Tuesday, October 31, 2006

An Epidemic of Homophily

From Otis White's Urban Journal at governing.com. Otis is a regular guest on Smart City each week:

The Fading Urban Marketplace of Ideas

If you look back on the novels written about cities since the 18th century, one theme stands out: the young person who moves to a big city to escape the sameness of small-town life. In these books, the appeal of cities was their surprising diversity — of ethnicity, religion and class, of course, but also of thought. You could hear ideas expressed in New York, Chicago, New Orleans or Seattle that were never uttered in Midwestern farm towns, West Coast fishing villages or Southern mill towns. All of which makes the following sentence so sad: Our modern metro areas may be losing their role as marketplaces of ideas.

It’s not that cities don’t still have people who feel passionately about things. There are libertarians, feminists, black nationalists, religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists and, yes, even a few communists in every city of size — not to mention lots of plain old Democrats and Republicans. But opportunities for these people to meet and exchange views (or even just hear each other’s ideas) are dwindling, social scientists believe.

Why? Partly because of human nature and partly because technology and affluence are allowing us to separate from those who think differently, a recent article in the Washington Post reported. The human-nature part is easy to understand. We like to be around people who are like us in social class and general outlook. The academic term for this, the article said, is homophily.

In the past, cities and social institutions tempered our homophilic tendencies. In public schools and the workplace, around our neighborhoods, in mainstream churches and synagogues, we came to know (and sometimes like) people who thought differently about things. The media also helped. Whatever their faults, daily newspapers and evening TV shows introduced us to how others looked at events and came to different conclusions. This, in turn, bred tolerance and sharpened our thinking. (There’s nothing like someone pointing out obvious flaws in your argument to make you think more deeply.)

What’s different now? Our sprawling metro areas allow us to live in neighborhoods and suburbs that mirror our opinions (most big metro areas have congressional districts that elect only liberal Democrats and others that send forth only conservative Republicans). Affluence permits many to withdraw from institutions such as public schools that once introduced people to diverse thought. Technology plays a role, too, giving us cable networks, talk-radio shows, blogs and publications that endlessly echo our own opinions.

A result of growing homophily is unthinking partisanship. One social scientist told the Post that, at election time, “I often hear people say with absolute certainty that whoever they are in favor of is obviously going to do well because they haven’t talked to ’anyone’ who supports the other person.” Another result is intellectual poverty. We don’t think about our views because they’re rarely challenged. “Most of us would be hard pressed to provide clear explanations for our political beliefs,” another social scientist told the Post. ”We participate in settings where we don’t have to explain ourselves because everybody else agrees with us. What this means is, I have no reason to challenge or question my own beliefs.”

And yet there are still people who are curious about ideas and willing to consider others’ viewpoints. There could be an opportunity for cities here — if they find new ways of introducing people with opposing opinions to one another in settings that encourage listening and polite argument. But it’s clear that this must be done deliberately. After all, we’re fighting human nature on this one.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Merger Talks Are Targeted By Fire Department Officials

It didn't take long for the Memphis Fire Department to challenge the notion that it should manage the Shelby County Fire Department. As we mentioned in Friday's post, fire officials have proven adept at blowing up any such talk in the past, and a day later, in Saturday's Commercial Appeal, they already seemed intent to do the same with the new discussions.

As they have before, fire officials raise a red herring - that the county fire protection must be upgraded to the same level as Memphis. (It's an approach that's guaranteed to drive up costs to a level so unacceptable that the discussions are abandoned.) It's a specious argument. Unlike the previous times when it has worked to derail potential agreements, this time around, there are financial urgencies in both city and county governments that drive the talks.

Contrary to suggestions, there are benefits to city government in this arrangement, but it's been so long that some City Council members have recognized, much less capitalized, on opportunities to show concern beyond their narrow political interests, they may join fire administrators in throwing cold water on the potential agreement.

It seems that for some, a prevailing strategy by some Council members is to use the people living in the unincorporated area as whipping boys in their political rhetoric, no matter that these same people are future Memphians and this is a chance for their future home town to demonstrate some concern for them. Perhaps, it is this rhetoric and the obvious disdain for the people in these annexation reserve areas that contribute to the vitriol that is held for city government by its residents in the first place.

However, that said, now as in the past, the greatest landmine will not be elected officials, but staff. After all, they prepare the "facts" and create the reality in which the political decisions will be made. It will require Memphis Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb's considerable vigilance to make sure they don't "cook the books" this time around or sabotage the discussions before they've even had a good chance to begin.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Agreement on Fire Departments Blazes New Trail

Sometimes truly historic breakthroughs pass for wonkish public contracts.

That’s certainly the case with the prospects of an intergovernmental agreement for fire protection between Shelby County and City of Memphis.

For 20 years, city and county officials have talked about functional consolidation and better ways to deliver public services, but if Shelby County Director of Administration and Finance Jim Huntzicker and Memphis Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb can pull this off, it will be the first time that the rhetoric has been converted into results.

While it’s impossible to ever rule out the possibility that it may all unravel by a sudden burst of turf protecting, it’s encouraging that the Wharton and Herenton Administrations have gotten it this far. In the past, any substantive discussions about modernizing the delivery of services always fell prey to political lines in the sands and rigid attitudes by one side or the other.

Enlightened Self-interest

It seems, however, that this time, the difficult budgetary straits on both sides of Civic Center Plaza have produced a new willingness to look at options that make sense from a financial point of view, but equally important, make sense from a philosophical point of view.

Functional consolidation has been one of the favorite buzzwords of county politicians over the years. In standing four-square for it, they were able to bridge the volatile issue and defuse the more politically dangerous discussion of “real” city-county consolidation in which the two behemoth governments would be merged into a single entity.

In making the case for the Louisville’s successful city-county consolidation three years ago, the Brookings Institution said the merger would accomplish four major goals:

1) Accountability – the ultimate responsibility is clear to taxpayers

2) Efficiencies produced by economies of scale – functions by each government could be provided at less cost through shared equipment, personnel, and purchasing

3) Eliminated duplicative services

4) Economic development – a single focus is an incentive for economic growth.

The Perfect Test

Functional consolidation is a more politically palatable, equally effective way to get to the same place, and fire services is the perfect test case.

Until the mid-1970s, Shelby County Government had a volunteer fire department, but with the advent of a county mayor came the advent of a professional department that became at the time about the fifth largest in the state. Covering vast areas with aging equipment in those early years, some in county government grimly joked that its motto was, “Same Day Service.”

However, in the 1990’s, equipment was upgraded, modern stations were built and the political influence (that seems to be as much a part of fire departments as hoses) stymied attempts to downsize despite Memphis annexations. Because the county fire fee paid the operating costs of the fire department (despite what was said at the time, the fees never covered capital costs), the fire department always got a pass. In the minds of county officials, since it wasn’t funded by property taxes, it really didn’t matter.

The Day The World Changed

But that all changed with passage by the Tennessee Legislature of Chapter 1001 that called for adoption of a countywide growth plan. In truth, here, the legislation never inspired the kind of serious deliberations that it envisioned for every county in the state. Here, the process essentially was to adopt the boundaries already contained in the existing annexation agreements between Memphis and the smaller municipalities.

