Residents of the City of Memphis are again being asked to consider the future of the city marshal position. After failing in April, the city council has placed a ballot issue again seeking voter approval to transition the police department leadership from an elected city marshal position to an appointed chief of police position.
Proposition 1 on the November 6th ballot asks “Shall the city ordinances of the City of Memphis be amended to provide a City Marshal shall no longer be elected but that a Chief of Police, who shall perform all duties required of the marshal by law, shall be appointed by the Mayor and the Board of Aldermen?”
A similar ballot question in April failed by a 131 to 95 vote.
The city council moved to bring the issue back to the voters citing the low April voter turnout (just 13%) as well as some apparent confusion surrounding the issue.
The topic came to the forefront recently when former city marshal Bill Holland resigned from the post because he was moving outside the city limits. He was retained by the city as a police captain, and currently is performing the duties of marshal until a replacement is appointed by the council, or if the ballot measure fails, a new marshal can be elected in April 2019 to complete the remainder of Holland’s term.
The state statues that govern the post, require the elected city marshal to be a resident of the city.
“Obviously we would like to keep Bill Holland as the head of our police department,” said Alderman Chris Feeney. “He does an excellent job, so if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Unfortunately due to the residency requirements established by state law, unless voters approve this measure, we are going to have a different leader for our police department come next April.”
The alderman noted, that while the current situation has created more urgency for the ballot issue to be considered, it is a practical measure that should insure that only qualified candidates are hired for the job.
“The current situation simply illustrates the underlying problem with the process,” said Feeney. “Regardless of whether there is a single qualified candidate worth employing, the way it stands now, we will be forced to hire whomever gets elected.”
By law the city is required every four years to elect a city marshal. The pool of candidates is limited by state law to residents of the city, and a salary is set by ordinance in advance for the four-year term.
“We understand that people do not like the idea that the right to vote is being taken away from them,” said Mayor William Reckenberg. “However, voters will maintain the power to elect the members of the board of aldermen, as well as the mayor, effectively retaining the power over those who would be responsible for hiring a police chief.”
He noted that all other city employees are hired by the board of alderman, including police officers, the city clerk, utilities superintendent and city administrator.
“The city marshal is an important position, but so too is city administrator and city clerk, and those positions are trusted to the council to fill by appointment,” said Reckenberg.
The council members noted the ballot issue was being made not to take away a voting right, but instead to prevent the community from being forced to employee someone who wouldn’t normally be hired.
“You hear people talk about elections and how it can sometimes feel like you are choosing the lesser of two evils, but that is assuming you have a choice,” said Alderman Tom Glass. “If there is only one name on a ballot, there is no choice for voters.”
If the ballot issue is approved, the city council would be able to interview prospective candidates for the police chief position, and could chose simply to leave the position vacant if a qualified candidate was not identified or could widen the search for candidates, advertising the position outside of the area.
Opponents of the ballot issue have stated the proposal makes it seem like the city council doesn’t trust voters are smart enough to elect the right person.
“That has nothing to do with this proposal,” said Reckenberg. “If there is only one candidate and it isn’t someone you want to elect, then it has nothing to do with how smart voters are, but has everything to do with the law that says a marshal will be elected. There isn’t a way to vote no in a single candidate race, where it only takes one vote to win.”
Other arguments against the proposal have recommended seeking to change the state statute to remove the residency requirement.
“That may be something that happens at the state level at some point,” said Alderman Remley. “But honestly the lawmakers have already given us the power to make the change ourselves, by giving us the ability to ask voters to change it from an elected marshal to a hired police chief.”
Under state statute, fourth class cities, such as Memphis, are required to elect a city marshal, unless voters authorize the election process to be replaced with hiring of a chief of police.
The only qualification requirements to be elected marshal are the candidate must be at least 21 years of age and a resident of the city for at least one year prior to the election. There are no requirements that a city marshal candidate must be a certified law enforcement agent. State statute requires municipalities to pay full compensation while an elected candidate is enrolled in law enforcement training.
State statute says newly elected city marshals are to within six months of election, file with the city clerk proof that a minimum of 120 hours of law enforcement training has been completed.
“Basically the way the state statue reads, next April the taxpayers could be paying a salary to someone who is off to school for six months or more, all while we have a perfectly good chief of police already in our employment,” said Alderman Glass.