Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Tax Incentives For Highland Street Development Raise Questions Before County Vote

Politics, like life, is all about timing.

That’s why you would think that the proposal for county government to put $5-6 million into a proposed development on the “Highland Strip” would be problematic; however, it passed 7-2 in a committee of the board of commissioners yesterday.

The vote comes less than a week after Mayor A C Wharton advocated a privilege tax, aka payroll tax, to cope with the county’s dire budget challenge to fund safety net services like The Med. We’ve been advocating a payroll tax as part of comprehensive tax reform for three years, because it requires the 88,000 people commuting into Shelby County to work to contribute to its infrastructure and services.

Dialing For Dollars

But that plea for a new tax on wages was expected to make it hard for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to join Memphis city government in ponying up its half of $10-12 million at the behest of private developers and the University of Memphis who see a brighter future for the once thriving Highland Street neighborhood business center.

But it didn't create any serious problems, although some questions remain to be answered by the project's champions for the Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district that's at the heart of the Highland Street project, and more to the point, questions about local government policies and guidelines for these kinds of tax incentives in the first place.

After years of handing out tax freezes in their PILOT (Payment-In-Lieu-Of-Taxes) program to essentially all comers, city and county governments finally just now have put the brakes on those runaway tax incentives. Now, those tax freezes for new business and expansions have standards and priorities for the first time, doing more to align the incentives with public priorities and also to "size" the public incentive to the promise of specific economic benefit.

The Missing “I”

The pressure to reform the tax freezes was spurred on by the deepening concern about the loss of taxes by local government, and the TIF would divert future taxes to pay $10-12 million public bonds for the so-called “public improvements,” largely a new parking garage whose fees would apparently go to the developers.

Really, this specific project is more a TF district rather than TIF. That’s because there’s not really an increment in it. In similar districts, the present level of tax revenues continue to go to local government, and it’s the growth in the tax base that goes to the TIF district.

On Highland Street, because the project is on the site of a former church, there is no increment, because the church was paying no taxes at all. In other words, city and county governments don’t even get a tax credit for at least the value of the land.

The Welcome Mat

Impetus for the project appears to come from plans to build a Highland Street entrance for the University of Memphis. Based on what we’ve seen, it would provide our university with a dramatic, much-needed sense of arrival with a striking front door to the west.

Here's the question being asked by leaders of neighborhood organizations across Memphis: The overriding criterion for a TIF district is to improve an area fighting severe blight, and compared to their neighborhoods, they suggest that Highland Street doesn't hit the legal requirement for blight. (The only other TIF in Memphis is the Uptown district, a textbook case for this kind of incentive.)

Even the report by the Community Redevelopment Agency, where the TIF recommendation originated, seems tepid, grasping at a definition of blight that includes faulty lot layout and inadequate parking facilities. That could apply to sections of Germantown, but more to the point, if Highland Street sets the definition of blight, most of Memphis could end up in a TIF district.

More To Come?

Some questions about the Highland Street project stem not from the project itself, but a lingering concern that years of talk in City Hall about the need for more than a dozen TIF districts will result in a flurry of applications for the special tax districts. As a result, there’s the sense that there needs to be an overall battle plan if commissioners are to make best use of this business incentive tool.

The need for an overall philosophy and comprehensive strategy speaks to the nature of government itself. Too often, it’s the nature of the beast for elected officials to be in a reactive mode, acting when proposals come to them, like the one to invest in the development project on Highland Avenue, rather than on the basis of an overall vision for strategic investments. Perhaps, that's what led to one-third of Chicago being turned into TIF districts; in Cook County itself, there are more than 370 TIF districts collecting about $700 million a year.

Because of the lack of a full framework for these decisions, they become one-off decisions. In the context of an overall strategy for neighborhood revitalization, the Highland Street development could well deserve strong board of commissioners’ support, but in the absence of an overall plan for the entire city, it feels a bit like shooting in the dark, a familiar feeling for some commissioners, but nonetheless uncomfortable, in the absence of the big picture.

Payback, Not The Political Kind

While we have no reason to question the economic impact numbers and return on investment numbers in the Highland Street application for a TIF, these kinds of numbers are the grease that lubricates pleas for public money, whether they are used in TIF’s, TDZ’s (tourism development zones) or PILOT’s that promise boosts to the economy.

Most of the time, there’s no accountability in the process for these numbers. With the PILOT program, city and county governments proved that they could inject more rationality into the process; however, with other tax incentives, there’s no requirement that the promises made to get other tax incentives will be met or the public funding will be revoked if it isn’t.

If developers are confident about the numbers that they put out in support of a project, there would be a higher level of commitment by county government – not to mention its taxpayers - if the private sector would sign an agreement that protects taxpayers if those outcomes aren’t met. For example, in return for the public money, perhaps, they should agree to repay the public investment if the private economic spinoffs aren’t realized.

A Good First Step

It would be a step in the right direction - taking a businesslike approach to the public’s business. It’s also the kind of negotiated relationship that experienced developers and business leaders are accustomed to and in which the public sector is routinely outmaneuvered.

As for this particular kind of incentive, Tax Increment Financing dates back to the early 1950’s when it was created in California state government as a way to produce matching funds for federal grants. From that beginning, it has evolved into a popular tool in cities across the U.S. (only Arizona doesn’t allow TIF’s), and they have general requirements: a specific area characterized by blight, a specific plan for improvements, bonds issued to pay for the improvements, improvements that attract private investment which increases values and taxes, which are then used to pay the debt service on the bond.

Got it? Suffice it to say, it’s a gift to developers, but then again, it’s the developers who are often key to making it successful.

Learning From The Past

However, if the lessons of our experience with the PILOT program teach us anything, it is the need to step back, set clear expectations and priorities on the front end for local government and to target incentives to accomplish those priorities. In this vein, the new “but for” criteria being used as the basis for all PILOT’s makes sense for TIF districts, too. In other words, to get the public incentive, the developer has to prove that the property would not be developed “but for” the TIF.

In the end, a TIF is a calculated risk for government, because it is built on the premise that they will be self-financing - more development, higher values and more taxes. When that doesn’t happen, there’s not enough new incremental revenue to pay the bond debt, and costs often fall to local governments. Developers for the Highland Street project say the risk there falls to bond holders rather than government.

But there’s other reason for more thoughtful discussion and decisions about tax incentives generally. According to the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), “though there is some disagreement in the literature, the preponderance of evidence in recent studies show that a TIF is more likely to shift investment from one area to another than to create new investment…among other things, a well-regarded study…concluded, among other things, that ‘evidence shows that commercial TIF districts reduce commercial property value growth in the non-TIF parts of the same municipality.’”

Improving The Incentives

Finally, according to the report, there are a number of improvements that are needed for TIF programs:

* Define “blight” more narrowly

* Require a reasonable showing that TIF revenues will pay development costs

* Increase public involvement

* Increase communications and partnerships between the TIF authority and any affected tax districts

* Exempt certain revenues, such as those earmarked for education, from the TIF capture

* Provide aid for residents or businesses priced out of their own neighborhoods as a result of the development

* Require annual reports from the TIF district

* Cap the amount of assessed value that can be captured by the TIF district

A Vote For Public Confidence

There seems to be plans everywhere these days to seek public money for private developments – Graceland, Fairgrounds and others. That’s why Monday’s vote is important for more than just Highland Street.

With the vote, county commissioners have the chance to insist that there are standards and accountability put in place in the process, and along the way, assure the public that local government has an overall philosophy for strategically investing tax money to turn around Memphis neighborhoods, a goal that should be at the top of both city and county governments' list of priorities.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Nothing Civil Or Right In Museum Attack

The local controversy about the National Civil Rights Museum is now the equivalent of the Southern California wildfires – sometimes it only takes one person with a grievance to strike a match that ends up threatening what most of the rest of us consider important.

That’s sure been the case here as what was essentially a personal vendetta by a disgruntled former chairman of the National Civil Rights Museum escalated into a wildfire that’s now giving third-degree burns to Memphis’ national image, making us look like a city trapped in a self-loathing, self-destructive time warp as his grievances are picked up hook, line and sinker by national media outlets, most recently, the liberal weekly, The Nation.