Along the way, Memphis did give up about 150 square miles of territory to the towns, a fact that galls Memphis City Council members to this day, but in the end, city government came away with its first clear vision of what the future would look like.

That future comes into focus more with each city annexation, and when the agreement is completed executed, Memphis will be 489 square miles; Millington will be 74 square miles; Collierville will be 51 square miles; Bartlett will be 44 square miles; Arlington will be 34 square miles; Lakeland will be 24 square miles; and Germantown will be 20 square miles (it’s already built-out).

Reading The Tea Leaves

So how much area does that leave for Shelby County? A grand total of 49 square miles, down from 326 square miles at the time the growth plan was signed.

In looking toward that future, the Wharton Administration wisely sees the hand-writing on the wall, and it only makes sense to enter into contracts in which cities like Memphis go ahead now and provide the services within these “annexation reserve areas.” After all, it makes little sense for county government to staff up and provide services that are transient at best and municipal at their core.

Such an agreement benefits both the county and the cities, because the county – whose constitutional mandate centers on justice, education and health – finds these kinds of municipally-oriented services merely distractions. As for the cities, in providing services within the areas to be annexed in the future, they conceivably establish some good will with future citizens.

New Thinking

The concept for joint operations for the fire department grew out of meetings that were initiated by Mr. Lipscomb as part of his plan to make city government more financially sound. While he has no power to convene county departments, he has called together all joint city-county agencies and agencies that have customarily acted as free agents, such as MATA and MLGW. The agenda: to consider new ways of consolidating purchasing, accounting, information technology and other administrative services that are duplicated within each of the agencies.

Meanwhile, the trust between Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton and the city’s chief financial officer resulted in fire services being considered as a way to make local government more efficient and economical. A financial analysis remains to be done, and that could be a trip wire that blows up all of the good intentions.

In the past, this analysis of service and cost as the place where the Memphis Fire Department has been able to sabotage talks. The ISO rating for the Memphis Fire Department is six, and the county department’s is much lower, because it does not attempt to maintain the same urban level of service as its city counterpart.

However, in past discussions, city fire department officials have insisted that if it operated the county department, the county would have to provide the same level of service as Memphis. The cost of service at that level is astronomical and would send county fire fees soaring. Clearly, Mr. Lipscomb brings a lot of clout to these discussions to get them this far, and hopefully, he can encourage the fire department to help make it work this time.

And once fire services are completed, perhaps city and county officials can start checking off a list of other services that make similarly good sense to be merged. It may not be city-county consolidation, but it’s a start.

This Week On Smart City: Making Healthier Cities

The city is a reflection of its people --- their beliefs, their skills, their relationships. Our guests today are working in very different ways to improve the city by improving the lives of the people who live there.

Dr. William Pinsof is president of The Family Institute at Northwestern University. His work with the families of Chicago includes tough advice to parents on how to insure that their children thrive in the big city. Dr. Pinsof is a clinical professor in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University, and the director of the Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies at Northwestern.

Stephen Antupit is creating new neighborhoods in the city of Seattle that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Stephen is with Seattle-based Mithun, an architecture, design and urban planning firm building its reputation on sustainable practices.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, 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. Listen live on the Web Saturdays at 8 a.m central and Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon central. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Giving Credit Where Credit's Due

The most popular public official in Memphis isn’t on this year’s ballots. She’s running Memphis City Schools.

So far, Superintendent Carol Johnson’s approval ratings haven’t translated into higher public confidence for the district itself. That’s too bad, because she’s slowly winning some key battles in the ultimate war – transforming a culture that fights change and assumes that it can simply wait her out.

It is the nature of large public bureaucracies to co-opt the language of their leaders – whether it’s Shelby County Government and Mayor A C Wharton or Memphis City Schools and Dr. Johnson – while dragging their feet in making real change. With a bureaucracy three times larger than either local government, Dr. Johnson faces a culture three times more determined to protect the status quo.

Object Lesson

The 16,500 employees of Memphis City Schools have not forgotten the object lesson of Gerry House. Superintendent from 1992 to 2000, she attracted national attention for her reform programs, but they were summarily thrown out when she left. The employees also know that the average tenure of urban superintendents is three years, and Dr. Johnson begins her third year this month.

Meanwhile, the public largely believes Memphis City Schools can’t be changed any way. It’s an attitude bolstered by media coverage magnifying every problem and comparing MCS to Shelby County Schools as if they’re comparable districts. The county district does nothing to discourage the comparisons, because they create the illusion that it’s exceptional, although when compared to similarly suburban districts, it’s essentially average.

Dr. Johnson’s pulpit is just not bully enough to cut through this clutter with the story of what’s really going on:

* Teach For America has 40 top graduates of top colleges teaching students in low-performing schools and plans to expand.
* The New Teacher Project is improving teacher quality by doubling the number of applicants for teaching jobs and quadrupling the percentage with master’s degrees.
* New Leaders for New Schools has 45 people becoming a new breed of principals who are leaders, rather than managers, and who know how to improve grades and graduation rates.

Broader Impact

Meanwhile, Dr. Johnson beefed up her staff to pursue the more dramatic role she foresees for Memphis City Schools in neighborhood redevelopment and smart growth. In particular, her plans for schools to be shared with neighborhood groups and for developing former school sites have potential to be national models.

Her Five-year Facilities Master Plan put the district squarely at the center of public discussions about schools’ capital needs after decades of the suburban district dominating decisions. The plan details $488 million in needs for the district’s 176 schools, permanently destroying the myth that the state ADA (Average Daily Attendance) law results in Memphis City Schools receiving a windfall when the county district gets money for new schools.

In setting parent involvement as a top priority and challenging principals to think of new ways to engage parents, she embraced the Community Report Card to Parents developed by Partners In Public Education (PIPE).

These programs dramatically make the point that it’s a new day at Memphis City Schools. That said, it’s increasingly obvious that it’s unreasonable to expect city schools, in seven hours a day, to counter the cruel realities that grip so many of its students for the other 17.

Harsh Realities

Urban Child Institute research paints a graphic portrait of the children in city classrooms -- 51 percent live in poverty, 64 percent were born to unmarried mothers, 17 percent have sex before their 13th birthday and 67 percent by high school, 61 percent don’t live in two-parent households, and 20 percent have seriously considered suicide.

It’s not surprising that the district has problems. In truth, it may be more surprising that it does as well as it does. That’s a message that Dr. Johnson will never deliver, because if her programs are anything, they are characterized by their ambition and lack of excuses.

However, to close the achievement gap of Memphis students, it’s going to take more than better schools. Research shows that although school quality matters in students’ academic performance, what matters more are the backgrounds and resources of their families. That’s why in the end, standards-based testing, No Child Left Behind mandates, and vouchers aren’t the answers, because they do nothing to support, nurture, and strengthen families.

Aiming High

No one understands this better than Dr. Johnson. That’s why her district is more involved in other community programs than ever before, including some focused on children’s first years, and others aimed at the middle school years that make or break many students and the high school years that take such a toll on so many African-American boys that they simply give up and drop out.

These are hard times for urban superintendents, but Dr. Johnson continues to aim high, seeing a day when the lessons of Memphis will have application nationwide.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Sifting Through The Sewer For Votes

Over the years, we’ve had our complaints about some positions by U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, but if there are any lingering doubts about who to vote for in this year’s Senate race, they should end with the most recent ad by the National Republican Committee.

