Charting a Course

The vote on the city charter heads down to the wire.



Justin Fox Burks

Few lawyers in Memphis have racked up more hours of legal work in the past year than Julie Ellis.

None of it was billable.

It says volumes about the tenacity that Ellis brought to her work and the citizenship of her law firm, Butler Snow. It also says volumes about the contradiction of terms when it comes to "part-time volunteer leadership" of a public board and commission.

In Ellis's case, it began with a call from then-Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton asking her to serve on the Memphis and Shelby County Metropolitan Charter Commission, a 15-member group charged with writing a new charter for the consolidation of city and county governments. Later, the Wharton administration sent word that she was also the choice for chairman.

Thus began almost a year of intensely personal work that put Ellis at the eye of the hurricane as town mayors and some Democratic politicos attacked the commission's work from its first gavel. It also began a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from elation over the commission's ability to reach across racial, party, and geographic lines to frustration about misinformation spread about the new charter.

And yet, all in all, she says it was a "phenomenal experience with special people." "The members of the Charter Commission didn't know each other," Ellis said, "but it proves that when we come together around the same table, we can work together, no matter where we come from, what race we are, or what political party we support. We were the example of what the new Metro Council could be — one body instead of 13 county commissioners and 13 city council members who never work together to solve issues but instead remain warring factions. Having just one government allows for an informed electorate who doesn't have to figure out which government is accountable, and one government can't blame another one."

Her belief in the power of change to unify the community was bruised in the process by the reality of a community "in need of selfless statesmen." "There is a total selfishness in too many people in power to keep their power," she says. "It is the biggest risk to democracy: People are so impressed with keeping their own power that they're bullies willing to let their community tread water."

The Charter Commission's work was complicated by lack of coverage by most news media, with the notable exception of the Memphis Daily News. Even as early voting began, The Commercial Appeal treated the charter vote as just another political horse race with an emphasis on "he said, she said" coverage. Even as voting machines were being delivered for the referendum, the daily newspaper still had not printed a summary of the proposed charter (it finally did so in mid-October) or comparisons with other consolidation governments.

In fact, if it were not for Drake and Zeke's morning drive-time radio program, no one in Memphis would have interviewed Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, architect of the city-county consolidation that inspired the consolidation effort here. "Too many people never learned about the proposal," said Ellis.

Darrell Cobbins, chairman of Rebuild Government, the advocacy arm pushing for passage of the charter, says Ellis and the Charter Commission could have taken one off the shelf from another place, but instead, "they did the hard work. Unfortunately, there was very little in-depth, investigative reporting on this, which left the public without the information they needed to understand its monumental opportunity," he said.

Despite the lack of reporting, the process left Ellis and Cobbins excited about the momentum for government reform. "This experience has taught me that for this community to truly move forward, we have to deal with the realities that exist in us as individuals and around us in our communities," says Ellis. "The seeds we sow as a community, good or bad, will bear fruit for our children and their children. When my baby son is a man, I don't want him to deal with city versus county, poverty, race, declining growth, and underperforming schools that this community is grappling with at that time."

"I've learned that cheering for the Tigers in the NCAA Championships is not enough to truly bring our community together," says Cobbins. "We have to get out of our 'bubbles' and begin to understand that we can't succeed without us all, methaphorically, in the same boat and paddling in the same direction. We have to roll up our sleeves and all start on that as a community. There is never a bad time to try and be better tomorrow than we are today."        

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