Working for Memphis

Julie Huston Ellis '71 recognized for efforts chairing charter commission.

One day in 2009, Julie Huston Ellis ’71 received a call from Memphis Mayor AC Wharton, Jr., offering her the rare opportunity to chair the city’s Metro Charter Commission and forge a proposal for a consolidated government between Memphis and Shelby County.

“It was the kind of phone call you should never take,” laughed Ellis, who is currently a Randolph trustee and attorney in Memphis.

She knew the proposal would be controversial, but she also saw the possibilities that could arise from a more efficient government.

An economics major at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Ellis brought a broad range of experience in both the law and corporate world to the charter commission. After completing law school at the University of Florida (UF), Ellis served as assistant general counsel to the city of Jacksonville, Florida, where the government had been consolidated for seven years.

“The city was growing like a charm, and there was investment in buildings, transportation links, and the seaport,” Ellis said.

While chairing the commission, Ellis also found that she and Wharton shared common experiences. She was one of the first women to study law at UF, and he was one of the first African-American professors at the University of Mississippi. Their commitment to the city was just as strong.

“We had a lot of similarities in our backgrounds, and we both felt that Memphis could be better,” she said. “We wanted to keep taxes low and wanted to keep young people in the Memphis area.”

The commission studied 40 other cities and applied benchmarking methods that Ellis had used during 17 years working in the corporate world with FedEx. The work was eye opening for Ellis.

“I met some of the finest business leaders. I spoke at many churches all over Memphis. I saw the necessity of community and neighborhood strength,” she said.

When the proposal went to the voters in November 2010, it received 51 percent of the vote in Memphis, but failed to pass in the suburbs. Ellis believes it will be the catalyst for school consolidation which, in turn, will lead to a more efficient form of government.

Her work on the commission also helped earn Ellis the Ruby R. Wharton Award for Outstanding Service in the Field of Business and Government this year. The award is given to outstanding women for exceptional contributions to the Memphis area.

For her, the entire process, not the outcome, was the opportunity. And it gave her an appreciation for what the nation’s founders faced when trying to create a government.

“ It is an experiment in democracy to have a charter commission write a constitution,” Ellis said.