the issues they’ll be tackling.

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