Monday, July 31, 2006

Juvenile Court Endorsement Raises Questions

To follow up Thursday’s post about Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Kuhn’s low aim in trying to improve the local political environment, we forgot to mention another target -- the race for the Juvenile Court judgeship held by Kenneth Turner.

In advertisements and television spots by Tennessee Senator Curtis Person, he proudly lays claim to the endorsement of Judge Turner, who has four decades of political power in this community.

The only problem is that the fifth Canon of the Code of Judicial Conduct precisely forbids this kind of activity.

While such things are played pretty loose in Nashville where Senator Person has cut his political teeth, the Canon seems pretty plain to us. It says a judge “shall not…publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office.”


We can’t recall a judge in recent history who has ignored the clear ethical directive of the Code of Judicial Conduct, but it might have even more relevant since Senator Person is performing judicial functions in his present role as Juvenile Court referee.

He could still stake out the high ground by removing Judge Turner’s endorsement, but winning the lottery is probably about as likely.

We wrote last week about concerns about the political use of public employees and funds in campaigns, and in this context, the dozens of “referees” who operate in Juvenile Court and in the Divorce Referee’s office deserve clearer guidelines that recognize their judicial roles. Although they act as surrogate judges, they operate in a political nether world where they actively work in campaigns, contribute money and endorse candidates. This is hardly surprising, since these are plum county appointments for plugged-in local lawyers.

But, we digress. Back to Juvenile Court, while Judge Turner deserves accolades and our gratitude for reforming our juvenile justice system decades ago and creating what was considered a national model, over the years, Juvenile Court has seemed to take on some of the trappings of a medieval kingdom.

The Kingdom and the Power

Such is the risk to all who don the black robes, but when you also have the power to make 40 job appointments and manage about 350 non-appointed employees, it is important to fight the tendencies to adopt a sovereign presence in the operations of this important part of Shelby County Government.

With so many at-risk teenagers ending up in Juvenile Court in this community, it’s much more important that the focus be on intervention and inspiration rather than on the judicial kingdom that has built up over 40 years.

Because of his special status as the architect of the current system, no one begrudges Judge Turner this special treatment, but with so much on the line in this city when it comes to our success in improving the odds for the tens of thousands of young people who come in contact with Juvenile Court every year.

In this way, the race for Juvenile Court Judge should be much more about the future than the past. And it should begin by moving away from past political practices that lead to mistakes like a judicial endorsement.

Hopefully, Mr. Kuhn hasn’t put up his keyboard.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Answer To Our Panhandling Problem?


Rockdale, a suburb of Sydney, was having a problem with loiterers in a local park. So officials decided something must be done to drive them away.

Their solution? Play songs by Barry Manilow and Doris Day. Loudly. At all hours.

Residents near the park aren't too thrilled with having to listen to songs like "Copacabana," "Could It Be Magic?" and "Que Sera Sera" all the time.

The city is turning down the volume a little and reviewing the playlist.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Civic Involvement As A Corporate Asset

From Otis White's Urban Notebook at He is featured weekly on our syndicated radio program Smart City:

Not all things were better in the past, but one thing in cities was genuinely better 30 years ago: business leadership, particularly among big companies. Alas, today’s cities are filled with branch offices of large corporations that never participate in chambers of commerce, rarely offer more than token support for United Way campaigns, and never, ever dirty their hands with local politics. So it’s surprising to learn that there are a few large corporations that actually push their executives to participate in civic work. Even more surprising: IBM is one.

Why is that surprising? Because IBM has every excuse for distancing itself from the communities it does business in. It is a multinational corporation without ties to any particular region of the country (it is headquartered in suburban New York but has operations everywhere). While it does business with lots of governments, it isn’t primarily a government contractor, so it has little need to curry favor with localities. Nor is it part of a regulated industry, like a bank or utility, and thus dependent on the whims of politicians.

And its executives, like those of most large companies, are a nomadic lot. (The old joke was that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved.”) Add it up: No close ties to any region, no need to curry favor with politicians, a peripatetic group of executives, and you’d figure IBM would be among the least involved of companies. But you’d be wrong.

According to IBM, 60 of its executives in the U.S. are on United Way boards and 53 are on local or statewide chambers of commerce. Subtract community relations and government affairs officials, and you still find a surprising number of what corporations call “business-unit executives” (those who run departments related to services or products) on community boards (50 on United Way boards, 36 on chamber boards). Example: Lee Torrance, top executive in the Atlanta office, is on the Atlanta chamber and United Way boards and involved with Habitat for Humanity and the Atlanta Ballet. Another: Don Jue, director of operations for 20 Western states, sits on the Los Angeles chamber board, the Urban League board, the L.A. Sports Council and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center board.

This isn’t by accident, IBM officials say. The company has targeted 23 metro areas in the U.S. for local involvement by its executives, because these places have large company operations, a large group of clients or are seen as important future markets. (These regions range from Burlington, Vt., to New York.) The company requires top executives in these regions to be sure the company is represented on important civic boards and active in good causes. Finally, it makes “external relations” (translation: community involvement) part of these executives’ annual performance reviews.

But if the “how” of IBM’s community involvement is clear, the “why” is more mysterious. IBMers say it’s part of the corporate culture, something that goes back to its earliest days nearly a century ago. Employees like it, company officials say. And it’s good for business, part of the “base of integrity that gives people trust in doing business with IBM over and over,” says Ann W. Cramer, director of corporate community relations for North America.

Could other large companies do the same? Sure. Why don’t they? Because civic involvement isn’t seen as central to these companies’ business. Thus, when most big companies get involved in communities, they do so by sending PR executives or government-affairs people, officials whose work is seen as incidental to the company’s real business. This, then, is what makes IBM’s approach so remarkable. Its use of business-unit executives for most of its civic work shows that, to Big Blue at least, community involvement isn’t just marketing, it’s a corporate asset. And that’s an idea worth cheering.

Sherman Responds To Requests For Suggestions About Memphis Music

A few weeks ago, in response to our post about the contract with the Memphis Grizzlies to build the FedExForum, we had a spirited conversation with readers about whether the agreement was a victory for Memphis (we voted yes). As part of that discussion, Sherman, who expressed his concerns about misplaced priorities such as music, was asked what he would do if he were in charge of Memphis Music.

Sherman Willmott’s answer was posted recently as a comment to our original commentary, but since it was awhile back, we’re repeating it here also to make sure the people who asked for his opinions see this. Obviously, these are Sherman's opinions and not necessarily this blog's.

To read his response, click comments for this post.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Taking Aim At The Real Target

Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Matt Kuhn might have shot at the right target, but his aim is way too low.

In the end, he and others in the leadership of our local political parties tend to gag on gnats while swallowing camels. That’s certainly true in this case.

While he was firing off his letter about the use of county stationary by mayoral candidate John Willingham, Mr. Kuhn should have used his time to also send a letter to his Republican Party counterpart asking that they get together to develop standards for the use of county personnel and money.

Mr. Kuhn’s complaint against Commissioner Willingham was handled by District Attorney General Bill Gibbons in keeping with the political calculus that has come to characterize his office. In addition to Commissioner Willingham, Mr. Kuhn also complained about Shelby County Register Bob Patterson inserting his annual flyer about taxes into our property tax bills, a grievance whose argument seems especially thin in its justification. Most interesting to county insiders is the fact that Mr. Kuhn didn’t raise any questions about some of District Attorney General Gibbons’ activities, which have raised eyebrows in the Courthouse for some time.