In that journal’s screed, nothing was as obvious to us as why we cancelled our subscription years ago. It’s predictable and incendiary and transfixed more by its own cleverness than by being revelatory.

Way Below The Radar

In the magazine’s “beneath the radar” column, the writer tars Memphis with a brush that is distinctly white and racist, apparently failing to notice that we’re about to become the first majority African-American region of more than one million people in the history of the country. Along the way, he lashes out at Beale Street, he mangles the facts about the National Civil Rights Museum and he insistently steers away from anything that contradicts his pre-conceived opinion about the recent controversy.

All in all, it’s a sad commentary on journalism at The Nation, but more to the point, it’s a sad commentary on the personal motivations that seem to blind former museum chair D’Army Bailey from the damage that he’s doing in the process. It’s almost like he’s more comfortable countenancing failure if he’s in charge than supporting success if someone else in charge.

In recent weeks, the venom from this grudge match has grown nastier, with Mr. Bailey even tossing in the EEOC discrimination lawsuits against AutoZone to attack his favorite target – AutoZone founder J.R. Hyde III – while overlooking the seminal fact that Mr. Hyde’s not been running the corporation for years.

The Historical Facts

That essentially is the party line though: corporations equal racism. Of course, any one remotely acquainted with the indicators of success for museums of any kind these days knows that corporate support is absolutely essential. That’s why new African-American heritage museums in other cities have gone to great lengths to consummate corporate tie-ins and sponsorships.

Most incredulous to long-time observers of the National Civil Rights Museum is the fact that Judge Bailey - whom we know and like - was the person who set in motion so many of the things that he now assails. It was Judge Bailey who recruited Mr. Hyde to the board of the museum in the first place. It was Judge Bailey that negotiated the agreements with the state that now seem so abhorrent. It was Judge Bailey that led the development of the foundation structure that he now attacks. It was Judge Bailey who assembled a board in those early years that had about three more African-American members than the board does today (apparently, that will be resolved as soon as the museum can reappoint people to vacant labor, state political and community positions).

This is not to say that the grassroots voices expressing concern about the museum are not sincere and deserve to be heard. From reports we have heard, museum staff – which from the founding days of the museum has been 95 percent African-American – is looking at ways to respond so ties to community leaders are strengthened and renewed.

Today’s Importance

That’s as it should be, because the lessons of the civil rights movement are no less relevant today to residents of neighborhoods who feel excluded from the mainstream of the economy and powerless, even in a city where the elected power structure is predominantly African-American.

But the use of the National Civil Rights Museum as the whipping boy and as corporate leaders as scapegoats runs counter to every thing that the civil rights movement was about. Most troubling to us is that the current campaign of disinformation vilifies the reputations of civil rights legends Dr. Ben Hooks, Rev. Billy Kyles and Mrs. Maxine Smith by accusing them of nothing short of serving as tokens to their corporate masters.

Then again, attending the annual Freedom Awards ceremony, it’s hard to fathom the supposed iron grip that corporations hold over the museum based on the comments by Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Dr. John Hope Franklin and Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Their heart-felt remarks were authentically honest – and clearly unconcerned about soothing the consciences of corporations - about the challenges facing black Americans and the shortcomings of corporations and political parties in addressing them.

The Real Legacy

It’s equally hard for any one who’s talked to the local civil rights giants to harbor the notion that they are taking orders from anyone. Since Judge Bailey, as chair of the museum, was the first person to suggest greater corporate involvement and sought out the first corporate funding, it would seem that the corporate support for the museum is the fulfillment of his founding vision and a testament to the museum’s broad appeal.

That’s what’s most curious of all. It was Judge Bailey that laid the foundation for the structure, the operations and the state-local relationship during the early years of the Museum, and it’s hard to understand why he doesn’t embrace its success today as his greatest legacy. Instead, he’s done just the opposite, engaging in a revisionist history that does his own legacy at the museum a disservice.

In his zeal to attack the thing that he once loved so deeply, he portrays – and The Nation agrees – the current board members are examples of the adroit maneuvers of white supremacists and the vast right wing conspiracy to keep African-Americans oppressed. It’s less clear why with all the things that corporations and wealthy individuals could take over, they chose the museum, but no matter.

A Solution That Solves Nothing

Just for the record, the magazine says African-Americans are a minority on the board, and the magazine is right although it fails to mention that it’s right by 1 percent. African-American membership is 49 percent, white membership is 45 percent, and other makes up the difference. Actually, the makeup of the board isn’t too drastically different than it was in the early years of the museum, and with the filling of the vacant posts, it should reach those levels.

All of this is apparently a prelude to the vote by the Memphis City Council on a resolution calling for the National Civil Rights Museum to become a city government-run museum and for talks to begin with the U.S. National Parks Service to take over the museum in the long-term. If city ownership and operation are the answers, we’re simply asking the wrong questions.

Last time we checked the city budget, the museums in Victorian Village had been shut down for lack of money, the Pink Palace Museum’s exhibits have been largely unchanged in 30 years despite revolutions in technology and exhibitry and all city museums had maintenance issues that need serious attention. Before city government looks to take over a successfully run museum whose budget is about $1.3 million more than the Pink Palace, Memphis City Council should fully fund its own museums specifically and invest more heavily in quality of life generally.

Voting No

Interesting, either city or county governments had the opportunity to take ownership of the museum when it was founded, but both quickly and emphatically said no.

In his speech to the Memphis Regional Chamber last week, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton appeared incredulous about the entire controversy but came down on the side of not tinkering with a formula that’s working at the civil rights museum. Hopefully, the City Council will vote down the resolution and let the National Civil Rights Museum get back to the business of kicking off a capital campaign to upgrade the exhibits and update the technology of the museum to make sure it remains what USA Today called one of 10 national treasures.

Forbes: Memphis Is Most Sedentary City

Forbes posted an article yesterday about the most sedentary cities in the U.S., and unfortunately, Memphis is #1. When the reporter called last week about this, she asked us about the causes and the responses. Here's the article.

Friday, October 26, 2007

County Commissioners Tie Up Ethics Rule With A Ribbon And Bow

So, here’s our question for the county board of commissioners: Why would anyone send you a gift unless they are trying to influence your position or gain your political favor?

Were any of these gift-givers sending you presents before you took the oaths of office as county legislators? If they weren’t, then you’re simply receiving gratuities for your public service, and it’s hard to put it any other way but this: It’s wrong.

Even those University of Memphis tickets don’t come without invisible strings attached. If there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it’s equally true for elected officials that there’s no such thing as a free gift. There’s always an anticipated return. That’s why from the givers side, it’s never a gift; it’s an investment.

Define Gift

The dictionary says a gift is something to show favor to someone. If the favor being shown to an elected official results from their public office, it is a favor that should be aimed more correctly at the people who make it possible – taxpayers.

The dictionary also gives this definition: “anything given to persuade or induce.” That’s the definition for bribe. It seems like a fine line.

OK, we don’t want to get too fulminate too much about all this. Here’s the thing. Almost to a person, the members of the county board of commissioners are good people, likeable and well-intentioned. But something mysterious happens when ordinary people sit in the chairs in the Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chambers for a few months.

In that setting, they are treated with deference, they are served by cowered county workers, they are exalted by attorneys seeking favorable votes and they look down from their regal positions at the supplicants coming before them. It’s easy enough to get jaded and to believer you are innately gifted to be in that job.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Quickly forgotten is that those same people who love you today will love whoever takes your place tomorrow. It’s not about you. It’s about currying favor with power.

As former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett said: The question you have to ask yourself regularly is, are they a friend to me or are they a friend to the office. Normally, it’s the latter, and you forget that at your own peril. Ask any former elected official and that person will tell you: the phone instantly stops ringing and the gifts stop coming on the day you don’t have your elected title in front of your name.

That’s why we are disappointed that once again the Democratic majority on the county board of commissioners chosen to exert its political muscle in pursuit of such a dubious goal – to open up gift-giving to themselves and to allow them to accept gifts of unlimited value as long as every commissioner gets one. As one cynical observer in the county building put it, “Apparently, it’s not bribery if everyone’s on the take.”