And it's rare for us to even comment on campaigns, because our primary interest is policy, not politics, but at this point, to us, a vote for Congressman Ford has become quite simply a vote for common decency and repudiation of slick racism delivered in a recent ad.

At a time when we thought it was impossible to imagine that the Republican Party could go too far in its hysterical quest to hold onto the Senate, the RNC managed to show just how despicable it can be.

We now know with complete certainty that there’s no fear that’s too out of bounds to manipulate, there’s no innuendo too crass to whisper, and now, we know, there’s no racism too tempting to exercise.

Klan Mentality

That became clear in the RNC’s most recent advertisement. In it, the Republican strategists show no hesitation in summoning up the ghosts of Southern racism in hopes of appealing to the Klan mentality that shudders at the thought of a white woman defiled by the wandering eyes of a black man.

And yet, that’s the message of the most recent “I met Harold at the Playboy Party” ad inflicted on Tennesseans by the Republican National Committee. The blonde woman – who hardly measures up to the standards for a job at Hooter’s much less the Playboy Club – ends the ad suggestively, “Harold, call me.”

Anyone with even a moderate level of emotional intelligence gets it.

It’s all about black men and white women. Emmett Till was killed 51 years ago for whistling at a white woman in the Mississippi Delta, and apparently, we’re to get the message that Rep. Ford deserves a political lynching, because we know that he’s been cavorting with white women at a Playboy Club (only inside-the-beltway thinking could imagine the club as anything as a meaningless anachronism of another time).

Strom, Where Are Ye

Where is Strom Thurmond when his party needs him? Even under the influence of three years of embalming fluid, a smile must be flickering across his face.

The real merit of a person or an organization is measured when under the greatest stress. It’s always a unfailing indication of their real character. With this ad, the Republican Party delivers prima facie evidence of how bankrupt it is, morally and politically, and how it will do absolutely anything for power.

In the wake of this ad, we think of Joseph Welch, counsel for the Army, who finally faced down the demagoguery of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy with the words: “Until this moment, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of dencency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

We are convinced now that we have the answer from the Republican National Committee. As for former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, he sullies his reputation by leaving it up to surrogates to distance him from the ad’s vile content. Of course, the cynical among us see it as a “two-fer” for Mr. Corker - he gets credit for criticizing the ads while benefiting from the racism that it delivers relentlessly to our living rooms.

Racial Slime

And yet, there is nothing in Mr. Corker’s past that indicates that he agrees with this kind of racist campaigning. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, if he is elected senator, he’ll need to be sandblasted to get the racial slime that’s attached to him as a result of this campaign. And that’s unfortunate for him as well as Tennessee.

Sometimes, we have to take a stand for our own values and our sense of morality. We hope this isn’t a battle for his political soul that Mr. Corker loses.

This advertisement appeals to the basest nature of our Southern culture, and all of us should condemn it. And it gets most effectively delivered in a message on Election Day to the Republican National Committee that we’ve simply and completely had enough.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pleading The Case For Cities

Dear Attorney General Gonzales:

We’ve read that you have ordered Department of Justice officials to visit U.S. cities to find out why there is a spike in crime. To help you out, we Mapquest’ed the tour for you. It will tell you what you need to know, and it will save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel costs.

That’s because the entire trip will only cover 3.17 miles, and it only takes one day.

If you are serious about accomplishing your fact-finding mission, you’ll find out the most by visiting the federal departments that have adopted an array of policies that reflect a hostility toward cities and their problems that is unprecedented in the history of this nation.

You start in your own building by getting out of your office and visiting your evaluation office to get the statistics that show that the highly touted Bush “War On Drugs” is more like the ultimate “reefer madness.” Over a 12-year period, 82 percent of the growth in drug arrests was for marijuana with most for possession. Surely the more than $4 billion spent to enforce marijuana laws could be put to better use. You might also want to ask someone whose bright idea it was to cut COPS funding by $412 million in the ’07 budget.

Get Tough On Crime

Then stroll around to offices of the policy advisors who draft the new “get tough on crime” laws that have more to do with rewarding political contributors than solving the root causes of the problem. These days too much crime legislation is about putting profits in the pockets of political friends who build more and larger prisons and sell them food and equipment.

With more people in prison per 100,000 than any nation in the world – with the possible exception of China – it seems obvious that when you have private prison operators and contractors sitting on federal panels drawing up new laws, it’s not unexpected that the laws will never be tough enough, because they need the raw material that justifies the building boom of the prison-industrial complex, and in their business, it comes in the form of more and more prisoners serving longer and longer sentences.

Then, drive over to the Department of Commerce. It’s less than half a mile – go east on Pennsylvania, right on 9th and right onto Constitution to #1401.

Once you get there, ask Secretary Gutierrez why tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans were partially paid for with cuts in programs for the poor. It would also be good to learn the reasons why, since the 2001 Bush tax cuts, median household income has fallen, poverty has risen, the percentage of Americans without insurance at work has gone up, and pension benefits have gone down.

Killing HOPE

After that short visit, go east on Constitution toward 14th Street turn right on 7th and drive to the Department of Housing and Urban Development at 451 7th Street SW.

If you can recognize him, ask Secretary Jackson why the Bush Administration works to kill programs like HOPE VI grants that have helped cities like ours rebuild neighborhoods and seed new economic life in our urban core. See if you can find out why it makes any sense to end $657 million in community service block grants created more than 35 years ago so community action agencies could help the poor escape from poverty.

Once you leave HUD, it’s a good time for a stroll, so walk up the block to 400 7th Street SW to the Department of Transportation. Perhaps there you can discover why the budgets of the Bush Administration have attacked public transit in our cities. With more jobs on the periphery of cities, public transit is more and more the lifeline between inner city residents and jobs. And yet, DOT continues to be cheerleaders for highways that promote sprawl and hefty profits for road builders and developers.

When you’re through, call for your limo and go six-tenths of a mile - north on 7th Street toward D Street and turn right on Independence Avenue, where you’ll stop at the Department of Health and Human Services at 200 Independence Avenue to talk to Secretary Leavett. There’s so much to ask him about – cuts in programs for the poor, urban redevelopment, rent subsidies, Medicare, child care, and pension insurance – elements of the safety net of which this nation once boasted.

An Education In Puffery

Now it’s time to move over to the Department of Education. It’s an enjoyable, short walk, so when you leave HHS, go west on Independence toward 3rd Street and stop at 400 Maryland Avenue SW.

The first thing you should do is put Secretary Spellings under oath. It’s next to impossible to get the truth out of her when she starts talking about her policies and programs. She’s one of those bureacrats that’s repeated her talking points so often even she’s beginning to believe them. If you doubt us, ask her why the massive mandates of No Child Left Behind were not backed up with the $40 billion needed to help school districts comply with them. Be prepared to hear some whoppers, such as “nine-year-olds made greater gains in five years than in the previous 28 years combined” and her justification for vouchers when her own department’s studies – which she deep-sixed - show that overall public schools perform as well as private ones.