Hiring in the Campaign Season

The local political scene is replete with examples of staff members hired a few months before a campaign to assume “community relations, “public information” and jobs with vague duties, and with “information brochures” that appear only as the election season approaches. As a result, there’s often a fine line separating a “Rose Garden” strategy from exploiting public employees and coffers for political ends.

It’s not unusual to find numerous county employees – especially those who are dependent on appointments for their jobs - on political contribution lists (where their membership often comes under duress) or to see them at political events, sometimes while on county time and the county payroll. There have been lists of campaign donors kept on public computers by county employees, and there are times when employees have written campaign releases, organized political events and even called the news media while at their desks.

Mr. Kuhn and his Republican Party colleague have the chance to show real leadership in putting their parties on the front lines fighting to restore the public’s confidence in government. They can do it by setting a higher standard for their candidates and their elected officials when it comes to the use of county property and personnel. They can do it by establishing rules that draw a clear and unconfusing line between public jobs and political activities.

Setting Firm Rules

They can start by calling for a policy that forbids county employees from contributing to political races, that forbids employees from doing any political work while on county time, that forbids public employees from attending political events during their work hours and that forbids the expenditure of any county money or use of county property for political purposes. Surely these are principles that both parties can embrace.

There’s more that should be done, but this would be a strong beginning. Of course, we’re assuming that Mr. Kuhn’s concern – born from an upbringing by two parents passionate about public issues - is more than just political posturing and that he’s serious about reforming the system.

He wrote Attorney General Gibbons about an improper use of county stationary, but in the end, the real problem isn’t about paper; it’s about people…publicly paid people often routinely involved in political activities.

Mr. Kuhn’s raised the issue and as a result, the ball’s in his court. By addressing this serious issue in a serious way, he could establish his most impressive legacy as head of the party faithful.

Growing Memphis Smart

The topic this week on Smart City is growing our communities in ways that are economically and environmentally smart is today's imperative. This week's guests, which include the author of the Unified Development Code now being written for Memphis and Shelby County, advise communities on the latest strategies for achieving that goal.

Lee Einsweiler is principal with Code Studio in Austin. He is working with municipalities around the country to develop new land use codes that support their evolution over time and a more harmonious way of life. In addition to his work on more than 40 code projects across the country Lee is currently helping protect fragile historic resources and special natural environments with the Metropolitan Planning Commission in Savannah, Georgia, through revisions of their zoning ordinances.

Paul Polizzotto is founder and CEO of EcoMedia where he is bringing companies and cities together to support new environmental projects. Prior to forming EcoMedia, Paul founded Property Prep, an industrial environmental cleaning company where he pioneered a concept known as Urban Watershed Cleaning and a process called Zero Discharge.

Smart City will talk about smarter ways for cities to grow this week on Smart City. Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Compliance With Federal Regulations Receive Heightened Attention

The Metropolitan Planning Organization, commonly known as the MPO, appears to be at the center of two federal reviews – one about the FedExForum garage and another about Homeland Security.

Being asked in both cases is whether regulations governing the use and oversight of federal funds were complied with.

First, FedExForum.

Last week, the city attorney released 800 pages of documents positioned as the seminal emails, letters and reports about the controversial garage project, whose misuse of federal funds has already led to a $6.5 million penalty for the City of Memphis, which accepted the $20 million garage construction grant for both Memphis and Shelby County Governments.

Missing Links

Curiously, missing from the list are letters written by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout who were actively involved in lobbying and reaching a political understanding with then-governor Don Sundquist on state funding for Memphis’ new arena.

Not included on the cd of documents is a letter written by Mayor Herenton to then-Commissioner of Transportation Bruce Saltsman in spring, 2002, describing the garage project and how it would meet federal regulations for an intermodal transfer facility.

Commissioner Saltsman, at the direction of governor, had been told to “make the project happen,” and he instructed his staff to work with representatives of city and county governments and the Public Building Authority to design the garage to meet the regulations.

That’s where the MPO was involved, although its pivotal role is only hinted at in the recently released documents.

MPO Amendment

There could be no federal funds for the FedExForum garage unless the MPO signed off on them in its role as the regional agency that sets priorities and approves the use of all federal transportation-related funds as part of its Transportation Improvement Program.

That’s why Rout, who also was chairman of the MPO in 2002, called a special meeting of the group. The only purpose was to amend the organization’s existing three-year transportation plan (developed and approved 10 ½ months before) so that $25 million – $20 million in federal funds plus $5 million in local matching funds – could be spent to “reconstruct Linden Avenue, construct and parking and an intermodal transfer facility near the intersection of Third and Linden.”

The resolution by the MPO executive board approving the project was signed by Rout on July 11, 2002. Because the $25 million in funding was coming from federal funds earmarked for projects decreasing traffic congestion, lowering auto emissions and increasing the use of mass transit, the MPO took the money from existing programs, which were moved down in priority to free up the money for the garage. The changes in priorities seem even more relevant in light of recent air quality problems in Memphis.

If Governor Sundquist had fulfilled his pledge to “do for Memphis what we (state government) did for Nashville,” there would have been no intermodal facility problem, but once he said that state government would take the money from federal funds, he set in motion a process whose goal was to make sure the arena garage was designed to meet federal regulations.


This required careful coordination between TDOT and the MPO, and subsequently, a letter by Rout confirmed the agreement. Ironically, attached to the letter were the penalties (fine and prison) for not following the federal rules.

The index released by the city attorney prominently mention the name of PBA Executive Director David Bennett, who was hired to work on the Forum after serving as project manager for The Pickering Firm during construction of The Pyramid and later as Shelby County engineer.

Mr. Bennett did not suffer fools lightly and was notorious for stating his unvarnished professional opinion in a political environment that normally despises such candor. As the person in charge of The Pyramid construction, he was legend for keeping meticulous notes, the key factor in local governments never losing a lawsuit filed against it while winning every lawsuit they filed against contractors.

Back in December, 2002, Mr. Bennett said he was concerned the arena garage. Like every one involved in the project, he was frustrated by the state’s decision to take its $20 million for the project from federal funds with plenty of strings attached.

But more to the point, he said the garage was turning into a mess, because the staff of the PBA and local government was being asked to comply with regulations that were problematic. Most of all, the garage being designed to meet the federal regulations wasn’t the garage promised to the Memphis Grizzlies, he said, adding that it would be trouble before the project was over.

Mr. Bennett died in 2004, so he’ll never know how right he was.

Homeland Security

The other MPO-related program attracting the attention of federal officials is Homeland Security.

Put simply, the six-county District 11 Homeland Security office is in disarray. Despite press releases about cameras and exercises, the office seems to lack any real program of work, no real training programs and no real sense of purpose.

Things seemed on the right track when former Memphis Police Director James Bolden was named executive director of the office, but unlike some communities where Homeland Security reports directly to the top levels of government, here, it was placed three layers down, answering to the county government’s director of public works.

After a short time on the job, Mr. Bolden called it quits, complaining about interference from public works officials into the operations of his office, and following his resignation, the confusion amplified, as the MPO – with no authority over homeland security – began to manage the agency.


Some websites now even list the telephone number of the MPO staff as the contact for homeland security rather than the District 11 office. Homeland Security staff has been told not to talk to state and federal officials or the media, but it appears that soon, federal authorities will be talking to them as a result of concerns about the office.

Some questions to be answered are why MPO submitted a Homeland Security budget to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners that seems to conflict with the budget submitted to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency, why current operations circumvent the local executive director of Homeland Security, if personnel costs charged to the federal government are allowable under federal regulations and if present operations comply with funding restrictions.