Before they voted to amend the ethics rules – a law whose ink hadn’t even dried yet – limits on the commissioners’ gifts were hardly draconian. They could only accept gifts that cost less than $200.

The Franklin Example

As commissioners tinker with the rules, we think of the lesson of Atlanta. There, reeling from indictments and convictions of more than a dozen city contractors, senior city officials and even the mayor himself, the new mayor, Shirley Franklin, grasped the importance of public perception and credibility. She pushed through new ethics rules, and when the City Council amended it last year, she vetoed it.

What did the Atlanta City Council want? To allow its members to accept gifts worth less than $75. Mayor Franklin refused, and today, Atlanta officials are still forbidden from accepting any gift and gratuities. As she put it, there’s no gifts necessary for just doing their jobs.

That’s why the Democratic commissioners’ action here is just so deflating. At a time when public confidence in government is hard-pressed to sink any lower, the Democratic majority seems willing to sell themselves awfully cheap – for a few tickets to football games and special events around town.

In their vote, they display an ignorance of the most critical test of effective political leadership – the ability to recognize the symbolic impact of a position or a vote. In this atmosphere of public distrust and sinking confidence in the belief that decisions are really being made on their merits, the county commissioners could have made a proud stand for good government.

No Free Lunch

Instead, they sold out the public confidence for a few tickets to University of Memphis sports events. And if you think that the university is just acting on its noble sense of largesse, it’s worth remembering that the flow of tickets to commissioners and county executives started at the time that the flow of money from county government to the university began.

At a time when the university needs all the money it can muster and that the athletic department budget needs transfusions to pay the tab for the perennially lackluster football team, it would be understandable that University President Shirley Raines would simply tell commissioners that she loves them, but the university is coping with tough financial considerations and all free tickets have been eliminated.

Anyone who values the importance of the university should welcome the chance to support it on his own dime. Anyone who doesn’t shouldn’t care about the tickets anyway.

Here’s the thing: Many of these tickets – if not most of them – aren’t used by the commissioners anyway. They are used as political favors for loyal supporters, constituents or just needy people in the district. In other words, they are indeed used for political purposes, and they are traded between commissioners as part of the complex set of rituals for such things.


It reminds us of the county commissioner who once threatened the annual funding for The Pyramid until he received tickets to every event in it. His reasoning: “I own the building, and I should be able to get in anytime I want.” Suggestions that citizens of Memphis and Shelby County actually owned the building were summarily dismissed.

In fairness to the commissioner, his irritation was heightened by the fact that the University of Memphis gave former Tennessee Senator John Ford control over a private box at its games and all the tickets in it. Of course, the city and county mayors also had their own boxes and their own tickets, so that too created friction.

Before it was over, the problem required determined negotiation, and commissioners won the right to use tickets in the county mayor’s box, and calamity was averted.

In other words, tickets seem to matter. It’s a demonstration of prestige and power. The fact that both belong more rightfully to the citizens paying for the buildings or funding the grants to local organizations gets lost in the allure of the office.


However, the impact of this poor decision may not be limited to the legislative body. It may also turn back the clock in the county departments. For example, there was a time when developers sent hams to building inspectors in the Memphis and Shelby County Construction Code Enforcement. The intent was clearly to curry favor with the people handling their permits and inspecting their buildings.

A reading of the amendment to the ethics code suggests that this ham-handed practice can be renewed – as long as the developer sends the pork to every one in codes enforcement. It would erode the culture of professionalism in the department that has been a priority for the Wharton Administration in recent years.

If there’s any cold comfort to be taken from all this, it is the amendment introduced by Commissioner Mike Carpenter and passed by the county legislative body. It requires public disclosure of gifts quarterly, so hopefully, citizens for the first time will have an inventory of the presents being sent to their commissioners. Best of all, the list will eventually come to rest in the County Register’s Office, which has a track record for putting his records online for public inspection. In fact, it is for that reason that Tom Leatherwood’s office was chosen in the first place.

However, there’s a catch. It appears that the reporting applies only to a “prohibited source,” companies or people that have contracts or business with Shelby County Government or are seeking contracts or business. So, not all gifts are covered. And then, the disclosure is required by the gift giver rather than the commissioners. However, in light of the majority’s lack of interest in setting the ethical standards for local government, at least it’s a start. (It'd be good for the code of ethics to forbid the commissioners from asking for tickets.)

New Ethics Focus

Meanwhile, one glimmer of hope is worth mentioning. The first members of the county’s ethics committee are scheduled to be approved by the board of commissioners on November 5. Nominated by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton – and sponsored on the commissioners’ agenda by Commissioner Mike Ritz – prospective members of the board are retired judges Arthur Bennett, Joseph Dailey, Terry Lafferty, and William Jenkins; lawyers Mary Beard and Don Strother; ethics professors Beverly Pray and Peter Gathje; Latino Memphis executive director Pablo Davis; and citizen members Jackie Sharp, Karen Williams and Naomi Dyson.

But if the commissioners don’t understand the importance placed on these issues by their voters, there’s always another way to make your voice heard.
Shelby County commissioners are preparing to update the county charter to deal with the purgatory that several fulltime election officials themselves in, including sheriff. There positions were not specifically established, and in keeping with a Knox County judge’s ruling, some action must be taken to resolve this question.

While the commissioners, from all appearances, want to confine changes to the charter to this single issue, this could be the time for the serious top-down look at the county charter that’s needed. At any rate, it’s at least the opportunity for the public to lobby for another amendment – one that establishes strong ethics policies.

The commissioners will be having five public hearings on the charter changes regarding the elected officials in the next five months. That’s five chances for the public to also make its case about the importance of ethical standards.

Flyer Comments On Beale Street Landing Discussion

John Branston, in this week's Flyer, proves again that he doesn't miss anything and writes about the recent discussion here about Beale Street Landing. You can read it here.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

This Week On Smart City: Generation Ageless

What happens to America as its largest generation ever gets older? Walker Smith says get ready, because Baby Boomers are not going home to retire. Instead, they will be out seeking their next new adventure. Walker is with us to tell us what he's learned about aging Boomers and his new book, Generation Ageless. Walker is president of Yankelovich Partners.

Mark Stern has new evidence from Philadelphia that cultural activity in a neighborhood is derived, in part, from diversity and leads to increased land value. Mark has labeled the phenomenon Natural Cultural Districts, and he's here to tell us how cities can take advantage of the opportunities they present. Mark is a Professor of Social Welfare and History and Co-Director of the Urban Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Plus, Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler, will give us the inside on Phoenix and Tokyo.

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, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sunshine Law Ruling Highlights Its Value

Knox County Chancellor Daryl Fansler's landmark ruling on the Sunshine Law provides a thoughtful defense of the open meetings law and the rationale behind its importance to open government. It's must reading for anyone interested in the Sunshine Law. To read it, click here.

Legislators Work To Weaken Sunshine Law And Open Government

Giving more evidence of a general lack of sensitivity by some elected officials about the need to restore the public’s confidence in their governments, a committee of the Tennessee Legislature seems intent on gutting the Tennessee Public Meetings law.

As we pointed out in yesterday’s post, violations of the law have become widespread and routine. While there are some minor clarifications that are needed, the state legislative committee yesterday chose to take a meat ax to the heart of the law.

Its proposed changes in the law would allow any number of members of any public elected body, public board, public commission or public agency to meet secretly whenever they like as long as they don’t represent a quorum.

The Dirty Dozen

In fact, the changes in the Sunshine Law recommended by the legislators yesterday in Nashville are so outlandish that it would have been legal for the Knox County Board of Commissioners to secretly select commissioners for eight vacant seats and four fulltime elected officials. As we wrote yesterday, that’s exactly what those commissioners did, and a judge and jury kicked all 12 of the secretly chosen officials out of office.

While we are sensitive to the concerns explained by some ethically-minded officials like Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter in a comment to yesterday’s post and they deserve attention, there’s nothing about the recommended change by the study committee in Nashville that passes the smell test.