Try finding out why the 2006 budget terminated 48 educational programs, saving $4.3 billion. Meanwhile, the budget called for $74 billion in new weapons, and just by delaying the F/A-22 Raptor fighters, the Administration could have made up more than the amount needed to fund education. If you really want to get her sputtering, ask her to explain the logic of her opposition to programs like Community Technology Centers, aimed at helping poor students get access to technology; the Upward Bound program to help low-income high school students succeed in pre-college performance; the Talent Search program to increase the number of poor youth competing high school and attending college; the DARE anti-drug program; all vocational education at the high school level; and parental information and resource centers to help parents whose children attend schools identified as under-performing under No Child Left Behind.

By now, you should be scratching your head, so take a walk - go east on Independence toward 4th Street, turn left onto Maryland Avenue, turn left on 3rd Street, and right on Constitution where you’ll stop at #200, the Department of Labor.

Minimum Standards

While you’re there, ask Secretary Chao why she’s fought every bill that would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour for the six percent of American workers paid at this level. Remind her of the independent studies that show that an increase does no damage to the economy, which she touts as the strongest in the history of the country. We suggest that you don’t mention that average CEO in the Standard and Poor’s 500 now makes $17 million a year, because she’s touchy on that subject. Instead, ask her why Americans work 213 hours more a year than other workers in the industrialized world and why cutting job training, housing, higher education and a range of social services makes sense in light of the challenges to today’s workforce.

If you’ve got any energy left, you’ll need a walk to clear your head. Stroll away from the Capitol on Constitution, turn right at the Ellipse and stroll up to the White House. Perhaps, you can have a few minutes with the master political strategist Karl Rove. His disdain for “across the aisle” solutions to our national problems results in his trumping anything that doesn’t pander to the extreme right base that he sees as the Republican Party’s key to power.

In the end, that’s what the day will teach you. It’s all about power. That’s why most federal funding was changed years ago so it goes in block grants to governors. Most were Republicans, and the change gave them the power to send money to favored districts, rather than to deal with the problems in that perceived hotbed of Democratic opposition, that vortex of minorities, gays and secular humanists – cities.

Some one at the Police Executive Research Forum said that “it’s important for the Justice Department to get into these cities.” There truth to that statement, because someone from the Bush Administration needs to see what your policies have wrought. The consequences to our cities have been devastating and ugly.

Punishing Cities

The punishing policies of all the departments you will visit make our cities poorer, less safe, less fair, and less competitive. There used to be an axiom in Washington that some things are so important that they rise above the considerations of day-to-day politics – things like the needs of people and the health of our cities.

No longer. Now, the future of our citizens are put at risk on the altar of narrow political gain and partisan power. In the process, the historic chance to unify this nation was squandered. That’s a main reason for the depth of rage and frustration out here in the real America.

We’ve been trying to get your attention for some time, but our concerns were brushed aside as the rantings of political enemies. What surprises us is that someone like you, who decides to dedicate his life to making decisions about people’s lives on solid evidence, can be so deaf to the pleas of cities and the facts of their need.

In the end, the tragedy of the Bush Administration isn’t a personal tragedy of the man and his narrow political agenda. Instead, it’s a national tragedy of lost hope, squandered opportunity, sacrificed ideals and a shredded national safety net. And that’s a charge that even the Department of Justice can’t mount a defense against.

Smart City Memphis

Thursday, October 19, 2006

This Week On Smart City Radio: Leading Change

Mavericks are at work in our nation, and they are reinventing everything in their path.

Bill Taylor is the maverick who co-founded Fast Company magazine and with co-author Polly LaBarre he has just written a new book on other remarkable people who are challenging business as usual. It's titled, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win. Bill was associate editor of the Harvard Business Review and he spent several years in Washington, D.C., working with consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

Tom Payzant is also a maverick. In his ten years as superintendent of Boston Public Schools he shook up the system, introduced choice, and increased critical math test scores. Tom received recognition as Massachusetts Superintendent of the Year and won Richard R. Green Award for Excellence in Urban Education from the Council on Great City Schools. Tom is now a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, 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. Listen live on the Web Saturdays at 8 a.m central and Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon central. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

All The News That Fits The Business Plan

It’s a tale of two cities, at least that’s the inescapable conclusion from watching TV news and then reading The Commercial Appeal.

More and more, the daily newspaper seems to be officialdom’s view of Memphis while television news swings wildly to the other end of the spectrum. It’s almost as if you need to read and watch them both to find the point in the middle where reality exists.

Last week’s coverage of the local Homeland Security office is a perfect example. On the nightly broadcast of Fox News, we hear about the operational debacles in the office and suggestions that funding was not spent in compliance with federal regulations. Prominent in the coverage are two damning interviews with the former two heads of Homeland Security, and Shelby County Public Works Director Ted Fox is left, clearly uncomfortable, to explain the county administration’s position. We came away from the coverage concerned that Homeland Security is in disarray and that seemingly fatal flaws exist in its ability to protect us.

On The Other Hand

When The Commercial Appeal finally reports on it (it had been the worst-kept secret in county government for months by then), the report told about county government’s valiant and successful effort to keep massive amounts of federal funding from being returned because of the incompetence of local homeland officials. We came away from that coverage reassured by the outstanding job that these county public servants are doing in protecting our money.

All in all, it left us with news whiplash. But that happens a lot these days in local coverage.

Lost in the coverage was a broader context for understanding the work of Homeland Security in the first place. How is its work different from EMA, and how does it coordinate its services with that agency? What are the causes of the lingering organizational problems with the agency, and why are they still present after two years? What is the response from the Inspector General’s Office of U.S. Homeland Security who has received a complaint alleging that office operations violate federal rules?

Emotional Content

Sometimes, we’re just left confused. There’s the inescapable feeling that television news can’t pump enough emotion into every story and conversely that The Commercial Appeal is determined to drain every ounce out.

In competing with television news, the newspaper should play to what should be its substantial competitive advantage – its ability to offer deeper understanding and more information.

OK, we admit that we’re having trouble adjusting to the realities of today’s news business. Newspapers are fighting predictions of their ultimate doom, and television news seems content to base its future on the overstated, the emotional and the salacious. No longer is it enough to report the news, we now are subjected a cast of characters playing roles, like the “Watch Dog” and other themed reporters who inject themselves into every thing they report.

Dying For Real News

Maybe we’re a dying breed, but we really aren’t looking for a large national corporate news company to be “on your side.” We’d just be content to get the unvarnished news, free of the chatter and the personalities. We’ll figure out what it means to us.

That’s a reason we didn’t have much interest in Katie Couric’s debut as an anchor. Before she could even take stage, she’s promising us that not only will she tell us what the news is but why it matters to us. Frankly, we’d rather make that judgement for ourselves.

Somehow, the line between news and commentary, objectivity and personality has been breached so completely that we can never go back. So, editorial comments are sprinkled into scripts for local and national anchors while reporters shape shift from commentators to reporters and back, as if their stated personal opinions do not forever alter our confidence in their abilities to report the story straight down the middle.

The Reporterazzi

It’s as if the nightly news has become a reality show in which the reporters see themselves as stars, garnering a new name that more accurately reflects their work - the reporterazzi.

Some time ago, there was a commercial on our New York Times-owned station (at least for now) that showed The Watch Dog shouting at someone walking down the street: “You have a responsibility to talk to me.” And I think he really believes it. Certainly, most Americans seem to.