One thing about these federal reviews is clear. The days of laissez faire federal oversight is over. A clear message is being sent by the feds: agencies accepting and spending federal funds better get serious about conforming to the rules. Or else.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

There's No Place For Racial and Religious Pandering In Memphis Politics, Whatever Its Source

The ugly underbelly of Memphis politics was exposed this week after a whisper campaign against Tennessee Senator Steve Cohen by some African-American political leaders burst into the open.

For weeks, some well-known African-American politicians have demeaned the campaign season – as well as themselves -- as they spread some of the sorriest rumors injected into the local political scene. Human nature is human nature, and we try to keep our expectations grounded in reality, but still, it’s discouraging that some people who had the courage to demand that society reject stereotypes and bigotry are so willing to traffic in them themselves.

It really doesn’t matter whether we support or oppose Senator Cohen in his race to replace Harold Ford Jr. as Congressman for the Ninth District, recent developments should disturb us all.

It was a test of our local political maturity that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton have received key bi-racial support, and in his race for re-election, Mayor Wharton has been endorsed by the mayors of the suburban cities.

Subterranean Racism

This is not to suggest that there is not residual malignant racism present in our city, but we take comfort in the fact of how far it has been forced underground as we served notice that racial slurs are not acceptable political tactic and prejudice is not a campaign platform.

With this year’s race for Congress, it feels like we have taken a step backward. At a time when African-American elected officials have a powerful chance to remind us of the tolerance and inclusiveness that lay at the heart of the Civil Rights movement and gave them their long-deserved place at the political table, some instead resort to the lowest form of political rhetoric.

Regrettably, the candidacy of Mr. Cohen seems to somehow threaten the status quo (although his record includes strong support of civil rights and related causes) and the black power structure to the point that some local politicians treat the prospect of a white, Jewish Congressman representing Memphis in the U.S. House of Representatives as cause for hysterical concern and "anything goes" tactics.

Shelby County Commissioner Julian Bolton, another candidate in the Congressional race, has tied himself in knots trying to explain away his use of the term, complexion, to describe his concerns with the Cohen candidacy. Commissioner Bolton’s examination of alternate meanings of the word and efforts to illuminate its etymology explain nothing so much as what he was clearly trying to say about Senator Cohen’s race.

Code Words

Meanwhile, others have engaged in code words worthy of George Wallace as they have railed in recent months against the prospect of a white politician assuming a Congressional seat that they see as a pre-ordained “black seat.” These comments broke into the open with City Councilwoman TaJuan Stout Mitchell’s letter to the editor of The Commercial Appeal, which displayed the racial and religious baiting for all to see.

She wrote that the candidate’s ideology should represent the majority of residents in the district, rather than the majority of votes in an overcrowded race. Based on that strong statement of belief, we’re surprised she hasn’t been insisting that City Council members and the city mayor must be elected with a majority vote rather than a plurality.

She continued by questioning Senator Cohen’s character, saying that most of the district doesn’t support “same-sex marriage, the legalization of drugs, Sunday liquor sales and restricted prayer…” The fact that she had stretched the facts to a level of incredulity seemed to matter little, because as she was proving, intolerance is not just a Caucasian vice.

Most upsetting of all is the way she is willing to peddle her gratuitous anti-gay politics. Nothing is as demoralizing as African-American ministers and elected officials, some of whom once fought for a broad definition of civil rights, calling for a restriction of rights for another minority. The personal costs of this anti-gay sentiment are seen throughout the black community as gays hide in the shadows and live secret lives rather than be pushed to the fringes of society.


However, the most unconscionable comment by Councilwoman Mitchell was to come. “Most of the district’s constituents are of the Christian faith…” she said, accusing Sen. Cohen of trying to prevent ministers from saying, “in the name of Jesus,” apparently believing that she had cleverly disguised this bit of anti-Semitism as political rhetoric.

Not to be outdone, Commissioner Bolton works a cross into the stagecraft of his television advertisement, and manages somewhat awkwardly to work Christianity into the ad as one of his important qualities.

Although sharing the same religion as Jesus and having a better understanding of his message within the context of Jewish tradition, history and culture, Sen. Cohen has wisely ignored these ad hominem attacks. Sadly missing are the condemnations from African-American leaders and ministers who normally have no patience with bigotry and intolerance.

If it is true that government always abuses its power, it seems equally true that political power seems to corrupt common sense, not to mention the common decency, of some long-time politicians.

All of this reminds us of a panel organized at Rhodes College about 15 years ago. One of the panelists was the local organizer for a Saul Alinsky-style grassroots campaign, and he was asked a question about whether in light of demographic changes under way in Memphis, African-Americans could operate government and conduct politics in a more open, tolerant and inclusive way than the white establishment had done.

White People

The panelist answered: “Well, who do you think we learned government and politics from – white people? Now you want us to treat you better than you ever treated us.”

The “eye for an eye” answer stirred protests from African-Americans in the audience, and one said quickly:

It is not enough for us to say that it is o.k. for us to continue the hatred and prejudice because that’s what we learned from white people. It just continues a spiral to the bottom. We’ve called for openness, we’ve marched for fairness, we’ve protested against injustice. It’s not enough for us now to justify our behavior by saying it was done to us. We have to aspire to the best that we can be.
In this way, the Cohen candidacy is a test to see whether the panelist or the audience was right. Sadly, comments in recent days indicate that prejudice and intolerance are shaping up to be the real winners in the upcoming Congressional election.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Law and Order Dilemma: Who Checks The Prosecutors?

We've written before about the need for nonpolitical prosecutors whose actions have no place for ego or self-promotion or special rules for special people. In light of the election of the district attorney general in the election in about 10 days and the recent appointment of a new U.S. attorney, the following column by national syndicated columnist Neal Peirce seemed especially timely:

With a recent uptick in crime, tough prosecutors who are ready to convict and imprison perpetrators are likely to be more popular than ever.

But a warning flag is being hoisted by American University law professor Angela J. Davis, past director of the District of Columbia Public Defender Service (and no relation to the more famed liberal activist Angela Y. Davis).

Prosecutors, notes Davis, are “the most powerful officials in the criminal justice system” -- more so even than judges. Why? “The charging and plea bargaining power they exercise almost predetermines the outcome of most criminal cases. Over 95 percent of all criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea.”

Consider a person arrested for having a quantity of drugs on them. Depending on the amount, the prosecutor can charge simple possession (a misdemeanor), or possession with intent to distribute (a felony which in most jurisdictions means a mandatory prison sentence). So it’s the prosecutor, through his charge and plea bargaining powers, who really decides prison time (and most likely a wrecked life) for the defendant, or not.

The most serious system-wide issue, argues Davis in her forthcoming book, “Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor,” isn’t the isolated, fairly rare case of a prosecutor coercing witnesses, fabricating evidence, or consciously targeting racial minorities.

Rather, it’s the lack of controls on, or accountability for, the every-day decisions of prosecutors. Their legal responsibility isn’t just to represent the state in seeking convictions; it’s to pursue justice. But too often, Davis asserts, prosecutors exercise their discretion “haphazardly at worst and arbitrarily at best, resulting in inequitable treatment of both victims and defendants.”

There’s the “win-win-win” ethos in many prosecutors’ offices -- elected prosecutors and their staffs out to show how tough they are on crime, or how eager to impose death penalties in heinous cases (especially when there’s strong media interest, or photogenic victims). Sometimes prosecutors overcharge grossly so they can wring heavier plea bargains out of defendants. Or adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward potential police abuses in the arresting phrase.