If the Sunshine Law is changed, it would mean that six City Council members or six Shelby County commissioners could meet in secret to discuss the public’s business.

The Designated Hitter

And forgive our cynicism, but if six are allowed in the meeting, it would be pretty easy to involve a seventh – which would mean that the group had the majority votes to pass whatever they like. All it would take is for one of the six to leave the room and allow the seventh person to take their place, making sure that there’s only six people in the room at the same time.

It’s all a bit reminiscent to us of the early days of Shelby County Government. In those pioneer years in this wilderness community, the county legislative body was the law of the land - administration, judicial and legislative. As a result, when a member was arrested for public drunkenness, enough members kept leaving the room to make sure there was never a quorum to convict him.

Somehow, there are days when the notion of drunk members of public bodies would at least make some of their decisions make sense.

Changes in the Sunshine Law would ensure that meetings in an Internet age would become throwbacks to the back-slapping days of local politics, when the meetings of the three-headed administrative branch of county government – the structure of county government before the mayor’s job was created by public referendum in 1974 - actually lasted less than three minutes.

Pray For Wisdom

It happened because the three officials met privately before their public meeting and cut their deals. When the public meeting convened, they would often make a motion to approve the entire agenda, pass it and adjourn before most people had even sat down.

Frequently, the prayer to open the meeting lasted longer than the meeting itself, making the invocation one day especially insightful. With the officials calling on their budget director to open the meeting, he delivered one of the most eloquent prayers ever delivered at the meeting of a public body -- “Lord, forgive them for they know not what they do. Amen.”

But back to the present, leading the attack on open government in Tennessee is Memphis Rep. Ulysses Jones, described by the Nashville Tennesseean as a “longtime critic of ethics reform.” Now that’s a mantel that someone should be proud to wear, made even more ironic by the reality that the state legislature already has a incredibly low standard for public debate and discussion. It’s always more than passing strange to us that an African-American politician leads the fight against open meetings, since African-Americans were so systematically excluded from the machinery of government decision-making for so long, and laws like this opened up the public processes for the first time.

Members Only

Already, the Tennessee Legislature regularly shuts out the public when they ascend to Capitol Hill as if it’s Mount Olympus, but apparently, some of its members want to make sure that all levels of government in Tennessee pull in the welcome mat to the public who pays their bills, who funds their programs and suffers the consequences of their actions.

Already, the Tennessee Coalition of Open Government is sounding the alarm about the danger of this change in the Sunshine Law, and all of us ought to be taking up the challenge to defeat this legislation. We hasten to add that there are some public-minded elected officials who will undoubtedly oppose these heavy-handed amendments to the Sunshine Law, and they need to hear from us, too.

The 18-member special study committee had divided into two subcommittees – one for the open records law and one of the open meetings law – and recommendations are expected to be voted on by the General Assembly in 2008.

The Cure

It’s worth remembering that our state’s laws aren’t particularly onerous or strict. While there are some areas that need clarity (so there aren’t 95 county attorneys giving 95 different interpretations of the law), the last ranking that we saw by the Investigative Reporters and Editors ranked Tennessee 45th in the effectiveness of its Sunshine Law.

Actually, if it were as strict as some opponents try to make out, there wouldn’t be such widespread violations. After all, the remedy to “cure” a violation is pretty simple – deliberating and debating the same issue in public session. And what are the draconian consequences for a public body if a newspaper or activist actually wins a lawsuit? The action by the public body is voided, which means that it has to have a “do over” in a public meeting.

To hear some statewide organizations representing public officials tell it, all of this creates some incredibly unbearable hardship on them. In the end, that is more a commentary on who their true master is – their own personal political interests rather than the public they took an oath to serve.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Knox County Court Decision Should Be Wake-Up Call For Public's Right To Know


That was our immediate thought when we read that a Knoxville judge and jury threw out a dozen elected officials who were chosen in violation of the Tennessee Open Meetings Law.

Of course, if violations of the Sunshine Law were the grist of Tennessee Waltz, almost every elected official in Tennessee would be involved in that judicial dance. After all, the law is regularly and routinely violated.

It’s amazing how inclined politicians are to ignore the public’s right to know how decisions are being made and how quick they are to offer up lame justifications for failing to follow the law.

It’s Not That Hard

In the aftermath of the landmark decision in Knoxville, there was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth by elected officials who said the law just is confusing.

But, how hard is it really to interpret this?

“All meetings of any governing body are declared to be public meetings open to the public at all times…”

While the law carves out some latitude for chance meetings and on-site inspections, it couldn’t be much clearer that when two or more elected officials of a public body get together to discuss some prickly issue or a private meeting is called to sort out some political problem, it’s purely and simply a violation of the Sunshine Law.

It Means What It Says

In Knoxville, the disregard for the law was particularly egregious since it involved Knox County Board of Commissioners meeting secretly to fill vacancies for eight vacant commissioners’ seats and for four full-time county elected officials, including the sheriff. The offices were vacated, after years of legal wrangling, when the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the term limits approved by Knox County voters.

We’re not arguing that the law is perfect, and that it could use a comprehensive review by a blue-ribbon panel to make sure there are no inconsistencies or confusion.

Surprisingly, most elected officials in Tennessee take office without any formal orientation and most are never given an overview of the purpose and scope of the Sunshine Law. In the absence of information, they rely on anecdotes and advice from other people, usually colleagues, who have no in-depth understanding of the law either. While most are not well-versed in the law itself, they certainly have no understanding of the strong court cases in support of it.

The Courts Are Clear

In a lawsuit brought by The Commercial Appeal, it was ruled that the law is not unconstitutionally vague and ambiguous because it doesn’t define what it means for public bodies to give “adequate public notice.” In another case, the court said that the act is not unreasonable unless an elected body wants to prove that opening all meetings was detrimental to the public interest. Wisely, no one in political office has even attempted to tackle that standard of proof. Finally, in a 1992 ruling, a court said that the law should be construed broadly to promote openness and accountability in government.

For every breach of the law that makes it into the media, there are a dozen that don’t, so frequent are the casual violations. Journalists don’t even report on all the ones they see. As one Commercial Appeal reporter explained: “If we did, it’d just look like we’re always whining. The public doesn’t really get the fact that the law isn’t about the us (media), it’s about them.” It’s in keeping with a former CA editor who said that readers don’t want to hear your complaining about how hard your job is; just get the damn news.

It’s the rare reporter – although there have been some – who refuse to leave an unscheduled meeting that he’s stumbled across. Most times, the option is to leave the room and report about the meeting, hoping that this time the public will be equally upset.

Telling The Public

Sadly, it never happens, whether it’s from lack of understanding of the importance of public decision-making or from low expectations the public sets for its elected officials.

Of course, the law doesn’t just apply to elected officials. It also applies to every board, commission and committee created by city, county or state governments. With a couple of hundred city and county boards and commissioners, there’s not enough reporters in all of Memphis to keep up with their operations and to make sure they are adhering to the law. And like elected officials themselves, there are boards and commissioners that are strict and more who are lax.

Shelby County Government has done the best job of putting a structure in place that at least makes sure that public notice of meetings is given. Shortly after the Tennessee Open Meetings Act was passed in 1974, the Shelby County Quarterly Court, forerunner to the present board of commissioners, passed a resolution setting out a specific process for issuing public notices. It called for 48-hour notices for all county boards and commissions and public postings, and over the years, the requirement has been largely enforced closely, leading to cancellations of meetings and even to the delay of one bond issuance.

Web Lists

The Shelby County “Sunshine List” is now posted each week on the county’s website, and if nothing else, it’s always interesting reading to see the names of arcane boards making decisions that affect all of our lives. Also, the Board of Commissioners posts its schedule and its agendas. (Note: Someone should pay more attention to the posted schedule of Mayor AC Wharton, since it’s not been updated in about seven weeks.)

Meanwhile, over on the website of City of Memphis, City Council posts its schedules and agendas, but if there’s a list of the public meetings, it’s buried too deep to be easily found. That lack of concern about official notification has characterized city government since passage of the Sunshine Law, when officials decided that there wouldn’t be an official process to post notices or an officially defined notification period. As a result, reporters were accustomed to getting last-minute notices of meetings, and sometimes, City Hall officials considered it enough to just notify the newspaper reporters.

