It's hard to find a major U.S. city these days that isn't experimenting with some kind of dramatic program, whether it's the 500 that have signed the Kyoto Accords in lieu of the U.S. government or the ones reaching far beyond their borders to create regional agendas for "complete streets," light rail systems, place branding, sustainable growth, massive cultural investments, and data-driven performance budgeting.
At the same time, many cities are showing the same creativity in finding new ways to get the basics right — better schools, safer neighborhoods, and efficient public services.
At a time when cities are at the center of national discussions, Memphis is noticeably ignored, and at a time when the chief aptitude of a successful mayor is as a salesperson, the candidates selling themselves for mayor are met with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm from the voting public.
Interestingly, Memphis City Council races are doing just the opposite. Inspired by the chance to transform the legislative body with eight new members, the public appears excited about a fresh start unlike any seen since the first Council took office in 1968.
Meanwhile, a perennial favorite topic for the campaign trail — consolidation — continues to get attention despite two failed referendum votes and little prospect today for successfully merging the two local governments.
It's too bad, because consolidation is just the kind of innovation that could get Memphis some much-needed positive attention; however, maybe we've focused too long on chasing a preconceived answer when the real question is what could be done to create a more effective government structure for Memphis.
When this is the question, there's another possibility besides consolidation. There's the possibility of changing the mayor-council form of government to council-city manager.
It's a form of local government more prevalent than commonly known. In fact, in the past decade, it actually became the most popular form of city government in the U.S. Today, roughly 60 percent of cities with a population of more than 60,000 people have council-city manager governments, including Dallas, San Jose, Boulder, San Diego, Kansas City, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Dayton.
In a 2002 report presented to the American Accounting Association, re-searchers from Texas A & M University and Auburn University said that "based on samples of large cities from the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, the findings support the perspective that the city manager cities substantially outperform mayor-council cities."
The centerpiece of these city manager cities is a professional public administrator hired by the council to recommend a budget, develop programs, and manage the day-to-day operations of city departments and agencies. The council sets the over-arching vision and policy direction for the city, and the city manager then lays out a plan to accomplish it.
City government tried to bring this kind of professionalism to city management when the job of chief administrative officer (CAO) was created, but for every CAO success story, there is another one of failure.
Because the city manager is not a politician, appointments of division directors and department heads are less influenced by political motivations, cronyism, or a political buddy system.
In its own way, city managers are more than jobs. Rather, they represent a philosophy — that a nonpolitical manager can bring a higher level of ethics and efficiency to local government. It is the catechism taught religiously in public administration schools that produce city managers.
But appointing the city manager is just the first step to bringing more rationality to local government. With the city council in charge and the city mayor more ceremonial, the Shelby County mayor can become the chief political figure in the region, creating the regional vision that determines whether Memphis succeeds in a global economy where regions are now the units of competition.
Maybe by removing the political need to fight over territory or driven by political ego, a city manager could begin the overdue talks with the Shelby County mayor to move services that benefit the entire county — parks, schools, health care, libraries, museums, and arenas — to the larger county tax base.
This would lower the tax rate of Memphis taxpayers to something in line with Germantown and Collierville, and remove the disincentive that Memphians pay to live within their city's borders. In addition, the lower tax rate would make Memphis more attractive and competitive when compared to its suburbs.
Memphians have known for decades that by changing its form of government, they send a strong message that the times are changing. In the end, maybe consolidation isn't the only way to get there.