Sunday, August 15, 2004

The Pension Charter Commission

John Lunt, of Concerned Citizens of Memphis (I'm getting time-out errors when I try the link), was a caller today on the Andrew Clarke radio show (WREC AM600; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 3PM). He spoke of the petition signature drive his group is undertaking to get an up or down vote on convening a charter commission on the a ballot November 2nd.

The charter commission would be created to force a change in the City's generous pension scheme, where now anyone with 12 years of service gets a lifetime pension. Conceivably, a person could start work with the City at age 25, work their 12 years, retire at 37 and draw a pension for the rest of their life. That could be up to fifty years! At $1500 a month, that's $18,000 a year and over fifty years would total $900,000! And consider some of the many upper-level City employees whose pensions will be considerably larger than this example. Don't forget, too, that Mayor Herenton has created almost 200 appointed positions in his administration since the pension change in 2001 that qualify for this bounty.

Lunt's group wants to return the pension plan to its old structure. You had to work 15 years to get a pension, and then could only start getting it either at the regular retirement age (55 or 60) or when your age and years of service exceed, if I recall correctly, 70. That's the proper way to do it. The current scheme is nothing more than a second income at City taxpayer's expense.

In our interview earlier this week, City Councillor Carol Chumney talked about her experience bringing a bill that would change the pension plan up for a vote. When she offered up the bill for a second, there was dead silence from the Council chamber. It literally died for lack of a second. She thinks that the threat of a charter commission alone might be enough to get the Council to take action.

I was initially skeptical of the idea of a charter commission. The way it works is this: Citizens must collect and turn in by September 2nd, 10,000 valid signatures. Lunt wants to collect at least 15,000 for safety's sake. If the petition succeeds with the Election Commission, and survives the likely challenges in court, it goes on the ballot.

Voters (in this case, only registered voters who are citizens of the City of Memphis) will either say "yea or nay" on November 2 to the creation of the commission. If approved, then all citizens are free to run for one of the seven positions on the commission.

John Lunt has said that his group will offer up a full slate of non-politicians carefully vetted. But anyone can run and be elected. There will be a second election (I don't know the timeframe on that.) where we vote on the commission members.

Once commissioners are selected, the commission convenes. It is here that I get nervous. The commission has total and unencumbered freedom. They can propose and approve anything they want. Anything. That's a whole lot of power to put into a commission's hands. It's intoxicating, tempting and dangerous. They could do anything.

That's been my worry point. But on the Andrew Clark show today, a gentleman named Larry -- who said he was on the first and only charter commission ever created, in the Seventies -- called in to clear up the matter. (By the way, I was the other caller on the line with him and Andrew. Mike in Midtown.)

All the commission can do is convene themselves and then develop a list of proposed changes. They have no actual power of change themselves. All they do is meet until they vote on a resolution for voters to approve. The commission's final recommendation is put on the next ballot and sent before the voters. Voters would then vote "yea or nay" on the resolution.

In the case of Larry's commission, called to return the new Mayor/Council government to the previous form of City government, the commission met one time and adjourned. They never proposed anything. The commission was stacked 4/3 with people sent there to block them. So, it evaporated without action.

In the case of Lunt's proposed commission, action on anything other than the pension plan is likely to put off enough voters that the motion would fail to pass. Any perception that commission members were being unduly influenced one way or another (assuming the news even reports it) would have the same off-putting effect. If the commission went berserk and started proposing changes willy-nilly, again, the voters would likely be disgusted and fail to pass it. Even if the commission fell into rancor and dischord, it would fail to pass a resolution for the voters.

And then there are the voters. No matter what the result of the charter commission, it must pass muster with the voters.

In other words, there are simply too many checks and stops in the process to warrant undue worry about a rampaging commission playing havoc with the City. It's more likely they'll stop or fall apart or fail to impress voters than it is that they'll remake Memphis.

A professional commissioner campaign with professional, carefully vetted candidates, sworn to only consider the pension issue, could be the outcome. I only worry that the loudest yammerers or the ones with the most money behind them to boost name recognition, or the ones who promise free lunches, will get on the commission, diverting its purpose.

But that kind of commission is most likely to fail, so there you go.

I called Mr. Lunt and offered to host copies of the petition file online for him, and to advertise them on Half-Bakered. He said that John Malmo was working on a professional site (see link above) but it doesn't appear to be working. I told him I could have the petitions online within hours of him emailing a file to me. The idea is to get the petition file where anyone can download and print a copy off, then walk around their neighborhood collecting signatures.

Even if the Malmo site gets running, I'd still be happy to offer my services just to help. Why? I'm a firm believer that every once in a while, elected officials need a strong, shocking reminder of who is in charge. They need to be shaken up and made to fear the public. If we don't keep them a little worried, then you get the "culture of entitlement" (Tom Jones) and the "loyalty of friendship" (AC Wharton) that creates the mess we're now seeing in the Jones / Thorp / Lanier scandal at County Hall.

So, go and download a petition, once I get them from Lunt and get them online. (You can contact Lunt directly at 683-1011.) Get your signatures and turn your petition in. Do it now. Do it for democracy.

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