Views on class and race, even unconsciously, lead prosecutors to make shoot-from-the-hip decisions easily at odds with true justice, Davis asserts: “I saw it all the time in the D.C. system. A rich kid comes in (though few are arrested) with parents and family lawyer, explaining ‘Little Johnny has a drug problem and let’s put him in a program, not lock him up.’ The prosecutor usually agrees. But a poor, black or Latino kid comes in on a parallel drug case, maybe with a public defender, and the prosecutor figures -- ‘I can’t let you back into the neighborhood, I’ll send you to jail.’”

Davis also pinpoints how appointed U.S. Attorneys, pursuing the country’s “war on drugs,” have focused relentlessly on convicting and incarcerating even small-time neighborhood drug dealers and their girlfriends and family members, especially from inner-city neighborhoods, even on the scantiest of evidence. Federal drug prosecutions tripled between 1981 and 1990.

Under our system, all officials wielding government power should be and are subject to checks -- but we’ve ended up, Davis asserts, “giving prosecutors a pass” -- no effective control by voters, legislatures, or the judiciary itself. Voters have little idea of how prosecutors are actually handling cases. Legislatures (and Congress) pay scant attention beyond frequently bolstering prosecution powers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has severely circumscribed conditions under which prosecutors’ judgment can be questioned at all, referring cases to states’ attorney disciplinary authorities that are themselves known to be weak. From 1970 to the mid-1990s, one study found, there were only 44 cases nationwide in which prosecutors faced disciplinary hearings of misconduct; even then, a reprimand was generally the worst punishment.

So what’s to be done? Prosecutors themselves have traditionally resisted oversight. The public has been inundated with television programming that justifies prosecutors going right up to the edge on ethics and law to get the “bad guys.” The American Bar Association publishes standards of behavior for prosecutors, but the strictures have no teeth -- they’re just “aspirational,” Davis notes.

Davis would have national, state and local bar associations conduct in-depth investigations to determine adequacy of current prosecutorial misconduct controls, and possible reforms. She’d have bar associations set up state and/or local prosecution review boards -- not only to receive specific complaints brought by the public, but undertake random reviews of prosecutions and (with colleges and universities) launch surveys to reveal discriminatory practices by race or class.

The idea is that an outside eye could discourage arbitrary, hard-to-justify choices by prosecutors without chilling the essential, fair law enforcement we all depend on prosecutors to perform.

Against the formidable, entrenched power of today’s federal-state-local prosecutorial systems, any prospect of significant culture reform seems remote. But if we’re ever to dare a start, Davis offers a group of eminently reasonable first steps.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Smart City: The Future Of American Cities

Our subject is sprawl and development this week on Smart City.

For the past 50 years development in America has been sprawling away from the old urban cores into ever farther suburbs and exurbs. Why did it happen?

Our guests this week have some answers. Anthony Flint is author of This Land, The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America. It's a history of modern development in our nation and a call for a national conversation about how the country should grow. Anthony is a veteran journalist who covered planning, development, and housing for the Boston Globe for 16 years and was a visiting scholar in 2005 at the Harvard Design School.

Diana Dillaway explores how development decisions affected one American city, Buffalo, New York. Her new book, Power Failure: Politics, Patronage, and the Economic Future of Buffalo, New York is a chronicle of local misfires, misdirection, and missed opportunities. Diana has worked for more than 25 years in California on urban and economic development.

Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

What To Do Now To Improve Downtown, Addendum

Here are my nominations for things to do now in downtown in priority order:

1. Do whatever it takes to remove panhandlers.

2. Clean up. That means maintenance and trash removal.

3. Green up. That means plant and maintain.

4. Develop a cluster strategy for business segments (4-5) that can naturally be attracted to downtown and will benefit from being close to each other.

5. Develop amenities accordingly. (Why, for instance, do we have a decrepit general interest public library in downtown Memphis? Has no one thought to make it a specialty center serving, say, the advertising and design business?)

6. Develop a realistic retail strategy and put someone in charge of execution who has successfully created a unique retail strategy before. I nominate Pogue and McEwen.

7. Get started on the riverfront plans.

There. That cost $0.

Couldn't resist two additions:

8. Improve the entrances to downtown. Make Union the priority. When we finish that, tackle Poplar.

9. Pinpoint every people generator in downtown, then improve one block beyond it in every direction. Think broadly. For instance, include the courts. (Poplar from Danny Thomas to Third looks like hell.)

btw... Kudos to Andy and team for the Farmers Market. Very nice job.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

A Priority For Downtown: Getting The Basics Right

There is no place more near and dear to our hearts than downtown Memphis, as evidenced by the fact that a couple of us have worked or lived here for more than 30 years apiece. There is nothing that we’re more passionate about, as proven by our posts over the past year.

Lately, we’ve received emails asking us what we think the priorities should be for downtown development, and from the tone of some of them, it’s clear that there is a simmering resentment by some that their neighborhoods have been neglected so downtown could succeed. Poll results on this question would surprise some long-time downtown boosters who assume that every one shares an understanding of the area’s importance to the region.

So, one of the first things to be done is make a persuasive case for why Memphis’ neighborhoods should care about a healthy downtown, but conversely, why healthy neighborhoods are important to downtown. It’s a given these days that the future of cities and suburbs are inextricably intertwined. The same is certainly true for downtown and neighborhoods.

Another priority is the development of a strategic retail plan, one that addresses realistically a significant challenge – how to connect a downtown business to its market.

Public Square

Somewhat related is a stronger office market, which is about more than recruiting and marketing. More to the point, increasing office occupancy begins with greater attention to the state of the “public square.” For a sizable portion of this community, the minuses of downtown outweigh the pluses.

If we are serious about selling downtown as an office center, we need to be dead serious about making downtown the kind of place where management and workers want to be in the first place. The bad news is that the downtown environment is frequently a deterrent, but the good news is that the most powerful strategy is simple - getting the basics right.

So, what are some of the basics?

One is making downtown cleaner. In our decades of experience, we can’t remember downtown being dirtier, and littering more prevalent. As we’ve mentioned previously, litter in high visibility locations (such as Union Avenue from the Peabody to the riverfront) routinely remains for weeks.


Another basic is higher design standards and more thought about the downtown esthetic. Some symptoms of the problem are the presence of planters too big for sidewalks, some public signage that looks like they were made in shop class, trees cut down at will and nothing put in their places and public space that is poorly maintained.

Then, there is safety. We have repeated downtown crime statistics for years to make the case that it is safer here than in most parts of Memphis. However, in recent months, there has been an up tick in the number of robberies and assaults that is troubling, not to mention, the ubiquitous presence of panhandlers who harass workers and visitors and sleep in alleys and doorways reeking of urine does nothing so much as injecting a feeling of risk into the downtown scene.

We don’t want it to sound like the Center City Commission doesn’t do anything right. It is ham-stringed by a budget that is too small for its mission, it suffers from limited support from city and county governments and its aversion to risk stems from the takeover of the board by elected and appointed officials.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Thirty years ago, when the Center City Commission was being created, the idea was that the public sector would create the agency in concert with the private sector, because it was thought that for it to be successful, it needed to have an entrepreneurial culture more in keeping with business.


Unfortunately, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce closed its doors and was essentially bankrupt. Shelby County Government then developed some reluctance to support the agency, and in the end, only Memphis City Government moved ahead with its creation.

Later, county government joined in, but it would take time before the Chamber was reinvented, and by then, the moment for real change had passed. Ever since, hopes that the agency would reflect a business orientation have been, well, hopes.

About 15 years ago, in a discussion inspired by downtown guru Henry Turley, there was talk about returning to the founding vision of the Center City Commission, but the effort faltered for lack of political will to get it done. Sadly, the current of change ran in precisely the opposite direction.