Of course, the sister law to the public meetings act is the public records law, and it probably is subject to even more abuse. Regularly, government staff officials tell the public and reporters that a document (think: consultant’s draft report on the proposed stadium) is not a public record when it clearly is.

On The Record

The most popular explanations are that the report isn’t final, that it’s not been adopted, or that it hasn’t been reviewed by the government official who commissioned it. None of these excuses matter. Once documents are received in a government office, they are public records. It’s that simple, and it’s baffling why this is so hard to understand or why there is so much resistance to sharing documents with the public who paid for them.

Gadflies like Joe Saino and Jerry Cobb have made their marks requesting reams of public records, and they can tell stories of obfuscation and misdirection that leave you shaking your heads. Similar stories of stonewalling and misleading are told by reporters. The consensus of some print and electronic reporters that we contacted is that city government is normally more open with records than county government. (They chalk it up to the presence of more lawyers in the county building than in City Hall.)

In an age when other local governments across the U.S. are posting all kinds of information on their websites, local governments here are essentially in the Cro-Magnon period of the digital era. The focus has largely been on getting money from the public for services rather than giving information to the public, and that’s too bad, because more communication and information would be a big first step in encouraging more public involvement in their governments.

It could begin simply – with an executive order from the mayors. It would read: Anytime a city or county department or board develops information, it needs also to develop a plan to get it online. Public records mean little if the public can never see them.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Footnote to Beale Street Landing Post

With apologies to the Shelby County Historical Commission, we note that it too has gone on record in favor of Beale Street Landing. We inadvertently omitted them from the list of supporting organizations. Thanks for the reminder.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Juxtaposition of The Historic and The Contemporary Serves Beale Street Landing Best

I was thinking this morning about a magnificent cathedral in Northern France, the incredible Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, and a myopic bureaucrat at Tennessee Historical Commission in Nashville.

The thoughts were prompted by the bureaucrat’s opinion that the design of the $29 million Beale Street Landing “will adversely affect the historic property through the introduction of out-of-character elements into this setting” on the riverfront.

It sounds so pat. And it’s so wrong.

Juxtaposing Styles

His comments reminded me of several impressive places made even more special by the juxtaposition between their historic settings and the contemporary architecture and design incorporated into them.

For example, built on the site of a Roman temple, the roots of the French cathedral dated back to the 5th century with various phases of construction continuing for eight centuries. So, a few years ago, when it came time to update the interior, church leaders decided on a modern, sculptural altar and contemporary designs. The effect is a striking mixture of styles that captivate and inspire.

Meanwhile, in the Holy Land, in a 4,000-year-old city of the Galilee, on the site of one of Christendom’s most sacred sites by tradition, a new Basilica was built in the late 1960’s. On the site were various shrines built over the course of centuries around the Grotto of the Annunciation, and there were 4th century frescoes, a synagogue built 1,600 years ago and various churches built over the millenia.

Marrying The Historic And The Modern

The new Basilica is a brilliant marriage of the historic and the contemporary, complete with stained glass windows that have as much in common with modern art as religious iconography. The result is stunning, proving the power of contemporary designs juxtaposed against a historical setting.

And yet, here, in a riverfront known more for a moribund, declining state than for any potential to communicate anything about the dynamic, progressive city we are trying to create, Dr. Joe Garrison – with the title of historic preservation specialist and a reputation for being obstreperous and didactic – acts as if the riverfront should be stuck in time, an unchanging stage set, a prisoner of our own provincial thinking and lack of understanding about what makes cities successful today.

Because of Dr. Garrison’s personal architectural opinions (expressed in the so-called Section 106 Review required because federal funds are involved in the riverfront project), we learn the truth about time being money, as the cost of Beale Street Landing increases while the planning comes to a standstill to address his subjective statements. To him, the striking design of Beale Street Landing is “out of character,” and yet in cities around the world, the power of contemporary architecture and design is sparking new economic activity and vibrancy.

Co-authors Of History

Meanwhile, June West, executive director of Memphis Heritage, says the design of Beale Street Landing is not “an ageless design,” a comment similar to those heard for every project from the I.M. Pei addition to the Louvre to Millennium Park, but proven wrong by the fact that architecture and history - neither a prisoner of the other - are always unfolding and partners in writing chapters in biographies of great cities.

While we are encouraged that so many people are passionate about the built environment, it is worth remembering that earlier this year, RTN Architects of Buenos Aires - the same award-winning firm that designed Beale Street Landing collaborated with Balmori of New York to create a more fitting setting for Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Balbao.

Their collaboration won the design competition, it was said, because of their ability to create a sense of place and because of their sensitivity to the relationship between the museum and its river setting.

Breakthrough Design

Here, RTN Architects – chosen from 170 submissions in the international design competition for Beale Street Landing - envisioned a sense of arrival for the riverfront and a sense of connection between water and city, creating new vistas, a grand civic plaza and a few small businesses, hopefully responding to the desire for food and refreshment by the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the riverfront every year.

In doing it, the firm designed “islands” on the river’s edge, calling them “musical notes” that stitch together the river and music heritage of Beale Street and the waterfront.

So, into this conversation of world-class thinking on urban design wanders Dr. Garrison, who, from all appearances, took advantage of the learning curve of his department’s new executive director to bring work on Beale Street Landing to a halt. Predictions in Nashville are that in time the project will be approved and crank up again.

Unearthing Facts To Go With Opinion

The Tennessee Department of Transportation – who’s the official applicant for approval of the project – completed its own archaeological review and thought the Tennessee Historical Commission was on board, too. TDOT officials say the rules have been followed and that changes in design of Beale Street Landing were made as a result of some earlier concerns, so they are perplexed by the “adverse findings” by Dr. Garrison, who failed to explain his latest concerns.

The result: government will do what government does best – meet.

Because of Dr. Garrison’s opinion, a meeting is scheduled for later this week so every one interested in this project can comment. Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, Shelby County AC Wharton, the Center City Commission, the Memphis Regional Chamber and Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, to name a few, have all endorsed the design and called for quick resolution.

Defining Yourself By What You’re Against

Because neither Dr. Garrison or Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historic Commission, bothered to explain the substance of their concerns, we are left to guess. If it’s the protection of the historic cobblestones, it’s a problem with a solution. If it’s just personal opinions about the design, we’re probably back where we began – with some members of a grassroots group opposed to anything that is attached to the name, RDC.

As for Friends of our Riverfront – we say, some members, because many of our friends in the group express concerns about the anti-everything-RDC attitude taken by some of its leaders. There’s no question that Memphis needs more, not less, grassroots involvement in the public process, and that’s why we helped Friends of Shelby Farms Park as it evolved from an organization known as being against everything at the park proposed by government to a major player in the decision-making process.

It was only because of the wisdom of the leaders of Friends of Shelby Farms Park and the willingness of the organization’s members to envision a more effective role for themselves that Shelby Farms Park Conservancy exists in the first place and now has a contract with Shelby County Government to manage and operate the park.

Evolving Into A Problem-Solver

It’s a hard transition for a grassroots group to make, and that’s why we admire the leaders and members of Friends of Shelby Farms Park so much. They not only did it, but because of them, our city will get an extraordinary park and some much-needed energy in our civic life.

There’s stirrings by some that this is what they envision by Friends of our Riverfront, but based on the Friday email sent out by the organization, it will be a long, hard journey. In it, the organization calls on its members to pack the chamber of the County Board of Commissioners to get Beale Street Landing “cut from the (Memphis Fast Forward) plan.”

Of course, county commissioners have no power to amend the plan, but it can restrict its funding so that none of its money is spent on the Landing project. It’s largely symbolic since the public money is supposed to be matched 30:1 so it’s hardly as if the public part of the funding would be required for the project. Also, from all appearances, Friends is misinterpreting the meaning of the programs economic development recommendations.

