Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis: Elite Rule in a Gilded Age City
In 1879, demoralized by municipal bankruptcy and a crippling yellow fever epidemic, the citizens of Memphis allowed business leaders and large property owners to create one of the earliest city commission governments in the United States. Locally prepared bills enacted by the Tennessee Legislature abolished the municipal charter, placed the former city under state supervision, and created a government for what would officially be known until 1891 as the Taxing District of Shelby County.In Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis, Lynette Boney Wrenn draws on extensive primary research to explore the consequences of the city's dramatic governmental reorganization in the late 1800s. As she explains, the health and fiscal crises that Memphis suffered gave its economic elite the opportunity to dominate local government. Three powerful fire and police commissioners and five advisory public works supervisors, all elected at large after 1881, replaced the mayor and thirty representatives chosen by wards. The commissioners installed a revolutionary sewer system and adopted other sanitary measures to fight yellow fever, negotiated a settlement with the city's creditors that cut its debt in half, drastically reduced public expenditures, and put the city on a pay-as-you-go basis. This centralization of political power in a small commission aided the efficient transaction of municipal business, but the public policies that resulted from it tended to benefit upper-class Memphians while neglecting the less affluent residents and neighborhoods. Capitalizing on a growing discontent over the unequal distribution of public services and the slow pace of civic improvements, Democratic politicianswrested municipal control from the nonpartisan business oligarchy in 1890 -- although Memphis would remain under some form of commission government until 1967.Throughout this book, Wrenn compares the political experience of Memphis during the Gilded Age to that of other towns and cities in the United States. Her penetrating analysis of a little-known period in Memphis history confirms the findings of other studies showing that, wherever representative government has been diminished, serious inequities in the distribution of public services have followed. Crisis and Commission Government in Memphis thus underlines the importance of contemporary efforts to make municipal governments more democratic -- not just more efficient and economical.
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