Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Worst Power To Get Shut Off At MLGW Is Political

MLGW President and CEO Joseph Lee has been in government long enough to recognize the signs.

He’s been set adrift on a raft, and he’s now officially on his own.
He also knows that it’s rare for one of these sagas to end without a sacrifice to the political gods.

And unfortunately, for Mr. Lee, it always calls for human sacrifice.


The political reality is that it isn’t going to be Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton who'll be on the altar although Mr. Lee was his hand-picked choice for the plum assignment. Rather, it will be Mr. Lee, an affable, kind person unprepared for the magnitude of the job and the unrelenting scrutiny by the news media.

The truth is that every one in City Hall should have seen it coming. When the mayor is hellbent to make an appointment like this that is so transparently political and when the credentials for the job are arguable at best, the mayor might as well have sent an invitation to the media to watch every move by Mr. Lee.

Sadly, there’s been plenty that attracted attention, and now imprisoned in a building with a siege mentality, it’s almost impossible for Mr. Lee to find his way out of the thicket of controversy and questionable decisions. That’s because in the midst of these kinds of assaults, the person in the line of fire comes to treat the media as the enemy but often fails to recognize that it’s the public outrage that is fueling the fire.

Under Siege

As a result, people caught up in these kinds of volatile situations can’t evaluate the dimensions of the problem correctly. They end up thinking that if they can just outlast the media, they can survive. They can’t, because the public trust and credibility that must be present for them to be effective in their jobs have been frayed to a point that is unrepairable.

At this point, even after devastating headlines in The Commercial Appeal and the spectacle of appearing before the federal grand jury, Mr. Lee – like most public officials in this kind of whirlwind – thinks he can somehow ride out the storm.

This time, however, it looks like a perfect one, and the clumsy attempts to blame all of this on former MLGW President Herman Morris only make the utility company look worse. While there is some evidence that Mr. Morris ordered the creation of the first list of political friends and community leaders whose problems in paying their utility bill would get his “personal awareness, attention or staff intervention when they have problems,” it’s unclear at this point if any special treatment was given to people under his watch.

Damage Control

It appears that Mr. Morris set in motion the system that gave special attention for the few, a system that ended up with City Council member Edmund Ford’s 10 disconnection notices being set aside and two years of delinquent notices coming to naught. In the meantime, his unpaid bills were climbing to $16,000.

The damage is done, and it’s too early to assess how serious it is to Mr. Morris, who’s been preparing to announce his candidacy to oppose Mayor Herenton for mayor. It was already an uphill campaign, but now splattered with the mud of the MLGW controversy, it will be hard for Mr. Morris to position himself as the white knight candidate. Then again, if the political operatives working so hard to drag him into the quicksand overplay their hand, they may in the end ruin their traction on this issue.

Already, the Herenton vs. Morris fight was shaping up to be a highly personal one. There’s nothing quite as brutal as two friends who fall out and run against each other. Mayor Herenton says that Mr. Morris’ lack of support for minority business development was the reason that he soured on him as the head of MLGW, and meanwhile, Mr. Morris says that City Hall is mired in lethargy and undisciplined.

Personal Politics

Mr. Morris was once such a favorite of the mayor’s that he appointed him to run the city utility. While Mr. Morris is a capable attorney and a committed civic leader, in retrospect, it was Mayor Herenton’s injection of his personal wishes into the selection of the MLGW presidency that contributed to the descent of MLGW from a once-proud utility to its present perception as a hub of inefficiency and political wheeling and dealing.

The saddest fact of all is how far the mighty has fallen. There was a time not too long ago that MLGW was acknowledged as one of the best-run utilities in the U.S., supported strongly by its customers and run by a management that was businesslike to its core. Now, it’s seen by a large percentage of the public as a shelter for political friends and just another poorly-run public operation.

It’s too bad, because MLGW still has some solid professionals working there. The fact that they created such a clear paper trail tracking Councilman Ford’s treatment directly to Mr. Lee shows just how unhappy some people were with the political overtones that had become such a part of the day-to-day operations.

This much is apparent. Mayor Herenton wants this to end. Now.

Sending A Message

It’s rare for the city mayor to acknowledge a political firestorm, much less wade into it, but his comments yesterday that special policies for special people are unacceptable was a shot across the bow for Mr. Lee.

The message was unmistakable. In the mayor’s mind, this controversy must come to a close. Otherwise, it runs the risk of being the only question he’ll answer for months on the campaign trail. From where the mayor sits, the best way to resolve this is for him to publicly show his disapproval and for Mr. Lee to resign.

For him, it’s a two-fer. Joseph Lee takes responsibility for the controversy and his resignation clears the air. Herman Morris gets the blame for setting up a notification system for the powerful and is a less appealing candidate.

But first, Mr. Lee has a decision to make. In the end, it’s not his 18 years of experience in government that's most pertinent right now. Rather, it was his nine years in the U.S. Navy. That’s why he should know that it’s time to fall on his sword.


Larry said...

I repeat my call for serious reform.

I suggest that each residential customer INSIDE the city of Memphis be issued a "share" of stock. The City Council should hold a sizeable block of shares. Perhaps even have each councilperson vote a specific number of shares.

Then, if a person is nominated by the Mayor for CEO ... or better yet, by the Board ... the shareholders get to vote yes or no ... like a real company!

In addition, any profit MLGW makes can be distributed as dividends. That way, the actual owners of MLGW, the citizens of Memphis, would benefit directly.

The citizens would also have a more direct interest in under the table deals for developments like the Forum or special privileges for politicians.

Anonymous said...

I knew when Gale Carson Jones was sent over to MLGW that something was a foot... this whole thing stinks of political sabotage with Joe Lee taking the fall just so Morris can be damaged goods going in to the elections.

Lee should be eligible for one of those 12 years and your out pensions and it would not surprise me if Herenton wins re-election if Joe Lee does not wind up back under Willie's reign somewhere in City Gov't. Payback for falling on this proverbial sword???

This whole thing was planned...and while I am glad that this favortism has been exposed the way it was done stinks...to high heaven.