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Shelby Co. Voters Guide: City of Memphis Proposed Ordinance 5512

October 25, 2014

This is the sixth of seven posts Back in River City is publishing about  key races and issues on the November 4 ballot, including proposed Tennessee Constitutional amendments One, Two, Three and Four;  Tennessee Senate District 29 and District 30 races, and today’s explanation of proposed Memphis City ordinance 5512 governing civil service appeals. Our next and final post will cover the 9th District Congressional race between incumbent Steve Cohen and Republican challenger Charlotte Bergmann.  Early voting is underway at these locations.  Click here  for a sample ballot.

 City of Memphis Charter Amendment (Ordinance 5512)


Charter ordinance 5512 proposes changes to the Memphis city charter in the way civil servant appeals and promotions are handled by the City of Memphis. The ballot wording is inexplicit:

Improve effectiveness of Civil Service hearings

Shall the Home Rule Charter of the City of Memphis, Tennessee be amended to update the Charter provisions relating to the Civil Service Commission to: 1) increase the number of Civil Service Commission members,  2) make administrative updates to civil service hearing process and procedures and 3) allow the Director of Personnel to consider performance as a measure for personnel evaluations?

 Yes  No

This is the kind of proposal that many would consider ballot filler. It is obscure, arcane, and arguably irrelevant to the average Memphis voter.  

So just check any box or skip it completely and move on, right?


Please don’t. Ordinance 5512 requires a change to the city charter  (which is why its passage is subject to a referendum by the people), so be a good citizen and take a closer look.

Kemp conrad

Councilman Kemp Conrad

The Civil Service Commission (CSC) is a board appointed by the mayor to  “conduct hearings to review disciplinary actions, limited to suspensions, dismissals or demotions.” According to Memphis City Councilman Kemp Conrad, problems with the current process include a large backlog of appeals  that may take up to two or three years to be heard. The city charter provides for appeals to be heard within 60 days of filing.

Councilman Conrad  helped to craft the amendment and sponsored it before the Council. He wrote the following summary as an explanation to voters. Councilman Jim Strickland recently shared the summary with Eddie Settles of Back in River City.


In November the citizens will vote to change the Charter (e.g. Constitution) of the City of Memphis, Tennessee. If approved by a majority of voters the civil service commission would change as follows:

1. Increase the number of civil service commission members,

2. Give the ability to make Administrative updates to civil service hearing process and procedures, and

3. Allow the Director of Personnel to consider performance as a measure for personnel evaluations.  [It is breathtaking to discover that promotions and pay increases are being granted to civil service employees, including fire and police, without consideration to actual job performance.]


1. Better People means Better Service. This amendment allows us to take care of the good employees.

· We have some really good employees in the government. The problem is it’s hard to retain them. Right now if you want to give a raise to a government worker, everyone gets the same amount. No matter how well they do their job. With these changes we can do more to take care of the people that work harder.

· These changes allow us to take care of the good employees that take their job seriously and truly do a good job.

2. Stop rewarding bad behavior.

· Currently if an employee faces criminal charges, they can place their civil service matter in abeyance and receive back wages. This leads to lengthy and expensive continuances. This amendment puts an end to that. Employees would still be able place a matter in abeyance during criminal proceedings, but would no longer receive back wages during this time.

3. We need to make faster better decisions when dealing with employees.

· It could take months for the current board to make decisions or hold employee hearings. A simple fix of changing the civil service board structure will make a big difference.

· There are currently no procedural rules are in place for conducting evidentiary hearings. The Commission should be allowed to adopt procedural rules which would govern the proceedings and get more cases resolved faster, creating better outcomes for both the city and the employees. This amendment allows for those procedures to be established.

In addition to those named above,  specific changes authorized by passage of 5512 would include:

  1. Increasing membership of the Civil Service Commission from seven to 14. [The CSC’s webpage only shows two existing members, both of whose terms expire November 30, 2014.]
  2. Requires that seven members be lawyers, judges, or administrative hearing officers.
  3. Provides for one of the judicially trained members  to serve as a hearing officer, but an employee may appeal the decision of the hearing officer to  the full commission. [Hearing officers would be selected “at random.”] 

