One could say it has been a good week in Memphis if one is seeking examples of bad government.
Put another way, it has been a bad week for responsible government in Memphis and Shelby County.
The problems began on Monday, November 18, 2013, when the security checkpoint at the Main Street entrance to the Shelby County Administration building refused to let members of the public continue into a regular session of the Shelby County Commission meeting if the person possessed a camera or audio recording device. Apparently this happened to at least two individuals. It made no difference they were attempting to attend the open public meeting of the county’s governing body or that cell phones, which were allowed, almost all function also as cameras and audio recorders.
It took one person an hour to divest themselves of the prohibited devices, go to the offices of the County Mayor to request that the building be open to members of the public with recording devices seeking to attend the County Commission meeting. To his credit, Shelby County Public Affairs Officer Steve Shular immediately agreed that access should have been provided. He called the Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the security personnel at the building checkpoints, then escorted one of the individuals who had been denied access back to the lobby and arranged for that member of the public to enter with the recording devices. Of course, the individual had then to go back outside the building to retrieve the devices. By the time entrance was gained to the Commission meeting, it was one hour twenty minutes since the first attempt was made and 70 minutes since the meeting had started. The Commission was already on agenda item 24.
Over at Memphis City Hall the next day, Tuesday, November 19, 2013, the Council took action precipitously in a manner depriving a member of the public a reasonable amount of time to properly prepare to make comments on a matter before the Council. Before the council was consideration of a planned development of the old Sears Crosstown building at 495 Watkins Street. Existing zoning allowed for most of the many uses proposed by those seeking to redevelop the old Sears building, but the Council was being asked to approve the plan which also included Multiple-family Residential occupancy, Art Exhibition Space, Assembly/Performance Hall, and a Neighborhood Arts Center.
By its own admission, the City’s office of Planning and Development on Friday, November 15, 2013, sent an e-mail to a member of the public who had let it be known he wanted to object to the proposed plan. In that e-mail, it was stated that the matter would be heard by the Council at its December 3, 2013, meeting. On Tuesday, November 19, that member of the pubic was called by a staff member of the Office of Planning and Development and told that the matter would be on that afternoon’s Council agenda, giving the individual approximately 6 ½ hours to prepare when he thought, based on a notification by the City, he would have an additional two weeks. The individual appeared before the Council and asked that it delay the vote as he had a “white paper” being prepared to detail why he thought some of the planned uses for the building were not in the best interest of the City or of those who would occupy the building. Only Council member Wanda Halbert was sympathetic to his plea, saying she did not understand how it could be fair to consider the matter at hand given the City had told the individual it would be heard by the Council on December 3. The Council preceded to vote on the matter and it passed with only Halbert casting a negative vote.
Not to be outdone in bad governance, the Shelby County School Board Tuesday night, November 19, 2013, convened a special called meeting to consider “Town of Arlington Agreement; City of Lakeland Agreement,” in connection with the use of school buildings and other property by newly created suburban school districts in those municipalities. The Board promptly went into executive session with its attorney to discuss legal matters in private. Then it returned to the open session, allowed members of the public to speak to the issue, then deliberated and voted. The problem was that the agreements upon which they were voting had not and were not made public until after the vote. As one public speaker said during the time for the public to address the Board on the matter, she did not know whether she was for or against the proposal since it was not available to the public. She asked the Board not to vote on the matter but to release the documents and give the public sufficient time over a few days to review the many page legal material and then consider the matter for a vote. The Board of Education ignored her well reasoned request and preceded to vote unanimously to agree to the proposals.
In the first example, the security guard was likely doing exactly what he had been told to do. He said that cameras and audio recorders were not allowed in a number of county buildings and that the officers had been encouraged to enforce that directive. Others at policy making levels should have made sure that members of the public have access, with recording devices, to all meetings required to be open to the public.
In the cases of the City Council and Board of Education actions, they were engaged in truly unethical behavior, arrogance beyond imagination, and, unfortunately, probably legal procedures. All too often one has to wonder if those in government remember that their function is created by and for the public. Good government requires public participation. Bad government shuns public participation. Which do we have?