The culture of talk and celebrity cannot be saturated or satiated, and because of it, we have days upon days fixed upon the wrong targets. Soldiers continue to die in Iraq, but the news gets fixated on Branjelina’s adopted baby (now supplemented by Madonna’s baby). The earth is warming and we’re spending hours focusing on this week’s version of Scott Peterson is. The country is splitting apart, and we’re entertained by the indictment as Roman circus.

Reality Television Meets TV News

Surely, soon, reality television and TV news are destined to converge, and then, life will be so much simpler. We can simply vote on whether Martha Stewart is an American Idol or if Gary Bonds is a Survivor. It becomes less preposterous every day.

As the Homeland Security coverage showed, there’s often more heat than light on issues that deserve better. The newspaper fails to makes some basic phone calls to people who are independent observers and experts, and television naturally gravitates to the person making the wildest charges.

The motto for Scripps-Howard, parent company for our newspaper, was: “Give light and people will find their way.” Its logo was a lighthouse. These days, it’s a sentiment that seems a relic of a lost age. Right now, we’d just settle for a reporter with a flashlight.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Choices For The Homeless

From Otis White's Urban Journal at governing.com:

Dealing with the homeless is unpleasant and expensive, and, unfortunately, doesn’t get much easier even if you’re successful. But here are the choices: Do it right and at least the problem becomes manageable in time. Or do it wrong and end up like Groundhog Day, with the same crisis over and over again.

So who’s doing it like Groundhog Day? Los Angeles, where thousands of homeless people camp out in an area known, inevitably, as skid row. L.A. has so mismanaged its homeless situation that it threatens to undo the otherwise promising revival of downtown. The bottom line is this: Los Angeles must create enough shelters or permanent housing to take these people off the streets. Once it has done so, it can enforce laws against sleeping on sidewalks or vacant lots.

But the city would rather not spend the money to be successful, so it has skipped step one (create the housing) and gone straight to step two (lock up the sidewalk sleepers). There are two problems with this approach: First, it is far more expensive to use police officers, courts, hospitals and jails to move the homeless off the streets than it is to offer them shelters, food and addiction treatment. Second, courts have said it’s against the law to arrest people for sleeping in public when they have no other place to go.

So, L.A. is busy building the housing it’ll need for the homeless, right? Of course not. Prevented from outlawing sidewalk sleeping, the city actually considered regulating it. The mayor, police chief and the ACLU worked out an agreement that would have allowed homeless people to sprawl on the sidewalk between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., as long as they stayed more than 10 feet from doorways and didn’t block the entire walkway. Seriously. The L.A. city council rejected this nutty idea after downtown residents and businesses howled in protest.

Still, the council seems uninterested in doing the hard work that would actually solve its homeless problems, so expect to see L.A.’s skid row nightmare repeating itself over and over again.

Which brings us to a city that has done most things right, Philadelphia. Philly has built enough shelters and provided sufficient services to dramatically reduce its downtown homeless population. But even so, it has noticed the number of people sleeping outdoors creep up in recent months. (The homeless population, 376 in early September, is tiny by comparison to L.A.’s, but still up from earlier this year.)

What’s causing the rise? Downtown officials aren’t sure but think it could be the result of do-gooders (college kids and suburban church groups, for the most part) staging public feedings. And this gets to the heart of what makes the Philadelphia approach work: It doesn’t engage in charity. Services for the homeless, including food, are earned by good behavior, which means taking medications, living in shelters, visiting job counselors and so on. The do-gooders are short-circuiting the system.

”They think they’re helping when they’re not,” one downtown association official told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Food should always be connected with the opportunity to get help. They enable people to remain on the street. It’s enabling people to remain addicted. We are not helping ourselves as a city if we encourage and enable these [homeless] camps.” If so, you end up on skid row in L.A.

Friday, October 13, 2006


The headlines in The Commercial Appeal this week about funding by the City of Chattanooga pension fund in a Memphis investment firm raised the eyebrows of federal investigators because of its striking similarities to a pension investment made by Shelby County Government with the same politically connected company.

In both cases, Delta Capital Management was on the receiving end of the investments.

In both cases, the mayors heading up the respective governments did not disclose their previous financial interests in the company.

In both cases, financial analysts for the governments cautioned against the investments.

In both cases, records indicate that the mayors helped along the firm in its application for funding, and in both cases, they did not appear at the meetings of the pension boards when they voted on the investments.

All in all, it piques the interest of the FBI investigators who spearheaded the Memphis federal grand jury investigation into the decision-making process for the Shelby County Retirement Board. It all came to naught when prosecutors produced a legal opinion that the county board was not subject to federal pension regulations, effectively shutting down the probe that had already brought almost a dozen people before the grand jury.

The old Memphis case attracted media interest again this week upon reports by our daily newspaper that former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker – now campaigning in a tight race for the U.S. Senate against Congressman Harold Ford – did not disclose that he had lost more than $1 million in an investment with Delta Capital. Several years ago, The Commercial Appeal had reported that the Memphis investigation was spawned by allegations that former Mayor Jim Rout failed to disclose that Delta Capital had repaid his investment in a company that had failed.

Keeping in mind that FBI agents say that most of their leads come from the news media, will the Chattanooga report produce an investigation and will it offer another way to restart the Memphis probe?


We are witnessing the death of shame. We think of this as we read that the Family Research Council (remember them, they’re the group that promotes the traditional family unit and the Judeo-Christian value system) is placing the blame on U.S. Rep. Mark Foley’s demise on the underground gay movement in Washington, D.C.

In the process, the group continues the rhetoric that interchangeably uses homosexuality and pedophilia. On the day that we read about the group’s latest pandering, a man in Collierville was arrested for having sex with three young teenagers, a man in Colorado was arrested for having sex with a teenage girl and a female teacher in the Midwest was charged with having sex with a teenage boy student.

We’re just shocked that the Family Research Council hasn’t noticed the clear link between heterosexuality and pedophilia. And if it had been around all those centuries ago, I wonder what they would have said about the Messiah traipsing all over the Holy Land with 12 guys. A warning sign for sure.

How do people warp the Gospel enough that they can take the words of one of history’s great revolutionaries and use it as a weapon to beat up anyone who disagrees with their narrow-minded views?


Well, it’s clear that “robust” is the word of the season. It’s used to describe the size of our military presence in Iraq, our homeland security program, and the other day, we even heard it said that Memphis Public Library has a robust collection of books.

We’re not sure if they mean the books are strong and healthy, stoutly built, suited to bodily strength, rough and rude, or rich and full-bodied, but we do know that we’re worn out by the over-use of the word.

What is it about some word or phrase that makes it catch fire and gain wide usage even though it’s not used correctly?


We’re across the street from the headquarters of the Memphis Fire Department, so we’re used to seeing the firefighters waiting for action, talking with their neighbors, working on their equipment and engaging in the daily ritual of washing the director’s car. Somehow, we looked at them differently this week after the disastrous First Methodist Church fire.

Memphis has a long tradition of having one of the nation’s best fire departments, but over the years, we’ve apparently become too sophisticated to brag about such things any more.