For the policy geeks among you, the full, seven-page ordinance can be found here. To read the existing ordinance, click here, select Article 34 Civil Service, and click again.

why vote no

What Are the Arguments Against 5512?

According to an October 21, 2014 Commercial Appeal article and Memphis Police Association (MPA) Facebook posts, MPA objects to 5512’s inclusion of language allowing job performance to be considered in promotions and pay raises.  MPA President Michael Williams alleges that  provision was inserted by city officials after MPA agreed to the body of the ordinance, and is urging  MPA’s members to vote against it.

[This is evidence to us at Back in River City that Michael Williams and the MPA live in an alternate universe where merit should not affect salary increases and promotions. If  Mr. Williams runs for mayor of Memphis in  2015 as expected, it could be an entertaining campaign.]

Back in River City’s Take on 5512

There are many unanswered questions about 5512, including,  What is the fiscal impact?

money ?

The Commercial Appeal’s article on the proposed ordinance quoted Councilman Conrad as saying that,

” . . . members [of the CSC] are paid $400 for a full day hearing, $200 for a half day hearing, and $100 for writing a formal opinion…”

Prior to October 1, 2013 (5512 was passed on its third reading by the Memphis City Council  August 20, 2013), CSC members were paid  $200 per day for a full hearing. Trusted sources have told Back in River City that the pay hike is intended in part to improve CSC attendance (some meetings have apparently been cancelled for lack of a quorum) and to attract the seven new attorney members provided for in 5512.

No one has informed the public how much it will cost taxpayers to double the size of the CSC and to  double their pay.  How many meetings will be called? How many hearing days will be necessary to hear the backlog of cases and ensure that appeals filed in the future will be heard within the 60 day period required by law?

By comparison, Shelby County’s  civil service commission has six members, each of whom receives $50 per diem for their service. On average, they hear 30 cases per year.

thinkerWe don’t know how many cases are waiting in the purgatory of the Memphis CSC’s backlog. We don’t know why doubling the size of the membership will facilitate the work of the CSC (especially when they are already having problems getting a quorum. Coordinating seven practicing attorneys’ schedules plus seven other Commission members?). We don’t know the average number of cases heard by the CSC each year. We don’t know all we would like to know as taxpayers about the annual number of appeals resulting from criminal charges against Memphis civil service employees; or the frequency and amount of back wages awarded when such appeals have been held in abeyance.

We don’t know why the labor unions reportedly wanted all 14 members of the CSC to have legal training (the final version of 5512 calls for seven). More importantly, what would prevent those lawyers (or other hearing officers) from benefitting, either directly or indirectly, from their service on the CSC (aside from the direct meeting fees paid)? Are provisions in place to prevent direct conflicts of interest?

Here’s an idea: why couldn’t the two existing Memphis City Court judges be used as civil service hearing officers?

Since Memphis voters are asked to approve this new mechanism, is it too much to ask for more explanation about what’s broken about the current system, and why 5512 is the best way to fix it?

We at Back in River City understand that changes need to be made to improve existing civil service procedures.  We’re all for treating good employees well and allowing the city to rid its ranks of poor performers. We respect and appreciate the efforts made by Councilman Conrad and others who worked hard to seek solutions and to write an ordinance acceptable to all parties involved. We are not convinced that 5512 is the best solution, however, because we haven’t been given enough information.

Our friend and favorite government watchdog Joe Saino, who covered 5512 on his blog, searching dog with magnifying glassshares some of our misgivings. Joe says he will vote Yes on 5512, but “reluctantly.” If 5512 is voted down, it will be back to the drawing board for a different, hopefully better, version.  That version would likely not come before the voters until November 2016.  In the interim, Memphis will elect a new mayor and city council. Will the new team be more fiscally conscientious? Work as effectively with unions? Have better ideas? Share more information with the voters when asking us to approve a change in the city charter?

As we’ve said before in this series,

i dunno muppets


Back in River City is all about  making government accountable for good public policy. Because of the questions outlined above, we are voting No on 5512.

Message to City Council and local news media:  

Most of us want to be smart voters. We care about Memphis and want it to be a better place to live for everyone. To do our jobs as good citizens, we need facts and background about the issues. Don’t expect us to vote Yes on everything you put before us, or depend on editorials to forge our opinions on issues. Educate us, engage us, and respect us. We are all on the same team.


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