SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. — All 13 positions of the Memphis City Council are up for grabs this year, and while many may not know what the council does, they certainly feel the impact of their decisions.
The city council controls the budget, the city tax rate, they have authority over MLGW and they must approve any mayor appointee.
“From a legislative standpoint, they run city government. While a lot of people in town don’t know who their city councilperson is, that person has a lot of authority over how the city operates,” said political analyst Otis Sanford.
But election turnout rarely reflects the council's power in Memphis. In 2019, turnout failed to reach even 30% of eligible voters, a far cry from its 1991 peak of 65%.
Sanford is optimistic that the wide-open mayoral election, with no incumbent on the ballot for the first time since 1971, will boost turnout closer to previous highs.
“People complain all the time about what’s going on in city government. They complain about the police, they complain about MLGW, they complain about a lot of things. But the way to make your voice heard is to go to that polling place,” Sanford said.
One person who’s hoping to increase awareness of city council candidates and races is JR Robinson. Robinson’s organization, JustMyMemphis, hosts nonpartisan "Meet the Candidate" segments to allow people running for office to speak to Memphians about the issues that are important to them.
“Most of the issues facing our city are community issues. We have a lot of people that will gladly complain about how bad things are. This person's bad, this person's bad. But then you ask them what their solution is, and they think they don't know about all that,” Robinson said.
Robinson finds one challenge is that many people still lack basic civics education, including the difference between the council and the county commission or what the city council even does.
“I think people stop coming out when they don't believe anybody is going to do something. ‘I voted 100 times and every time I vote, nothing changes.'"
Issues of crime and urban decay are both expected to play major roles this election season, but Sanford and Robinson are hopeful that as education and outreach increases, the council can be a force for good in the Bluff City.
This year’s election is on October 5, but early voting is open from September 15 to September 30.