A few decades ago, we bragged too about being one of America’s cleanest cities, we claimed the title of America’s safest city on occasion, and we were proud of our special beautification programs like City Beautiful. Lack of attention and budget has wiped away most of those boasts, but MFD remains.

Walking by the headquarters this week, the firefighters were getting their gear organized after a tough weekend. How do we really tell these public servants how much we think of them?


County officials have long wanted a fresh start at The Med, so this week’s announcement that the hospital’s president and CEO would step down next month brought smiles all around. The campaign for chance began with the appointment of Memphis business leader Jack Morris as the new chairman of the board, and when that appointment was made by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, it was only a matter of time. All of the high praise heaped on the president upon his resignation was reason enough to know that he had been asked to leave.

Can the changes at The Med signal the improvement in the public hospital’s performance?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Building A Village

New immigrants are changing America's cities in many ways, but what is happening in immigrant neighborhoods is not always easily understood. Sandra Ball-Rokeach and Vikki Katz, both at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, are working in the immigrant neighborhoods of Los Angeles to learn how communication flows and what that means to mainstream media and political leaders. Vikki is a Ph.D. student at the Annenberg School. Sandra is the director of the Communication Technology and Community Program there and director of the Metamorphosis Project.

Todd Hoffman, president of Collegia, is also with us this week. Collegia works with colleges and communities to attract and retain top student talent.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, 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. Listen live on the Web Saturdays at 8 a.m central and Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon central. For a listing of times in other cities, please visit the website, where you may also sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A Lott Of Politics In I-69 Alignment

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but I-69 was paved with partisan, hardball politics.

Without U.S. Senator Trent Lott, “there probably would not be an I-69,” said Ken Murphree, former Tunica and Desoto County administrator, at the ribbon-cutting for the interstate last week. Mr. Murphree is the consummate professional, well-liked, effective and never given to overstatement.

However, on this one occasion, he clearly pulled up short. The truth is that without Senator Lott, there might in truth have been I-69, but there certainly would not have been the current alignment of I-69 and its attention to whose property it traversed.

Of course, we all know that there is no part of government as given to political pressures as highway construction. There’s big money being spent on roadways and big money being contributed to politicians. But it’s hard to imagine another project that has been manipulated as much for political purposes as I-69.

The DeLay Factor

We’ve written previously (January 9, 2006) about the Tom DeLay Factor. As House Whip, he listened attentively and supportively to the rationale for the so-called NAFTA Highway. His response: the I-69 Coalition needs to hire someone to watch after critical Texas political interests, and who better than his own brother, Randy. The same suggestion was made to a coalition of Texas border cities along the interstate route. Together, the two groups shelled out about $800,000 for this special personal attention.

To DeLay’s rock, Lott played the hard place. From the beginning of the project, he was adamant about where the road would go through Shelby County, insisting that it circle around the county when logic (not to mention common sense) suggested a straight route through the city.

Time after time on this project, Lott refused to budget on the wishes of Tennessee politicians, doing the political equivalent of holding his breath to bottling up decisions until he got what he wanted. Each time, angry and tired, Tennessee politicians gave in, pressured as they were also by real estate developers longing wistfully for the circumferential highway to open up the green fields along the Fayette County line.

It’s a stupefying concept, but it’s rare for traffic engineers to actually make these kinds of decisions. More frequently, engineers are given the political answer and are told to prepare the engineering justification for it. If the lobbying arguments for the I-69 project were at times bordering on implausibility, the arguments for swinging the interstate wildly to the east as it passed through Millington defied good sense.

I-69 Meets I-269

And yet, in the end, like water dripping on a stone, the political will in Tennessee weakened. The result: I-69 through Memphis, using the Midtown Corridor, and I-269, following part of Tennessee 385 around Shelby County before crossing slightly into Fayette County apparently so the highway can make the politically prescribed route through Marshall County and DeSoto Counties.

Over the years, the political motivations for the routing became so clear that it was actually dubbed with an influential landowner’s name in government circles. It was treated as a given that the reason for I-269 was as a political gratuity for an important Lott political contributor.

There were years when Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout resisted, and in fact, they angrily put their collective foot down, saying the highway would not swing eastward but go directly through town. Rout regularly quoted MS Carriers owner Michael Starnes as saying that no self-respecting truck driver would take a 40-mile tour around Shelby County when they could drive straight through the city.

Rout was particularly incensed by Lott's arrogance, because as a Republican, he believed that he and the senator should be working together. Instead, Lott treated him as inconsequential and irrelevant.

The local politicians thought they had the upper hand, citing the Kentucky governor’s political canard: “I can’t say where it will go inside Tennessee, but I can damn well say where it will enter Tennessee.” That northern entry point was a political debate almost as contentious as the one here about where the road would enter Mississippi, and in the end, it was won by Kentucky interests because they had control over the entry point into Tennessee.

Kentucky Proves Different

Bolstered by the Kentucky lesson, the local mayors believed that they could influence the Tennessee Department of Transportation in setting the entry point to Mississippi, and in this way, they thought they had the ultimate trump card in the decision-making.

They underestimated Lott. When he got wind of the strategy, he simply passed legislation that limited Tennessee’s options. Meanwhile, in hopes of bringing the increasingly hostile political discussion to an end, Mayors Herenton and Rout finally relented on a proposal to include both the through Memphis I-69 route and the circling I-269 alignment.

It was a compromise that added hundreds of millions of dollars in construction costs to the project, but in the end, Mississippi politics won and Lott dictated the alignment of the highway through Mississippi. And undoubtedly, his political contributions are better for it.

More To Come

At last week’s ceremony, Lott said: “I pledge to you today, this is not a ribbon-cutting for the end of a project. This is a ribbon-cutting for the beginning of a project. This is just the first leg.”

That is certainly true. There is still the section east of the recently opened section. There’s also still plenty of political contributions to be won with the rest of the Mississippi project, and based on the Shelby County experience, the engineers should just simplify things and ask for his political contributors list.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Questions On Our Minds

Shelby County Schools reports that it’s about to overhaul its schools’ attendance zones. As usual, in the parallel universe that is the county school district, the announcement was made by the political head of the system, David Picker, rather than its professional head, Supt. Bobby Webb.

The need for the changes is spurred on by the $35 million high school in Southeast Shelby County – a school whose need is questionable at best – but it sounds like the district’s race-based building decisions are causing some problems that were earlier predicted here.

Once the high school is built and all of those black kids are moved out of the city limits of Germantown, the capacity of Germantown High School will fall below 50 percent. Are the zones being redrawn to prop up the capacity of the Germantown school and to cover up the increasingly clear racial reasons why the Southeast Shelby high school is being built?


Germantown officials approved a special appropriation to pay for the management of its new Regional History and Genealogy Center, which is essentially comprised of the old records of a former county historian. It’s a sad irony that a couple of years ago, the city couldn’t find extra money to keep the the Germantown library as part of the countywide system. If they had, they would have had the option of making the Regional History and Genealogy Center part of the Memphis and Shelby County Room.

Do the city officials now see the errors of their way when they were a co-conspirator in the destruction of the countywide system that was then a national model?