The Talented Riverfront

But no matter. More disturbing is the position by Friends of our Riverfront that none of this is needed to attract talented workers to Memphis. On this, we do know something, because we’ve pioneered talent strategies for this city and others for five years. Suffice it to say that on this point, Friends is quite simply wrong.

The lack of riverfront and downtown vibrancy is a serious challenge for Memphis, and that’s why we’ve always been so excited by the prospects of Beale Street Landing. It creates vibrancy, an animated riverfront, a sense of arrival, and it does something in Memphis that actually deserves our most overused word - world-class.

We think that in time, Friends of our Riverfront will mature into an organization whose positions aren’t based solely on being against whatever the RDC is for. In the meantime, we hope that in the wake of winning considerable concessions from the RDC, Friends can come to grips with the fact that Beale Street Landing is critical to Memphis and so is its design.

More Than A Project

Our prediction is that Beale Street Landing will be much like Millennium Park. In Chicago, early opposition melted away once the park was built. Now, it’s next to impossible to find anyone in Chicago who isn’t proud and who doesn’t claim ownership of this special public space. It’s become a symbol for the city, it’s become common ground for every one in Chicago and it’s been the place where the sense of community is forged.

We think Beale Street Landing could do the same for Memphis.


* Footnote:
Just for the record, Carol Coletta reads these blog posts at the same time you do. She also has no role in selecting the subjects or writing the commentaries. She’s on leave from this firm, and you can find the blog she writes on the CEOs for Cities website. As for the rest of us, none of us has ever worked for the RDC, and these opinions are based on our experience in working in Memphis and other cities on their competitiveness strategies.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Update On "All The News That's Fit..."

Society of Professional Journalists' leaders are backing journalists at The Commercial Appeal including as Trevor Aaronson and Louis Graham who opposed "monetizing the content" plans.

In a post to its website, the 98-year-old, 10,000-member organization said:

"As news organizations develop creative ways to create new revenue streams in a time of lower circulation and ratings, SPJ encourages journalists to keep a vigilant eye toward journalistic independence and integrity. A wall between news and advertising must be firmly established and upheld. The trust of readers, viewers and listeners is at stake, and once lost, cannot be retrieved.

“'I cringed when I read about an editor's interest in ‘monetizing content,’ a phrase that needs a wall right in the middle of it,' SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz said. 'Outsiders’ money should not be involved in the news process.'”

This Week On Smart City: Demanding New Choices

Americans are demanding new choices about where and how they live. For the past 50 years drivable suburbanism has been the norm, coupled with decaying central cities. But that familiar pattern is reversing, in part, thanks to our two guests this week.

John Talmage runs Social Compact, an organization that is uncovering the numbers that show inner city neighborhoods have far more people and far more buying power than official counts suggest. And he is helping cities capitalize on that with revitalization. Prior to joining Social Compact, John served as the Deputy Director for Economic Development for the City of New Orleans.

Chris Leinberger is a metropolitan land strategist and developer. In his new book, "The Option of Urbanism: Investing in the Next American Dream," Chris makes a compelling case for why the next American dream will be walk-able, urban neighborhoods. Chris is also a professor at the University of Michigan Graduate Real Estate Program.

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, which also has a listing of broadcast times in other cities and the sign up for a weekly newsletter.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Update On "All The News...."

For an update on this issue of sponsored news, visit website of Editor and Publisher: "Memphis Editor Admits FedEx Sponsorship A Mistake." We appreciate his candor and for the explanation of his rationale to increase revenues of The Commercial Appeal.

Following Up "All The News That's Fit To Rent"

There’s an old saying in the newspaper business that no one is worse at communicating than the ones in the business.

That seems to be the case with the internal controversy at The Commercial Appeal about selling news sponsorships, or “monetizing the content,” in the unfortunate phrasing of management there.

In the absence of any dependable communication with the news staff about what was going on with this issue, multiple stories swirled at the CA as reporters were left to interpret smoke signals and to put two and two together, and what came from reporters as a result is what led to our post. This communication gap isn’t confined to this particular issue; it is the nature of the beast.

Yesterday’s post here was based on a prevalent story being circulated at The Commercial Appeal about selling news sponsorships, and we are pleased that management is belatedly trying to get the facts out to its own reporters and hopefully, they’ll do the same with the public. In an email circulated by Managing Editor Scott Sines, he says our post is "riddled with errors and should be corrected."

As we said in the post, it’s the policy that’s troubling, and in an email from Mr. Sines circulated at the CA, he seems to acknowledge as much, saying that “in the case of the Memphis and the World project, we ran up to the edge of making a mistake.”

He then emphasizes that the integrity of editorial copy remains unaffected by the CA’s successful efforts to sell everything from the 50th Anniversary of Stax and Elvis Week to prep football coverage. However, he failed to explain or elaborate on the facts surrounding how the newspaper “ran up to the edge of making a mistake.”

Again, to our point, this notion of monetizing the copy does by its very nature lower the firewall between editorial and advertising and does it to the point that most of the reporters at The Commercial Appeal are disturbed by the direction being taken.

In falling back to the political tactic of arguing about a specific fact to avoid the discussion about the larger issue at question, The Commercial Appeal does it readers a disservice, because all of us deserve to understand how far the newspaper will go in seeking revenues, and as this recent miscue indicates, how fragile journalistic objectivity can be in this situation.

In today’s memo, Mr. Sines says that editors at The Commercial Appeal “do not tell reporters to back off stories.” That’s good news, but it’s not consistent with what some reporters on his staff feel, because whether they like it or not, there is an unspoken pressure not to offend a sponsoring company and the strictly human impulse to keep your business sponsor happy.

As we do with any reader, we welcome a commentary by The Commercial Appeal that we can post on this blog. In the meantime, we hope that if nothing else, this issue and the internal firestorm that it’s created at our newspaper will sensitize editors even more about the public trust that is entrusted to them and the importance of communicating effectively to their own reporters so that even the appearance of a conflict, a standard the newspaper advocates for almost every one else it covers, is removed.

But, back to our post, the sad state of the morale at the newspaper and the frustration in the newsroom are important to us as readers, because they often stem from management decisions that do in fact affect the quality and the content of the news we read. For that reason, the post is part of a larger discussion that is taking place already in this city and deservedly so.

Meanwhile, as Mr. Sines writes, “We are in the process of finalizing company guidelines for monetizing content at the newspaper.” We await them, understanding that there is policy and then there is reality.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"All The News That's Fit To Rent" Prompts Controversy At Commercial Appeal

As The Commercial Appeal gets ready for its star turn as location for the movie, “Nothing But the Truth,” the film’s name has special irony in light of the recent internal controversy at our daily newspaper about the sponsorship of news coverage.

It’s created a tense atmosphere at The Commercial Appeal and given credence to deep suspicions in the newsroom about the current direction of the paper.

The idea itself has all the earmarks of groupthink on the business side of the house, but unfortunately, it didn’t encounter any strong resistance from editor Chris Peck, who should have known better.

Give Light

We’re sympathetic to his plight. The motto of Scripps may be, “Give light and people will find their own way,” but these days, the chain – trying to prop up its newspapers’ value until they can sell most of them – is willing to put a price tag on both the light and the way.

Caught between calls from Cincinnati to increase revenues and the blurring lines between journalism and infotainment, he apparently succumbed to the urge to “monetize the content.” (These days, you frequently hear the word, monetize, in connection with websites, such as “monetizing visitors.”) That phrase alone should have never crossed his lips, much less words in favor of a sponsorship for a news series.

Instead, “monetizing the content” led him initally to enter into an agreement with Northwest Airlines to “sponsor” an around-the-world series of articles about Memphis’ strong relationships with great world cities. While there was a presumption that those cities would just coincidentally include the airlines’ major hubs, it fell apart and FedEx picked up the sponsorship.

Strike Two

Here’s the second mistake. After selling news coverage to the corporate giant, Mr. Peck assigned Trevor Aaronson to write the series with Beijing as one of his first ports of call.

It was an amazing choice. Mr. Aaronson is arguably the best hire that The Commercial Appeal has made in years, a tough, hard-hitting investigative reporter who pulls no punches in his questioning or his writing. His impact at the CA has been immediate, and a call from him is now greeted with as much dread as one from his veteran colleague, Marc Perrusquia.