The private sector orientation almost disappeared as more and more politicians added themselves to the group. It was difficult enough to act entrepreneurially before, but with the addition of state senators and representative, and more local politicians, entrepreneurship has become the exception, not the rule.


There’s no question that members of the Center City Commission are good people. It’s just that the public sector doesn’t possess the skills most needed for the agency to be most successful in its work.

Often, when the conversation turns to downtown development, we think of the words of Mr. Turley 15 years ago:

We need to quit planning and do something. Let’s pick two or three things and go do them, and when we’re done, we’ll pick two or three more, and we’ll do them, too.
It sounded like wise advice back then, and it seems absolutely prescient now.

There’s no doubt that downtown development agencies serve many masters, they balance conflicting agendas and they contend with divergent political forces. But, sometimes, the best course of action is to narrow the focus and accomplish two or three projects with impact.

In the end, that can create something downtown that is often the hardest thing of all – momentum.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Why CEOs Flock to New York

The following is from Otis White's Urban Notebook. He can be heard each week on Smart City:

In the 1970s, New York leaked corporate headquarters like a busted hose. One after another, big corporations decamped for the suburbs (Pepsi, General Electric) or other parts of the country (American Airlines). But that was then. Now, New York is attracting corporate headquarters, and the reasons tell us a lot about how cities and companies have changed — and what companies need from cities these days.

It was easy to understand why companies fled New York in the 1970s. Crime was on the rise, so were taxes, and the population was headed to the suburbs, particularly the middle class. Companies left for logical reasons: If you want smart, talented people to work for you, you needed to be in nice places, like the suburbs. So why are companies coming back to New York? In a way, for the same reason: It’s where the smart, talented people are.

And this isn’t just a few companies. According to federal statistics, the number of corporate, subsidiary and regional headquarters in New York has more than doubled in the last 15 years, from 274 in 1990 to 602 today, the New York Times reported recently. There are important differences, though, between those who left in the 1970s and those returning now: For one thing, these relocations tend to involve only the most senior executives. The corporate staffs have remained in the suburbs or in other cities. For another, there’s not a lot of fanfare to these moves. Unlike when American Airlines left for Fort Worth in the 1970s, to the accompaniment of enormous public hand-wringing in New York, the recent moves have come almost unnoticed.

Example: Alcoa Corp., long a part of Pittsburgh’s corporate community, is now headquartered in New York. Or, at least, its CEO and 50 executives and assistants are there. About 2,000 other executives and staffers are still in Pittsburgh. Didn’t know that Alcoa had moved? Few did. The company hasn’t attached its name to a Manhattan skyscraper, didn’t announce the move back in 2001 and didn’t even acknowledge New York as its corporate address until earlier this year.

So why did Alcoa move? Not so much to attract employees (most are, after all, back in Pittsburgh) but so that its top executives could be close to New York’s deep business and professional services talent pool. Here’s how Alcoa’s CEO explained the move in a speech to a New York business group:

“We need access to the best and the brightest. We need it when we need it, not a week from today when they can lose a whole day to come and meet with us in Pittsburgh. We need them for breakfast meetings, for just a five-minute break, when the idea or the need comes. We need it every day.”
Well, great for New York. But what does this have to do with other cities? It points to the critical importance of human capital in urban economies. Get the right people to live in your city and the businesses will come in search of them — and not just as employees, but as advisors and high-level service providers.

Footnote: This obviously brings up the question of what attracts the “right people” to a city in the first place. It helps if, like New York, the city has successfully reduced crime and made its neighborhoods more attractive and livable. Great colleges and university are assets. So are cultural institutions, sports and entertainment. But just being a fun place helps. As a former New York economic development official told the Times, “People enjoy being here. It’s totally different than the 1970s.”

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Mistake Of Measuring Memphis Against Itself As Proof Of Success

For too long, we’ve had the tendency here to measure success by comparing Memphis against itself.

At best, it’s an incomplete context for making realistic plans, and at worst, it deludes us into thinking we’re making substantial progress.

It’s a tendency given form in exaggerated rhetoric about “history-making” economic events and breathless prose about the downtown “renaissance.”

We are reminded of this as Memphis and Shelby County continue to produce plans, strategic and otherwise, that are intended to identify key priorities and to accomplish major goals, but routinely stop short of the real destination.

What seems missing so often is a context that extends beyond our own borders. For example, we believe that downtown is booming, because we compare it to itself. We repeat some familiar numbers as justification for our hyperbole – more residents, the amount of the public investment and new restaurants.

Broader View

And yet, what is routinely missing is a broader understanding of what’s taking place in cities across the U.S. It’s not enough to set goals that are local in nature. They need also to be national in scope if Memphis is to be a competitive force in the future.

Understanding this broader context would tell us how limited our downtown progress has been. The truth is that downtown has pockets of vibrancy, generally in the Beale Street entertainment district. The rest of downtown is characterized by a lethargy that reinforces a prevailing image of Memphis as a lazy, slow-moving Southern city. This severely inhibits our ability to compete against other cities of our size, whose downtowns better reflect the kind of overall vibrancy that should be our goal.

So, who cares if downtown is vibrant or not? Most important, the kind of young, highly-educated professionals who fueling the knowledge economy. In survey after survey, including the Young and Restless reports undertaken by this firm and CEOs For Cities’ national study of these workers, these highly-coveted professionals say that vibrant cities are what they are looking for and where they want to live and work.

Cities Before Jobs

This has never been more important to Memphis, because now, two out of three of these professional workers select cities before they select jobs. In other words, in the competition for economic growth, Memphis must attract new workers, and its currency must be vibrancy. This is especially true of downtowns where people are looking for more than nodes of activity, but downtowns open 24 hours a day, active, tolerant and full of options.

Because of this, the release by the Center City Commission last week of “Downtown Memphis Moving Forward: A Strategic Framework for Success” was a significant event in the life of our community. In the report, the authors did a good job of summing up the state of downtown and summarizing general priorities for the future. There’s no question that they produced a fine report in keeping with the instructions given by their client, Center City Commission.

Unfortunately, the downtown development agency has become so defined by political considerations and dominated by political personalities that it seemed unable to instruct its consultants to develop a plan that could take downtown from good to great.

The strategies feel pretty much like those included in similar plans issued by the Center City Commission for a decade, laying out what downtown needs to do to succeed, but again, success is defined by measuring downtown Memphis against itself at a time when we need desperately to be leap frogging ahead of our rival cities.

Catapulting Ahead

Incremental change is simply not enough for Memphis. We’re in the lower rungs of U.S. cities and incremental change only means that we remain in the same comparative position. If we are to shake up our economy, invigorate our downtown and create a quality of life that is a competitive advantage, Memphis has to develop strategies for catapulting ahead of other cities.

In the past 20 years, we have moved from competing with Nashville and Charlotte to competing with Baton Rouge and Little Rock, and without dramatic, history-altering strategies, it will only get worse.

This is why there’s never been a better time to shed all provincial thinking and adopt a worldview that offers a compelling vision for the future. A sign of progress would be for all city and county agencies to adopt a policy that all plans will no longer be self-reflective. In the future, plans should adopt a national framework, and strategies like those laid out in the Center City Commission’s strategic plan should tell us how they would make downtown Memphis nationally competitive.

Too Safe

Like many plans in Memphis, there is nothing in the plan that challenges our boldness in envisioning a different future, that imagines new aspirations or inspires new thinking that can catapult downtown into more than just a place that is successful when compared to itself, but a downtown that is one of the best in the entire country when measured by the characteristics that make them successful and competitive.

These kinds of “safe” strategies and unchallenging plans are typical of government group think, and unfortunately, as the Center City Commission shifted from a private sector-driven agency to a political-driven agency, that has come to define it as well.

