Using Our Tax Dollars Against Us

Or, why the Memphis City Council attorney told me to smooch his backside

What are they doing in there?

It ought to be a truism that a city’s tax dollars are used to benefit its citizens: parks, museums, police officers, etc. Sometimes that money is used to hire lobbyists who represent the city and its interests in state or federal government. Memphis has plenty of reasons to send lobbyists to Nashville to stave off some of the more hurtful pieces of legislation, such as those that preempt the city from doing things in its own interest, like removing Confederate statues.

What if, however, our city council was paying a lobbying firm to convince rural lawmakers in Nashville to sponsor legislation that would outlaw IRV across the state of Tennessee?

Brief history lesson: In 2008, voters in Memphis chose instant runoff voting (IRV) for part of the city council elections. IRV is a system that allows voters to rank their top three choices, thus eliminating the need for a separate runoff election and ensuring a candidate with a broad base of support. The choice, in the form of a charter amendment, was to take effect when the voting technology made it feasible. It took about eight years for someone to determine that IRV was in fact feasible using our machines. IRV had in fact been technically feasible all along. Better late than never, right?

Once the election coordinator decided that IRV was possible, she quite responsibly made preparations to implement it in the 2019 Memphis municipal election. The city council, despite knowing about this provision in the city charter for 9 years, suddenly decided to oppose IRV. This opposition, led by Edmund Ford, was as broad as it was deceptive. Mr. Ford used misinformation and really poor statistics to create an environment of fear and complacency.

It worked. Despite overwhelming public opposition, the city council voted on a ballot referendum that will make Memphians vote on IRV again in November 2018. As if that weren’t enough, the city council passed another ballot referendum, addressing the same part of the charter that would eliminate all runoffs, traditional or instant, thereby turning our city council elections into glorified popularity contests.

Back to now. If the city council could just leave well enough alone, then the voters would decide in November whether or not we really, really want IRV. While it’s far from ideal (who wants to revote what you’ve already voted on?), I could at least grit my teeth and bear it.

Yet the plot thickens. In 2017, a state representative from East Memphis, Mark White, introduced HB0638, which would have banned IRV statewide. The bill didn’t make it far and just sat there, unloved, until February 2018 when state senator Ken Yager, from Kingston, TN (355 miles from Memphis) introduced a Senate version of the anti-IRV legislation.

This got me to wondering: why would a rural senator, who has no interest at all in Memphis and whose constituents have not (to my knowledge) broached the issue of IRV, support such legislation. Last Wednesday I called his office, and the staffer did not know. She suggested that perhaps Mark White had brought it up to him. She said she’d speak with the senator and get back with me. I’m still waiting.

At this point I got to wondering whether or not the city council itself was pushing the legislation. I remembered reading that the council was considering hiring its own lobbyists, the Ingram Group, to advocate for council concerns, namely avoiding legislative preemption in the form of state legislation that would require the city to protect Confederate statues.

I went to the Tennessee Ethics Commission’s website and found their lobbyist search portal and found some lobbyists registered to the Memphis City Council and the topics for which they are registered. Specifically regarding the Memphis City Council, these lobbyists’ topics were: amusement, games, sports; business & commerce; economic & industrial development; and taxation.

Nothing in there spoke to IRV legislation, but I figured I’d throw caution to the wind and give the office a call. One of the lobbyists answered. I asked him if he worked for the Memphis City Council and he said he did. Then I asked if he was advocating for anti-IRV legislation and he said yes.

Let that sink in. The Memphis City Council is using taxpayer money to pay a lobbying firm to support legislation that defies what voters chose.

The lobbyist went on to tell me that they had sought Senator Yager because he’s the chair of the Senate State Government Committee, through which the legislation would need to pass in order to get to the Senate floor. He told me he didn’t know much about the situation in Memphis, so I offered some insight, including how Edmund Ford conducting a massive misinformation campaign to bamboozle the few people he actually spoke to into supporting his position. We ended the call on polite terms.

This was a lot for me to think about, so I didn’t do much. I spoke with a few people I trust, but nothing else.

Those phone calls happened last Wednesday. The following afternoon I received a call from the Law Offices of Allan J. Wade, who is the city council’s attorney. I figured this wasn’t going to go well, so I braced myself for the worst and just about got it.

He told me that he understood I’d called the council’s lobbyist and that if I had questions I should direct them to him and not speak with the lobbyists, whom he called employees. I answered simply that I could call whomever I chose, to which he responded that I could kiss his ass. Yes, that was the language he used.

I think it was clear to both of us at this point that nothing productive was going to come from this conversation, but he kept pushing. He told me, to my surprise, that I was an employee of FairVote. I corrected him and told him I was not. He then told me I was working for Steve Mulroy and I again corrected him.

Once we’d established that I had made that call solely as a citizen, he suggested that my interfering with city business might be considered a “tort” and that he was putting me “on notice.” I asked him whether these were legal notices and he assured me that, no, we were just talking “man to man.” When I asked him whether the city council was using its lobbyists to try to advance any legislation in Nashville, he answered that legislation is made by legislators and that the lobbyists are there to convey information from Nashville to the city council. He didn’t appreciate when I pointed out the discrepancy between the lobbyist’s and his description of the work being done.

One of the more interesting moments in the call was when he told me he’d heard that I’d berated Edmund Ford in my discussion with the lobbyist. He seemed to take that personally. I don’t remember if we were talking about Ford at this point, but he told me that if he thought he could find a “cause of action” against me he might consider pursuing litigation.

We said nasty things to each other, but at the end of the call I asked him if anything he’d said constituted a legal notice. He assured me that any legal notices would be issued in writing.

So there you have it. Not only has our city council lied about IRV, they are now directing taxpayer dollars to get it defeated and intimidating citizens to defend that expenditure. Furthermore, the council is working to subvert a referendum that is already in progress. An oft-repeated refrain during the initial IRV debate was that the city council was giving the voters a second chance to state whether or not they want IRV in local elections. With the employment of these lobbyists the city council is working to actively take that chance away.

If you — like me — think this thing has gone to far, please feel free to use our contact form to contact the entire city council or just email irv@saveirvmemphis.com. Either way, your message will be shared with the entire city council and with us so we can keep in touch with you as this movement continues into November.