Under increased heat about salaries and health insurance for its employees, Wal-Mart is mounting a public relations and political lobbying campaign based on holding out stores as carrots for inner city neighborhoods. It seems to be working in Los Angeles and Chicago, where some key local African-American elected officials have switched from critics to supporters. In Chicago, a key opponent switched sides after the world’s largest retail chain promised one for her district. It led to a failure to override Chicago Mayor Daley’s veto of the City Council resolution requiring wage and insurance requirements for big box retailers.

In Memphis, a Wal-Mart store will be built on the former site of Mall of Memphis and it appears to be part of this corporate strategy, but the question remains: is the world’s largest retailer, on balance, a plus for a city that gets the jobs but still has to pay for the human and health services needed by Wal-Mart’s employees?


The venom between the Ford Jr. and Cohen campaigns continues, as evidenced by some of State Senator Cohen’s most enthusiastic supporters obsessed about the Congressman’s neutrality in the race. More than anything, it seems to drain energy from what should be a time of exciting momentum for the Cohen campaign.

If your brother was running an ill-conceived race for public office, could you really oppose him?

Meanwhile, more of Congressman Ford's Democratic critics seem prepared to cast a reluctant vote for him. Long disenchanted by his votes in support of Bush Administration policies, their logic seems to be that this year's election isn't so about him but about next next justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. But the question remains, will there be enough energy across the traditional Democratic base for him in the end to pull out a win?


Memphis City Council sees a $600,000 “efficiency study” as answer to some of its budgetary woes. At the same time, however, the city budget includes about $15 million to pay for directors, chief administrative officer, assistants and deputies, fringe benefits, etc.

If they can't produce strategies for reducing the budget and increasing efficiency, shouldn’t Mayor Herenton replace them with people who can?


The worries by Waterford Plaza residents about a dramatic new building partially obscuring their view down river seem to be the ultimate NIMBY. What about views that were blocked when the luxury condos were built?


We’ve got a war in Iraq, the Taliban is surfacing again, American energy conservation is a contradiction in terms and the world is warming up. Thank God, the Congress is able to keep its eye on the ball, opening an investigation into Hewlett-Packard’s investigation of its own board members. Is there any sense of priority inside the Beltway?

Meanwhile, we’ve endured the hand wringing about the President rewriting the Geneva Convention. Where’s the commensurate worry the erosion of the U.S. Constitution?


The national media have engaged in its regular mutual masturbation following the combative interview between President Bill Clinton and Fox broadcaster Chris Wallace. It’s a curious anomaly of the media today that the focus of the coverage was on Clinton poking Wallace’s knee and the former president’s forceful behavior.

It’s amazing to remember that it wasn’t so long ago when it would have been unprofessional for a “journalist” (if anyone on Fox really deserves that descriptor) to give interviews expressing his own opinions. No more. Wallace seemed to go out of his way to make himself the star of the story, because like too many reporters, he seems to think that the news is a reality show in which he stars.

Is it asking too much to ask that the news illuminate what Clinton said, not just how he acted?


Orpheum management quickly abandoned its suggestion about changing the name of the historic theater, citing 70 percent opposition to the idea in emails and phone calls. We never called in, and it’s inevitable that opponents weigh in while those of us who would like more information don’t.

We’d like to know more, such as how much revenue it could produce and if the money would be spent to upgrade productions. Can we still have a conversation about whether the Orpheum name, attached to the building for 12 years in its history, contributes to the theater’s brand and our city’s?


It's probably been about 15 years since the last Oktoberfest was held in downtown Memphis between City Hall and the Shelby County Administration Building. Organized by the Center City Commission, it was always a guaranteed good time that attracted thousands of people to hear the bands, enjoy the food and remember the city's strong German heritage.

Nashville today begins its popular Oktoberfest events, so why can't we again have Oktoberfest in downtown Memphis?


It's been a painful two weeks for University of Memphis football fans. Can anyone check to see if Joe Lee Dunn is still in town?

Friday, October 06, 2006

This Week On Smart City: Tuning Into New Media

The use of new media, particularly by young people, challenges conventional wisdom in many fields - education, social engagement, civic participation. Our guests today have been studying new media and how they may change our most familiar habits and institutions.

Doug Thomas is associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California. Mimi Ito is a cultural anthropologist working in Japan and the U.S. Together, they'll give us an inside look at new media and their effects.

In addition to teaching at USC Doug is author of Hacker Culture, which provides a detailed firsthand account of the computer underground. Doug's current projects include a new book, Re-Inventing Technology: Cultural Narratives of Technological Change.

Mimi Ito is co-editor of Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life from MIT Press. Mimi has worked for the Institute for Research on Learning, Xerox PARC, Tokyo University, the National Institute for Educational Research in Japan, and Apple Computer.

We also introduce a new segment on the world of urban planning, design, and development from our friends at Planetizen.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, 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. Listen live on the Web Saturdays at 8 a.m central and Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon central. For a listing of times in other cities, please click here.

You can also sign up for a weekly newsletter on the program website.

Investigators Consider Vagrants In Downtown Fire

Fire investigators at the scene of the devastating fire at downtown's First United Methodist Church are looking into the possibility that a vagrant could have been involved in the three-alarm blaze.

It's one of several leads being investigated at this time, but the church was a favorite of some of downtown's homeless, who slept in its outside stairwells and in the alley north of it. Over the years, the church had dealt with break-ins that were thought to originate from the people sleeping around the church, and investigators are evaluating the possibility that somebody in the building looking for food or cash may have been involved in starting the fire.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

We've Had Enough Of This Homeless Crap, Literally

If all politics is local, then surely all government is personal.

So, forgive us for being less than optimistic about throwing more than 600 new police officers at the city’s crime problems. We’re just waiting to see if the MPD can make the homeless guys quit sleeping on our front stoop and defecating on our front steps.

When we hear the call for more officers, we can’t resist asking ourselves, if the police can’t do anything about the homeless all over downtown, why in God’s name should we have any degree of confidence that it can tackle the really tough problems?

We admit that our cynicism springs from years of failure to get anything substantive done on this problem. And yet, hope springs eternal.

Under Foot And In Our Faces

In the past, complaints about the vagrants under foot and in our faces have been greeted frequently by shrugs from downtown and by new posters from the Center City Commission blaming the victim. Three weeks ago, City Council members Rickey Peete and Carol Chumney were notified about the latest problems, and Councilman Peete alerted the inspector over the downtown precinct to the problem.

And yet, this past weekend, residents in the historic and heavily foot-traveled block of Union Avenue between Front and Riverside were once again welcomed by three homeless men sleeping on the sidewalk, which apparently doubles as a bedroom and a bathroom.

While we had become somewhat (underline somewhat) accustomed to the urine smell that wafts into the office in the summer when the homeless take up residence in the alley behind our building, the sense that they can do whatever they want is evidenced in their faces and in their feces on the sidewalk that’s frequented all day by visitors walking to enjoy the panoramic views of the river. All in all, panhandlers have plied their trade with such impunity for so long that they feel invincible. They’re so brassy they’ll even hassle tourists with policemen in sight.

The Blame Game

Over the years, we’ve heard a litany of why nothing can be done – City Council permits for panhandling, downtown churches whose programs are magnets for vagrants, lackadaisical attitudes in Divisions 1-3 of our courts, a general lack of interest by MPD commanders, and on and on.