He was an odd choice for a corporate-sponsored junket, but nonetheless, it was his assignment, and he appeared to relish the project. So, off he went on his travels, and upon his return, he turns his attention to writing the series.

Real News

Unsurprisingly, as he is prone to do, he set out to report “real” news from his trip, and this was not the original intent of those who came up with this ill-conceived idea. So, he writes an article about FedEx and Beijing, and it provokes immediate heartburn at The Commercial Appeal.

His coverage was considered less than flattering by Mr. Peck, who summoned him and Assistant Managing Editor (News) Louis Graham – himself a considerable force as an investigative reporter in his reporting days - to his office to discuss ways to fix the copy.

Before it was over, Mr. Graham was sent home, and Aaronson was left with the assignment to write the kind of copy on which the sponsor would look more kindly. It all ratcheted up a notch when he refused to write, a gutsy and honorable call on his part.

Or so one popular version of the sequence of events goes in the newsroom of The Commercial Appeal. However, in the end, however, it's not the sequence that matters to us; it's the sponsorship policy.

Explosive Coverage

The controvery captivated the newsroom, where the sponsorship of the series of articles by Northwest Airlines had been greeted with raised eyebrows when information about it was posted on the bulletin board some months ago. However, when it became clear that advertising would influence news coverage, the questionable journalistic decision led every one to take sides, and it was clear where the sentiment of the newsroom lay.

A petition was begun and attracted the signatures of most reporters, protesting the entire philosophy of taking money for news coverage. In a world where editorial writers often see the slippery slope of bad public policy, the first slip for the paper was the little noticed Boyle Investment Company sponsorship of the Sunday business column, "Done Deals."

But with the controversy over the FedEx sponsorship, the issue reached a whole new level, and its intensity resulted in a call from management for the Poynter Institute to mediate the disagreement.

Strike 3

Mistake #3: Poynter of course sided with the reporter and assistant managing editor.

Clearly, the bitterness of many reporters is raw, as one says that if the movie soon to film at the newspaper needs “someone to play an editor, we have one.”

Meanwhile, it’s also said that maybe the newspaper should sell a sponsorship to Smith and Wesson for daily murder coverage, or perhaps the Shelby County Board of Commissioners should sponsor Alex Doniach’s coverage of county government. While that notion borders on the absurd, who would have thought that journalists would accept “sponsorships” from the Bush Administration either?


So, with support from the news staff already tenuous and now almost nonexistent and with his leadership in tatters, Mr. Peck is faced with the really tough question: Now what?

Perhaps, a good place for him to start is to re-read the mission statement printed on the editorial page, especially the bullet that says: “to act independently and fairly.” In hindsight, it’s difficult to imagine how Mr. Peck expected to navigate the shoals of journalistic objectivity and sponsored news.

Like most newspapers these days, our venerable daily seems totally perplexed with how to fight declining circulation in the digital age. One thing seems pretty obvious: the most precious commodities for any newspaper still remain respect and integrity.

Listen To The Talent

The present leadership at The Commercial Appeal has gotten perilously close to exhausting it. At a time when deeper coverage of the news could be the differentiator for the "Old Reliable," it’s cut veteran staff and exiled others, it’s cut corners and it shows. Its view of a future built on a balkanized region with a definite suburban slant not only shortchanges the paper, but most of all, does a disservice to its readers.

If there’s good news to be derived from this dispute, maybe it’s the indication that editor and publisher might actually be listening to its own reporters. It’s too soon to tell whether it’s sincere or just crisis management, but it’s time. After all, these are the people who know Memphis best and perhaps, faced with no solutions that are working, it’s worth management listening to them.

In the end, the old adage is still true: news is whatever an underpaid, overworked reporter says it is. Attempts by editors and publishers to manage the news so often end in disaster.

And right now, the fences to be mended by the editor are in a shambles. There already was enough discontent at the newspaper over incidents in which the editor seemed to abandon his reporting staff, notably Daniel Connolly's fine article about a local bank that makes home loans to illegal aliens. On the Sunday following the story, Mr. Peck threw his reporter under the bus in his editor's column, shocking a jaded newroom that thought they'd seen it all and providing a clear indication of where the editorial loyalty lay.

Crisis Management 101

Speaking of crisis management, a few years ago, the CA gave the University of Memphis a much-needed editorial slap for its latest P.R. gaffe and suggested that it get serious about a crisis management plan. The same goes for the CA.

The first rule of crisis management applies: walk toward your problem, not away from it. That’s why about now it would be good for Mr. Peck to devote his column to this issue and come clean with readers who want the reassurance that the news they are reading doesn’t come with a for sale sign attached to it.

Meanwhile, we hope the CA is getting enough money for serving as a set for the Matt-Dillon starred movie, “Nothing But The Truth,” that it makes up for this imprudent idea to produce a new source of revenue.

In announcing his movie, writer-director Rod Lurie said: “I’ve been interested in the heroics of reporters…for a very long time.” It’s a fitting wake-up call in management at The Commercial Appeal. Now’s the time for them to be heroes, too, and they begin by protecting the integrity of their own news-gathering operation.

How To Attract And Retain Talented People

Our friend and colleague surprised us today by posting today's ongoing conversation about talent in Memphis on the influential blog of CEOs for Cities.

She writes: We've invited our readers to check out the Smart City Memphis blog, written by our colleague and member Tom Jones. But today's post deserves to be reprinted here in full. Although it is aimed at Memphians, the advice here is worth consideration by urban leaders in many cities.

We appreciate the mention by Carol, but we especially appreciate the thoughtful comments by you that warranted this kind of national attention.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Answers To Question Of The Week Also Offer Answers For Memphis

In this age of instant gratification and short attention spans, we know that we test the patience of many of our readers with our posts. That said, this one is even longer than usual, but the conversation about the question of the week was so valuable and insightful, we’re posting the comments in their entirety here.

A reminder of Friday’s question of the week: “What would it take to get you to give Memphis another go or to encourage your children to stay here?” Our only request was that none of the answers dealt with City Hall or politicians, and that was largely adhered to.

We hope you will take the time to read these comments, and you’re welcome to join in. Most of all, we hope the Memphis Regional Chamber and Memphis Tomorrow leaders take the time to read the observations of these thoughtful men and women. We think they’d find these comments extremely helpful, because economic development plans mean little without the talent to realize them.

Harvey said...
Memphis is simply a great example of a broken place that needs healing. Also, I grew up in Memphis, so my roots are here. The combination of those two issues is enough to keep my family in the city until we die. Besides those two issues, I love the culture, weirdness, and honesty that the city produces. Because of who she already is and who she will continue to be, Memphis doesn't have to "do" anything to retain me. I am a 25-year-old professional with a BA in History and I am staying.

My attitude is far from "love it or leave it" but my love for the city, warts and all, will always pull me toward Memphis.

steve said...
I left Memphis 37 years ago. I still keep in touch with family and friends and through visits. Not sure what it would take for me to move back, but beyond that question, I think I can state that really cool, hip places--and I consider Memphis to be that--may never be particularly popular or "commodified" as such by the media.

Anonymous said...
I grew up in the Memphis area and am now in Portland, Oregon (and I've lived in several other "cool" cities along the way). I suppose I'm in that "25-34 year-old" demographic (closer to the higher end ;) that cities try to attract. I'm co-owner of a technology startup and definitely appreciate the amenities of cool cities.

Memphis has changed quite a bit since I left home many years ago, and changed for the better. When I grew up in the 80's, my parents were too scared to venture inside I-240 (although this was probably an irrational fear even then). I visit Memphis two or three times a year these days, and make a point to hang out in downtown and midtown.

However, I think that Memphis still has a ways to go to attract someone like myself. I suppose I am somewhat partial to the "consumer pretties" the other expatriate mentioned. How many 24-hour coffee houses does Memphis have? I know of six, here. (And I'm not talking about Waffle House or CK's.) How many pubs in Memphis brew their own beer? There are dozens here. (Granted, if you're looking for good BBQ here, you're out of luck.)