But, there’s good news. The Center City Commission has two “stars” on its payrolls and they should be the cornerstones on which is should build its plans for the future – Andy Kitsinger and Lee Warrren, respectively in charge of planning/development and marketing. They are imaginative, smart and articulate, and rather than interview and poll more than 1,000 citizens about downtown, perhaps the best plan of all might be to split the budget between them and turn them loose to pursue whatever strategies they think are important. We predict that this strategy would produce the best return on investment that the city-county agency could make.

New Thinking

But back to our starting point, we’ve got to shake off all parochial thinking and think beyond our own borders. There was a time when it was considered one of Memphis’ major strengths that we were located hundreds of miles from another major city, but today, this distance acts as a contributing factor to plans that are too limited in scope.

In addition, at a time when megapolitans are becoming a growing economic reality, the isolation of Memphis in the nation’s mid-section is clearly a drawback to its ability to compete within a national framework. However, we can take a major step ahead by making sure that all of our local planning takes a broader view of the challenges ahead of us and understands that concerted efforts and resources will be needed for us to compete on a national stage.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Modest Proposal For Openness About Tax Freezes

It’s time for a modest proposal regarding the controversial city-county PILOT program waiving $60 million in property taxes this year.

“Modest” being the operative word, since it seems obvious at this point that is what government officials are going for as they study the tax freeze programs to death and seem poised to water down substantive changes recommended by the city and county’s own consultants.

Here’s the idea. While this issue drags on, post on the websites of Memphis and Shelby County Governments all existing tax freezes and every new one approved by the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board and the Center City Commission Revenue Finance Corporation.

It seems only fair that the citizens whose taxes are being waived know why.


Mayor Herenton has been an outspoken defender of the tax freeze program, and at times seems to point to it as the answer to all that ails his city. Economic development officials claim that Memphis cannot compete unless it gives away its taxes. Mayor Wharton’s committee is eerily quiet. Memphis City Council rattles its saber, but takes no real action to improve things. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners avoids the subject like the plague, because after all, it’s election season and the real estate interests pushing for this program just happen to be major campaign contributors.

All forces seem to be in alignment – for complete inaction.

In light of the staunch defenders of the PILOT program and arguments about its important role in economic development, surely they would welcome the chance to post information about the tax freezes to the Web.

At this point, it’s as easy to find Shane Battier at a Grizzlies team meeting as to find information about the tax freezes on a local government website. In fact, the only place to find information is on the State of Tennessee website and there it is outdated.


It would prove instructive to the public to see the length of each PILOT, how much in city and county taxes are being waived, the number of jobs being created and their average wages, and the recipients. Surely, there’s no reason that advocates of the status quo with the PILOT program wouldn’t object, since they confidently praise the program’s worth and tell the public that it’s good public policy.

It would be productive if we actually allowed the public to have the information to reach their own decision and to have a voice in the reforms that are needed for the program.

Accountability and transparency are the cornerstones for good government and the support by the people it serves. They are sadly lacking qualities when it comes to the tax freezes approved by the IDB and CCRFC.

Perhaps, we could learn from the state of Illinois, which now has a public website where any citizen can track which companies are receiving tax breaks, how much they amount to, the promises made by the businesses to get them and whether the company is delivering. Already, it’s been a revelation: 60 percent of the jobs supported by these public incentives pay less that what it takes for families to live on.


Other states are looking into sunset provisions that mandate periodic evaluation of tax incentives to determine if their true costs are being calculated and if policy makers fully understand the trade-offs that they are making.

Ohio, for example, has a bill pending in the state legislature that would require the review of tax incentives every five years to guard against abuses and to ensure the wisest possible investments.

Already, we have the warning signs. Two researchers at George Mason University pointed out in a detailed analysis of the local PILOT program that tax freezes are regularly increased by the addition of discretionary points recommended without clear justification by the staff and awarded by the IDB.

The professors also poked holes in the economic impact study commissioned by the IDB that contends that the tax freezes generate monumental returns on investment. Of course the same firm predicted that the Grizzlies’ presence in Memphis would create $1.5 billion in economic impact.


According to the George Mason professors, the economic impact study for the IDB had fatal flaws, such as erroneous calculations, fallacious assumptions and errors in fact.

This recent independent analysis, coupled with the indictment issued by local governments’ own consultants in December, should be enough to jump start changes in the PILOT program. And yet, city and county governments continue to dole out tax freezes to one and all if they can complete the application and check the right boxes.

Often, it’s a case of the rich get richer because small businesses get no such financial incentives. It’s also often a case of the poor staying poor, because some of the companies that enjoy the largesse of government pay so little that its employees also qualify for food stamps.

It’s a sad commentary on the state of local public policy analysis. Officials have watched as the freezes have mounted, now equating to $60 million in property taxes a year. And yet, we are still to wait. As we do, we should keep in mind that if city and county governments had those tax revenues, they could pay for the FedExForum in four years, or they could support enough bonds to pay for all new schools and school renovations requested by Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools or execute plans to upgrade city parks and improve Shelby Farms Park.

Tax Reduction

Or the city and county tax rates could both be reduced, possibly the most compelling action to make Memphis and Shelby County more competitive.

In other words, this is an issue that deserves serious consideration based on its public policy implications rather than its political implications. In the meantime, if people want to argue that the PILOT program should be protected from the fundamental reform that it needs, the least they can do is show us what they are talking about.

This begins with the posting of the PILOT’s on city and county websites, but there’s no need to get our hopes up. The detailed report by the consultants hired by city and county governments was made in December and only a couple of weeks ago did this report find its way onto the Shelby County website.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Core City Is Magnet For Young "Movers"

The following commentary from The Commercial Appeal was written by Carol Coletta:

Every few months, the U.S. Census Bureau releases data on which regions, cities or suburbs are gaining or losing population. And each time, the so-called "losers" react as if the news were a death sentence.

This is especially true in our nation's cities, including Memphis, where, according to Census estimates, the population dropped 2 percent between 2000 and 2005. Often, our urban leaders throw their hands up as if helpless to change the course. But it doesn't have to be this way.

A recent survey commissioned by CEOs for Cities revealed that college-educated young adults (the demographic most likely to move in our country) are giving priority to place.

Place Is Paramount

In fact, two-thirds of this highly coveted demographic now tell us that the place they live is more important than the job they hold, according to the survey conducted this spring by The Segmentation Company, a division of marketing consultancy Yankelovich Inc. It makes no difference if they are male, female, married, unmarried, with children or without, the power of place reigns supreme.

At a time when Memphis is faced with a serious need for talented workers, the new freedom to choose by these young highly educated adults has flung open the doors of opportunity for urban leaders, if we'll only answer by responding to the desires of this group.

What does Memphis need to do?

The Needed Attributes

The study showed that despite what we all thought, it doesn't take much to make them happy. First and foremost, they want to live in places that take care of the basics -- that are clean, green, attractive and safe. Just like the rest of us.

Also high on the list of attributes they seek are qualities that let them live the lives they want to lead. A city that expects to attract and hold talent, then, must tout opportunities in all forms -- personal, professional, educational and social.

Not surprisingly, talented young people also want to live in cities they can be proud of. Where once status was conveyed by where you work, now it is conveyed by where you live.

Downtown As Magnet

And, increasingly, where young people live is in the heart of the city, as shown in our own Downtown, where 29 percent of the residents are in this demographic. By 2000, 25- to 34-year-olds were 30 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods within three miles of the central business district. That percentage increased from 10 percent in 1980 and 12 percent in 1990. (Now we know who accounts for the resurgence of our inner cities.)

