University of Memphis

Lack of Accountability in Appointed Commissions by Victoria Potts @ The University of Memphis

On October 3rd, the Memphis City Council moved to postpone their vote on the removal of the statues of Nathan Bedford Forrest and Jefferson Davis from downtown Memphis until October 17th, after the Tennessee Historical Commission had met.   The Tennessee Historical Commission would either approve or deny Memphis’ application to remove the statues.  However, the authority of this appointed Commission needs to be considered.  If democracy is characterized by accountability, where is the accountability in the Historical Commission when citizens are unable to vote on its members?

On its third and final reading before the council, the statue ordinance had been set to pass with the full support of all council members.  The ordinance served as the council’s response to the nation-wide movement and to the August 19th protest in front of the Forrest statue.  However, the battle surrounding historical monuments of historical figures began long before August 19th.  In 2013, Tennessee House of Representatives passed the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act which states that no monument erected in honor of any historical figure or event can be renamed or rededicated without approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission.  In response to this act and before its official instatement, Memphis quickly changed the names of three of its parks from Confederacy Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park to Memphis Park, Mississippi River Park, and Health Sciences Park respectively.  For two years, there was a brief cease-fire until 2015 when the Memphis City Council voted to remove Forrest’s statue from the park altogether.  If only it were that easy.  A year later in 2016, the Tennessee Historical Commission denied Memphis’ application to remove the statue, citing the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.  The battle continued in 2016 when the Tennessee House of Representatives updated the Tennessee Heritage Act with the stipulation that a historical monument could not be renamed without a two third majority vote from the Tennessee Historical commission; previously, a renaming had required a simple majority.  Now poised to go round two with the Historical Commission, the City Council postpones its official vote so that the Council will be able to also vote on any further action needed after the Historical Commission meeting.  At the October 3rd meeting, one councilman cited the unwillingness of the Historical Commission to even hear Memphis’ application at their next meeting let alone vote on it.  The councilman assured the assembled crowd that every legal strategy was being used to ensure the application’s hearing and that further legal action would be taken if the application was not heard.

But what does this say about the state of American democracy?  What does it mean that one government entity is ready and willing to use legal strategies against another entity?  Why does the Council have to use sly strategies to change the name of Memphis’ parks before the “official” enactment of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act?  Perhaps the battle between the Council and the Historical Commission exposes an undemocratic aspect of American democracy: lack of vertical accountability.

Joseph Schumpeter defined democracy as “that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote.” (Schumpeter)  The members of the Tennessee Historical Commission did not acquire power through a struggle for people’s votes.  All members, except the governor, are appointed.  American democracy is built on a system of checks and balances.  Where is the check on the Historical Commission?  Without some kind of check, there is no accountability, a core principle of democratic procedures (Lust and Waldner).

Accountability consists of two parts: answerability and punishment.  Answerability requires public officials to provide information about their activities and to justify them.  Punishment refers to the capacity to impose negative sanctions on officeholders who violate certain rules of conduct. Furthermore, accountability flows in two directions: horizontal and vertical. Horizontal accountability is the classic notion of checks and balances, in which independent state agencies hold each other accountable (Lust and Waldner). One could argue, I suppose, that the Historical Commission is keeping the Memphis City Council accountable to the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act.  But who is keeping the Historical Commission accountable?  The Commission certainly seems to be unwilling to listen to its peers.  Conversations concerning the removal of certain monuments took place in more parts of Tennessee than just Memphis.  In 2015, Governor Bill Haslam and US Senator Bob Corker called for the removal of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol building after the Charleston Church shooting.  The Commission’s response was the previously mentioned addition to the Heritage Protection Act.  If horizontal accountability is not applicable to the Commission, maybe the second type of accountability is?

Vertical accountability is exercised by non-state actors (citizens, civil associations, the media) on state agents (Lust and Waldner).  Political reforms are said to have one of two causes: supply-side or demand-side.  Supply-side refers to causes that work directly on the political leadership supplying political reforms, while demand-side refers to causes that lead citizens to demand political reforms (Lust and Waldner).  Vertical accountability and demand-side causes seem to go hand in hand.  Citizens demand political reform and an accountable government entity enacts that reform.  With Memphis and its statues, the vertically accountable entity appears to be the Memphis City Council rather than the Historical Commission.  At the October 3rd meeting, the Council heard from citizens on both sides of the statue debate.  Whether a citizen is happy or unhappy with the Council’s decision, he is able to hold the Council accountable to that decision through elections.  Every member of the Council is elected.  As previously mentioned, no members of the Historical Commission are elected.  There is little to no vertical accountability with the Historical Commission.

Now, I certainly realize that we are talking about a Historical Commission here.  I am far from saying that the Tennessee Historical Commission is consolidating power by purposely eliminating checks and balances.  The Historical Commission cannot take away voting rights or civil liberties.  I do not think we will be ruled by this Commission any time soon.  However, this example can be used as a tool to help us consider all the other appointment-only commissions and what their consequences might be.  The President’s Cabinet is set by appointment for example.  Although judges have to be confirmed, Supreme Court judges are by appointment.  One of the readings discusses the use of the judicial system to consolidate power.  Are appointments a flaw in our democratic system?  Do they make the United States less democratic?  While it certainly seems implausible for citizens to vote on every office in government, maybe there is a better system to ensure our checks and balances system.

1 Comment

  1. Micah Rosen

    December 5, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    This is a really fascinating take on the statue issue. However, I think that your use of accountability is a red herring for other issues going on. The empowerment of the historical commission came from a bill by the Tennessee House of Representatives. It seems that if the citizens of Tennessee wanted this rule revoked, they could do so through the state legislature. In other words, while the historical commission is not directly accountable, the government that empowers it still is. If citizens want to punish the commission for negative outcomes, they can lobby their legislators to amend or remove the act. It seems like the power of the Historical Commission is more like a piece of legislation than a limitation on the decision-making process.

    Yet, this issue provokes some interesting questions on the relationship between local and state (or state and national) governments. Which level of government should deal with this type of issue? Should the state of Tennessee overstep local decision-makers? Schumpeter’s definition of democracy does not seem like it would require one or the other—state or local government—to decide the statue issue. If politicians of either government compete for the votes of some scope of people, then democracy is satisfied. Even Dahl’s idea that democracy requires the equal ability to express one’s preferences wouldn’t give us a clear answer; anyone can voice their concerns to the state government over decisions made for the entire state. Here, I think the idea of accountability has some interesting applications. Perhaps local governments are more responsive the unique needs of their constituents, and can be more easily checked than the state government. If you define democracy this thickly, then it should be the Memphis government rather than the state government that gets jurisdiction over this issue.

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