So, here’s the hopeful news. This past weekend’s call to the police department provoked the appearance of Officer Michael Berg, a member of the new Quality of Life Task Force at MPD. In several years of battling this aggravating problem, we’ve never met anyone in city blues who seemed as committed to actually solving the problem.

To top it off, the next day, Lt. Shemwell, his supervisor, also came by to follow up. More than anything, the purpose of his visit seemed to be to spread the message that there’s a new imperative to dealing with this problem at the police department. He updated us on the task force’s plans and said the officers assembled for the team understand the panhandlers’ impact to the quality of life for downtown residents and quality of the experience for downtown visitors.

Bad Gets Worse

In our various conversations with police officers this year, we’ve been told that downtown precinct officers believe that as many as 95 percent of the car windows smashed in the summer are done by panhandlers (who according to a recent analysis earn about $8 an hour). The problem has intensified this year as the behavior seems to have become more disruptive with some men breaking into cars as they leave church feeding sites and in attacks by a few delusional members of the group of people coming out of downtown buildings.

All in all, the task force is a good sign. Hopefully, it’s not just the result of a public relations plan, but intended to deal with a problem that gets more out of hand with each passing year. Officer Berg and Lt. Shemwell were convincing in their commitment, but ultimately, they will need the support of higher ups, and it’s no secret this has been a problem in the past.

In the meantime, we’re hedging our bets, circulating a memo asking people to photograph offenders and offending behavior, to call 545-COPS for an officer to be dispatched immediately and to leave a message at the downtown precinct at 525-9800.

Just Say Yes

The price of indifference is steep. It produces a downtown made inhospitable to residents, workers and tourists. We tried to be philosophical this year, but it’s just too hard when the problem takes up residence on the front steps.

So, don’t tell us in the posters canvassing our neighborhood that we should “say yes to charities that help the homeless and the needy.” We say yes to the charities but we also say yes to dealing the problem where it exists, in the alleys and sidewalks all over downtown.

The FAQs on the Center City Commission website clarifies behavior that is illegal. It is when profanity or abusive language is used to ask for money or in response to a refusal for money; it is illegal when done in a group of two or more people; it is illegal when it is perceived as a threat; it is illegal when done in a way that is intimidating or obstructs walkers or cars; it is illegal to assault someone or touch them while begging; and it is illegal to use false or misleading solicitations. There’s nothing mentioned about feces, but we assume that’s at least a health department violation.

So Why Can’t We?

Other cities are making progress with this issue -- the Nashville police chief makes the battle against panhandling a priority for his force; Cincinnati conducts a quarterly census, passes laws against panhandling and removes camp sites; and other cities actively addressing this public nuisance include Little Rock, Atlanta, Austin, Orlando, Los Angeles, Washington, Miami Beach and Las Vegas.

The key in those cities’ success has been the buy-in by police departments which enforce the law and downtown development agencies that push for tougher enforcement.

In truth, this is a problem that we ought to be able to solve. The hard-core panhandlers downtown probably number about 100 people on the worst day. It just seems like more.

As for us, we’ll do whatever we can to help the homeless, but we would settle right now to get them off the front steps. If MPD can do this, maybe then we’ll have more confidence in its ability to do something to cut the climbing crime rate.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Will Film Company Pitch Be Music To Taxpayers' Ears?

Forgive the skepticism, but the premature announcement by the former president of the Memphis Music Foundation about the interest of an Australian film production company in opening a regional operation in Memphis feels awfully familiar.

As in the past, it seems like nothing so much as something to shift the conversation from his recent intemperate comments to the Memphis Flyer and criticisms that he’s gotten in the wake of his resignation from places as varied as The Commercial Appeal’s editorial page to club musicians.

While Rey Flemings wouldn’t spell out the amount of public funding to be requested by Village Roadshow Pictures, his comment that it’s not much “in the world of corporate incentives” seemed ominous enough, particularly in light of a past reliance to throw money at big ideas.

The Right Tone

We think Shelby County Board of Commissioners Joe Ford and interim coordinator of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Economic Development set the right tone of caution, with him pointing out the county’s perilous financial health and her responding in measured tones about wanting to “look at the numbers and review the specifics before we even discuss any kind of commitment.”

Actually, that’s a tone that’s been struck by government economic development officials more and more in recent months and (knock on wood) it’s a trend worth continuing.

Although city and county government have still not taken action to reform the disastrous PILOT (Payment-in-lieu-of-tax) program that gives away $60 million a year in taxes, local government does seem to have begun to target the incentives more strategically. Whether by design or coincidence, recent weeks have seen better projects getting tax freezes, such as a steel mill and a national headquarters. While there’s still room for argument on the amounts being ponied up for these companies, at least these are the kinds of employers that deserve special attention.

Finally Action

Hopefully, within the next 30 days, Memphis City Council will finally take its long talked about action to make the PILOT program a true targeted incentive rather than an entitlement. After all, Memphis and Shelby County Governments have had recommendations from its own consultants for nine months that called on the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board and the Center City Revenue Finance Corporation to revamp its policies and adopt better rules for tax freezes.

If that wasn’t enough of a wake-up call, there was also a damning academic study by the Mercatus Center which trashed the PILOT program as it is currently administered, and even the always business-friendly Forbes magazine ridiculed local tax freeze policies.

It seems evident at this point that Memphis City Council will take some kind of action, but look for the affected agencies to continue their mantra about how they can’t do anything to change the programs without approval also by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Show Some Initiative

There’s some truth to this since both the IDB and the CCRFC are joint city-county agencies, and because tradition has been that joint action was needed for change. But it’s just as logical that one body can make changes, or at least place the program in suspended animation.

There’s even more truth to the fact that the boards could have already shown some initiative to restore public confidence in PILOT policies. They’ve been stuck in a strange state of denial, acting as if the momentum for change would simply go away if they ignored it (or more to the point thought developers would make sure the tax freeze policies weren’t changed).

If City Council takes action that approximates its forceful rhetoric, the agencies shouldn’t wait for county action. They should move immediately to change their PILOT policies. But first, it will take a shift in attitude, because at times when you listen to IDB and Center City defenses of the tax giveaway policies, you get the impression that it’s their money, not local taxpayers.

Loud And Clear

In the end, that’s the message that Memphis City Council seems intent on sending the loudest. For too long, these tax-waiving boards have turned a deaf ear to concerns from local legislators and in fact treated them dismissively when they tried to discuss problems in any detail.

We say all this to say that whatever idea is being bandied about for a movie production’s regional (and we emphasize regional) center could be a positive addition to the local economic development scene. That said, however, if the incentives to be sought by the film producer calls for direct public funding, and not just tax waivers, it should already be a deal-killer. Local government can’t get into the direct funding of companies, regardless of how sexy they may be.

Maybe this is real. Maybe it isn’t. Based on previous behavior by the Music Foundation, this announcement feels an awful lot like a way to cope with recent negative media coverage.

We hope it all works out, and we hope even more that it makes good sense for local taxpayers. That’s why we’d be especially interested in knowing what Linn Sitler, president of the Memphis and Shelby County Film Commission, thinks about it. No one has been a better steward of public money, nor has anyone produced greater return on a very limited investment. She’s the person that understands the film business best, and for that reason, we’d like to know what she’s recommending.