And in this latest study, they continue to express that preference, with 42 percent saying they want to live in downtown and 59 percent saying they want to live in a neighborhood near downtown. The vast majority -- 70 percent -- said they want to live in or near the city. Still, others prefer the suburbs and exurbs.

What To Do

So how, then, can Memphis leaders respond to the desires of this demographic? Five places to start are:

* Make sure Memphis delivers on the attributes college-educated young adults seek.

* Find ways to telegraph that opportunities are available here to young adults.

* Make Memphis obviously "plug and play" -- easy for newcomers to plug in to community life and a network of people who can help them get what they want out of life.

* Fill in the blanks about Memphis. Young adults have only the vaguest impressions about various cities, and it's important to help them get to know our city's assets beyond the obvious tourist attractions so often featured in ads and on postcards.

* Make it easy for young entrepreneurs to do their thing. Take a look at older neighborhoods that are being revitalized, and you will likely find young entrepreneurs who didn't know any better and couldn't be told otherwise driving the action. They put a distinctive stamp on the city, and they should be encouraged.


Building better communities is not a zero-sum game where suburbs win and Memphis loses, or vice-versa.

If the past decade and a half has proven anything, it's this: A successful Memphis will be a city of choice, with a wide array of housing options, be they Downtown lofts and condos, close-in older neighborhoods or roomy, sprawling suburbs.

And the recent boom in the nation's central cities showed us that if given the choice between clean, green and safe inner cities and suburbs, a significant number of people will come.

Suburbs will forever be a part of our country's landscape. With the right strategies, great cities will, too.

Carol Coletta of Memphis is president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, a national network of urban leaders speeding innovation in cities, and host of the nationally syndicated public radio show, "Smart City."

Friday, July 07, 2006

Charter Commission Needs Impartial, Fair and Reasonable Recommendations

If there’s ever been a question about our wonkish predilections, it has been answered. We’ve spent Friday night reading responses by Charter Commission candidates to questions from the Coalition for a Better Memphis.

We’ve been concerned lately that some of the candidates see their roles, which are already potent enough, as expansive vehicles to enact a set political agenda. For example, term limits seems to be the mantra by a slate of candidates and treated as a precondition for being “qualified” by an active base of voters, when in fact, the position often doesn’t seem to spring from any philosophical core, but from an intense hatred for the current city mayor.

If term limits are on the table for consideration, hopefully, it will not be driven by a specific personality, but in reaching a decision on whether term limits produce better, more dynamic leaders for city government. It’s easy to point to a mayor like Daley in Chicago, who, despite 17 years in office, continues to innovate and transform his city and wonder why term limits is so often seen as a magic bullet. Then, too, the county term limits requirement, passed in the wake of Mayor Bill Morris' 16 years in office, now will truncate Mayor A C Wharton's public service although he is unquestionably the most popular person to ever hold that office.

In other words, term limits deserves careful study and serious consideration, from all sides and all perspectives, so the Charter Commission can make a well-reasoned decision about whether it really produces better government or is just sloganeering.

Strong Mayor

There are other similarly important issues (such as the mayor's contracting authority, when the action of City Council becomes final and whether the mayor's signature should be required on resolutions, what the effect of a resolution really is, to name a few) that seem to be more a reaction to Mayor Herenton than an action to improve government. The 1966 charter amendment that established the mayor-council form of government ended a five-headed administrative structure (five commissioners, one of whom was mayor) that caused confusion and obscured accountability. Before any authority is taken away from the current mayor, we hope the Commission will remember that it will apply to city mayors for decades.

We are also puzzled by some candidates who are actually spending money on political signs to get elected. Some signs are even seen in Germantown, which may not be an error since a large reason that the Memphis Charter Commission exists is because of a Germantown citizen's persistence.

While we think the Charter Commission is a good idea (in fact, county government could use one itself although it's charter is so sound that the Memphis Charter Commission should start by reading it), we chafe enough over all those letter writers to The Commercial Appeal who heap criticism on all things Memphis, who find the embodiment of evil in its elected officials and who seem to despise anything found within the city limits, and then sign their letters as residents of Germantown, or Bartlett or Lakeland.

Impartial Jurors

So, for that reason, we need to thank the Germantown leader for the Charter Commission movement, and it would be a good time for him to bow out. While there is no question about his sincerity and his commitment, the slate of candidates endorsed by him and others puts an overlay of "politics as usual" on a process that should be a breath of fresh air.

While it’s probably easier to get elected by issuing opinions before you even hear the evidence, we’d prefer that Charter Commission members take the same oath as juries – to be fair, impartial and act solely on the facts. Serving on the Commission is a solemn duty (in the full import of the word) and candidates who are running because they think they can cure the ills of the city are off track.

We like the straightforward and honest approach taken by John Branston and Buckner Wellford, the former a highly-regarded local journalist and the latter a highly-regarded local lawyer. When asked one of the wide-ranging question by the Coalition for a Better Memphis that encourages an inflated view of the Charter Commission, Mr. Branston answered:

“I have opinions about these issues, but I don’t think they are relevant to the Charter Commission. Government consolidation and school system consolidation are decisions for elected officials, voters and fulltime administrations.”
Bosnia and Abortion

His answer conjured up the memory of a classic response by County Mayor Morris. During the years when abortion was being used as a litmus test in local races, he was asked his position, and replied: “I feel strongly about abortion. I feel strongly about the war in Bosnia, but as mayor of this county, I don’t have the power to do anything about either of them. That’s why I’m concentrating on the things I can actually do something about.”

When asked by the Coalition for a Better Memphis about serious new issues that the city government could face in the future, Mr. Wellford said that there are regional competitive concerns, net loss of population, limited options on annexation, terrorism and natural disaster, to name but a few.

“I used this example because I think it would be a mistake for the Charter Commission to think of itself as visionaries who need to anticipate future issues or trends in municipal government. I think it would make more sense to focus people’s attention on current issues: ethics in government, accountability and transparency in governing, a proper balance of power between the executive and legislative branches…”
In the end, the words of Mr. Branston seem definitive enough. In making the point that the Charter Commission should not be the vehicle to accomplish political goals or make public policy, he put it best: “The Charter Commission’s guiding rule should be the same as for doctors: First, Do No Harm. Then do as little as possible, do it as openly as possible and explain it as clearly as possible.”


We can only hope that it becomes the consensus opinion of the entire Charter Commission, because misunderstood, its impact on city government can be profound, either positively or negatively.

The Charter Commission was set in motion in 2004 when 30,000 voters – about three times more than required by law - signed a petition calling for its creation. The original Memphis Home Rule Charter was created with the advent of home rule government approved by voters in 1966 and the only changes since have been those amendments approved at referenda. (Before home rule, all amendments had to be approved by the state legislature rather than by Memphis voters.) The new Commission will have about two years to report back to the public, and its recommendations will be put on the city ballot for a vote.

As one savvy, long-time observer of Memphis politics suggests, if the Charter Commission really wants to engage the public in the process and allay any fears of special agendas, it should issue its recommendations as a series of free-standing amendments voted on by the public separately, rather than a single, "take it or leave it" document that would be voted up or down. That way, voters are given real power, allowed to approve some and disapprove others.

Without question, there should be no argument that the City Charter should be reviewed, in light of changes in technology, if nothing else. Overall, the responses of Charter Commission candidates are thoughtful and sincere, but their charge, first and foremost, should be “do no harm.”

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Golden Age Of City Mayors

The following is the City Journal column in Memphis magazine written monthly by our colleague, Tom Jones:

This is the golden age of great city mayors.

In Chicago, Richard Daley transformed “Beirut on the Lake” into one of the world’s great cities - sophisticated, vibrant, seedbed for an astonishing array of enlightened “green” programs.

In Denver and San Francisco, two restaurateurs – respectively John Hickenlooper and Gavin Newsom – transplanted their customer service credo into city services and designed revolutionary programs for the homeless. Also, Hickenlooper’s determined regional fence-mending produced a 70 percent approval rating in the metro area, and he in turn used this reservoir of good will to lead seven counties and 31 cities to pass a sales tax increase to pay for 119 miles of new light rail and commuter trains costing $5 billion.

In Atlanta, Shirley Franklin slashed 1,000 jobs as well as her own salary, convinced 75 companies to analyze city government at no cost and began a 22-mile linear park connecting 45 neighborhoods. Through force of personality, Jerry Abramson convinced Louisville citizens to approve the largest government consolidation in 40 years; New York’s Michael Bloomberg turned a projected $6.5 billion deficit into a $3 billion surplus; Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley developed a unique computerized complaint system making city departments more accountable; Miami’s Manny Diaz moved the city bond rating from junk to A+ while rolling out a six-year program to rebuild the infrastructure; and Washington Mayor Anthony Williams delivered something thought impossible – stability.

In other words, cities are in an epic period of rebirth, and great mayors are the reason. Memphis has had great managers, great motivators and great speakers. But there’s no argument that Memphis has had a mayor who measures up to the standards of today’s great mayors.

Mayor Willie W. Herenton, contrary to critics who tend to blame him for everything from the economic downturn to global warming, flirted with a “Nixon to China” brand of greatness, but in the end, it was not to be and now seems as elusive as his being cheered at halfcourt at FedExForum.

In truth, the concept of Willie Herenton has always been more compelling than the reality of Willie Herenton. To his political base, he has special status as the city’s first African-American mayor, and the voter loyalty attached to that milestone will not be replicated again. To civic leaders, explanations for support have frequently begun with the sentence, “He’s better than….”

When a political brand outstrips personal reality, it’s often a good thing for the politician. The formidable image silences critics, drives public opinion and overwhelms public discussions. In Herenton’s case though, it’s no longer fair to him, and it’s not now fair to the city, because it has mutated into a mythology that polarizes every issue he touches.

The seminal example took place just over year ago when he convened a meeting to consider his innovative proposal for merger of the two local school systems. On that day, he made the best researched and most detailed analysis by a public official of the $1 billion spent locally each year for schools, and he did it all without mentioning once that Memphis is the only major metro area in Tennessee where schools aren’t already consolidated.

And yet, none of the statistics, none of the projections and none of the historical trends were reported. Instead, the media fixated on the fact that the chairs of the city and county school boards – respectively, Wanda Halbert and David Pickler - were petulant no-shows at the meeting.

It was a defining moment in the Herenton Era, because it was at that moment that it became unambiguously obvious that his personality, not his positions or programs, would be the overriding factor defining the news from then on. In this way, it no longer mattered if he was right, because he was robbed of his bully pulpit.

The sad truth of Memphis politics – and it is sad whether you like Herenton or not – is that the mayor no longer has the potential to be great, because the ultimate prisoner of the Herenton myth is now Willie Herenton himself. Because of it, he’s denied the chance to emulate great U.S. mayors who are creating bigger dreams for their cities that every one sees themselves being part of, reaching across political and racial boundaries and inspiring all of their citizens with the confidence to move ahead together.

It is a truism that every city is only one great mayor away from being a great city. No one knows this better than Herenton, and that’s why the question that only he can answer is so tough.

Like the talented boxer that he once was, he knows that he can keep winning, but he also knows that sometimes, the skill is not just in being able to win, but in knowing when it is no longer necessary to be in the ring.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Thoughts On An Afternoon Movie

So, I decide Saturday to go to a 2:20 movie at Malco’s Paradiso Theatre. We’re rushing because we’re late, but we get there just as the house lights are dimmed and the advertisements begin.

Yes, I said advertisements.

The show time given in the newspaper wasn’t the time when the movie or the previews would began. Rather, it was the time when those godawful, aggravating advertisements bombard us as we enjoy our $15 worth of popcorn and Diet Cokes.

Finally, the ads end after about seven minutes, and the previews begin. The first preview featured flatulence, a second one was built around a tube sock and self-gratification and several stale sexual innuendoes and the third was about a threesome…in high school.

By the time the movie I came to see finally started, I had endured a spate of ads that I didn’t want to see and three previews that injected a coarseness into our afternoon. I’ve never been a prude, but the sexual jokes these days are just cheap laughs from uninspired screenwriters.

And Hollywood can’t figure out why we aren’t buying as many movie tickets.

Civic Involvement As A Corporate Asset

From Otis White's Urban Journal at

Not all things were better in the past, but one thing in cities was genuinely better 30 years ago: business leadership, particularly among big companies. Alas, today’s cities are filled with branch offices of large corporations that never participate in chambers of commerce, rarely offer more than token support for United Way campaigns, and never, ever dirty their hands with local politics. So it’s surprising to learn that there are a few large corporations that actually push their executives to participate in civic work. Even more surprising: IBM is one.

Why is that surprising? Because IBM has every excuse for distancing itself from the communities it does business in. It is a multinational corporation without ties to any particular region of the country (it is headquartered in suburban New York but has operations everywhere). While it does business with lots of governments, it isn’t primarily a government contractor, so it has little need to curry favor with localities. Nor is it part of a regulated industry, like a bank or utility, and thus dependent on the whims of politicians.

And its executives, like those of most large companies, are a nomadic lot. (The old joke was that IBM stood for “I’ve Been Moved.”) Add it up: No close ties to any region, no need to curry favor with politicians, a peripatetic group of executives, and you’d figure IBM would be among the least involved of companies. But you’d be wrong.

According to IBM, 60 of its executives in the U.S. are on United Way boards and 53 are on local or statewide chambers of commerce. Subtract community relations and government affairs officials, and you still find a surprising number of what corporations call “business-unit executives” (those who run departments related to services or products) on community boards (50 on United Way boards, 36 on chamber boards). Example: Lee Torrance, top executive in the Atlanta office, is on the Atlanta chamber and United Way boards and involved with Habitat for Humanity and the Atlanta Ballet. Another: Don Jue, director of operations for 20 Western states, sits on the Los Angeles chamber board, the Urban League board, the L.A. Sports Council and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center board.

This isn’t by accident, IBM officials say. The company has targeted 23 metro areas in the U.S. for local involvement by its executives, because these places have large company operations, a large group of clients or are seen as important future markets. (These regions range from Burlington, Vt., to New York.) The company requires top executives in these regions to be sure the company is represented on important civic boards and active in good causes. Finally, it makes “external relations” (translation: community involvement) part of these executives’ annual performance reviews.

But if the “how” of IBM’s community involvement is clear, the “why” is more mysterious. IBMers say it’s part of the corporate culture, something that goes back to its earliest days nearly a century ago. Employees like it, company officials say. And it’s good for business, part of the “base of integrity that gives people trust in doing business with IBM over and over,” says Ann W. Cramer, director of corporate community relations for North America.

Could other large companies do the same? Sure. Why don’t they? Because civic involvement isn’t seen as central to these companies’ business. Thus, when most big companies get involved in communities, they do so by sending PR executives or government-affairs people, officials whose work is seen as incidental to the company’s real business. This, then, is what makes IBM’s approach so remarkable. Its use of business-unit executives for most of its civic work shows that, to Big Blue at least, community involvement isn’t just marketing, it’s a corporate asset. And that’s an idea worth cheering.