Also, as someone starting a technology business, it helps to be in an area where the industry is established. There are tons of startups around here, I could fill my calendar with all the events they have here for people to network and discuss the industry and business over coffee and beer, and it helps to be close to my customers (e.g., Intel, etc.). There is also VC funding available here (although not at the levels of Silicon Valley). Also, when you're burning the midnight oil trying to start a company, those aforementioned 24-hour coffee houses can come in handy. ;)

I still have family in the Memphis area, and that would be the primary draw when considering a return to Memphis. As far as friends, though, only one of my friends from the old days is still in Memphis, and he's planning on splitting town. I have to admit that we're probably part of the problem. It's a catch-22. I do feel a small bit guilty about this.

A plus for Memphis is that a city with potential is exactly the sort of place where you want to buy real estate, before it becomes a city which has realized its potential and the prices go through the roof. So, save me one of those downtown condos. :)

Sorry for the long-winded post. Evaluating places to live is something I've thought about a lot, and I could go on for hours and hour.

Irène said...
I am the woman who wrote the post mentioned above (editor’s note: her comments were posted with the question Friday) and I have to respond that I miss the consumer pretties as much as the next person that Portland provided me, particularly the coffee and clothing! What I would give for just one Stumptown latte tonight!

However, my point for staying or returning to a city like Memphis is that someone interested in starting a fantastic cafe, small restaurant, their own small clothing or home design boutique would not just be another drop in the bucket at this stage, which is exciting to someone like me who would like to give that a shot but was virtually shut out in a place like Portland.

Portland is beginning to max out in many ways and while it will always be leaps and bounds more advanced than cities like Memphis in some ways, it is reaching a tipping point with how many more young people can afford to realize their creative and commercial dreams. The price of success, I suppose.

David Simmons said...
Irène: I agree 100%. It's funny that you should mention that, since the New York Times recently had a story about how Portland is becoming a food mecca for the reasons you describe -- people find it hard to do something new in places like New York City which are "maxed out" -- the barrier to entry is too high. Portland is definitely moving towards this "maxed out" state now, and a city like Memphis would be a great place to start something new.

(I'm the "anonymous" poster from above...

Anonymous said...
I've pretty much done my thing and am approaching retirement and the house at Pickwick looks pretty good for the final run. My life memories are here and family is all buried here so that's hard to leave.

But my sons see no opportunity here. One is a research scientist. The other is a planner. If they would return, I would definitely stay. It would really help if the college/university communities in Memphis were vigorous. Rhodes is so muted for the past several years, and LeMoyne is now pulling on the taxpayer's nickel instead of creating energy.

Getting a BioTech Center up and running in a meaningful way - growing the St.Jude research thing would also be something around which young people could coalesce. Getting some energy into the Art College would be a help.

I don't like to think about it. It makes me sad - the gap from here to there seems huge. Daunting.

Anonymous said...

I am a 32-year-old woman. I moved to Memphis two years ago from Seattle for a job. I don't feel comfortable revealing what I do for a living but it is a fairly unusual niche kind of career. In Seattle, I lived with my boyfriend, who worked in the computer industry. He was prepared to move to Memphis with me, and we had been talking about marriage. But it proved impossible for him to find a job here that wasn't a huge step down career-wise.

As the date of our move got closer and closer, he got more and more depressed. In the end, I felt that I couldn't ask him to follow me across the country and sacrifice so much that he had built for himself in Seattle. So he didn't come with me, and six months later, our relationship fell apart under the pressure of distance and the tension that had built up during this very stressful period.

I don't hate Memphis but I have a lot of bitterness about this place that shattered the love of my life. And it wouldn't make any sense for him (or for people like him) to move here - the social circles we moved in in Seattle, the opportunities that existed for him, they're not here. Period.

When I express frustration about this, I am often shot down by Memphis boosters who tell me that I want Memphis to be just like everywhere else, that I want gentrification via the information technology sector. To me this comes off like Memphis has a giant chip on its shoulder and refuses to recognize reality. It's not one or the other. It's not computer industry OR authentic local culture.

Seattle was a wonderfully diverse and creative place, it wasn't just a bunch of Internet nerds. I think Memphians try to defend themselves by imagining that they are some kind of bold and authentic resistance against this homogenizing "consumer pretty" culture that comes with 20 and 30-something hipsters, but this is a self-justifying self-delusion. Memphis seems a lot more homogenous and stagnant to me than Seattle ever did.

If Memphis is going to attract young people, then, it needs first of all to drop the chip on its shoulder and be willing to emulate the successes of other places. Secondly, it needs GOOD jobs. Jobs that people with college and advanced and specialized degrees want. I guess the biotech sector is the great hope of Memphis then. Third, Memphis needs to stop living in the past. Before I moved to Memphis all of my friends in Seattle would tease me and my boyfriend about Elvis all the time. It was the only thing anyone knew about Memphis. Elvis doesn't appeal to 28-year-olds, sorry. If Memphis keeps selling itself based on the past, the only people who will ever come here are elderly tourists. It needs to change its image drastically, to start selling the PRESENT: Goner Records and Shangri-La and the Hi-Tone, the surprisingly good theater scene, the growing scene of local directors and people involved in wouldn't even know these things exist from the way that Memphis sells itself to the outside world. Fourth and most obviously, but most impossibly, Memphis needs to do something about poverty and crime. I don't know what, but I guarantee that when 28-year-olds read that Memphis is ranked #1 in violent crime, they don't think to themselves, "I can't wait to move there!"

I wish Memphis the best of luck, but I'm not staying, and I don't think I will ever be able to overcome the bitterness that this place has instilled in me.

Irene said...

To the last anonymous..

I won't address the personal bitterness comments as I don't think it would be at all appropriate, but I do agree with you about the "chip on its shoulder" comment. This is a direct symptom of the defensiveness that results from Memphis truly not believing in itself. Many people there are more comfortable staying in the negative status quo rather than coping with the "daunting" nature of change.

I think many people in Memphis long for the oft-mentioned "consumer pretties" (wow, I coined a phrase!) and look forward to trying to establish that in the city. Maybe you haven't met many of them; I know you're coming up against it with the plentiful naysayers.

I am one of those who wants to try out what I have seen in Portland, etc., however, and think that Memphis can begin to support some of that, as it already is with some of the small businesses created by 20-30 somethings in C-Y.

Seattle is a much larger city and had a huge leg up on Memphis; not saying that Memphis can't respect and learn from cities like Seattle/Portland, however, of course they can. But to compare the two is unfair. Also, I was recently in Seattle and many creative small businesses that had been opened within the last 5 years had closed due to the expense of operating them in that city.

I am rambling, now, but I suppose all I saying now and forever is that there are negatives on either side.

memphisi said...
I appreciate the fact that the anon 32-yr-old female finally mentioned the poverty of the city. The fact that never gets mentioned in these discussions is that in the past 6 years median black income has dropped 7.5 percent nationally. This city is 60 percent or thereabouts African-American, what do you think that does to our local economy?

All the amenities of restaurants, cool pretties, etc., aren't going to help this community pull out of its problems. Memphis wears its racism on its sleeve, moreso than most places in the south, and it’s killing us. If you want Memphis to be better, cooler, have more job opportunities, you'd better be prepared to deal with this issue first, stay and help alleviate/address that regardless of your own economic situation or nothing will change.

I get frustrated too, this last election and the lack of progressive thinking in this city is maddening, but there's nothing to be taken from here unless one is willing to roll up their sleeves and help figure out how to bring those things that you yourself can contribute. You can always order cool pretties from the Internet and brew coffee at home anytime. Seattle and Portland don't really need more progressive thinking, but we sure as hell do.

Anonymous said...
i can answer this question from experience. This is not an easy question to answer given the lens many Memphians wear when looking at their city. I'll try to give some personal background as well as some cognitive reasoning on the subject.

My wife and I are transplants and we have been here six years. We both have graduate degrees, no family in Memphis or the region, the job that transplanted me here I left about a year ago and we have never thought about leaving. She will be graduating in December with a second graduate degree, she attends U of M, she has been repeatedly told to leave Memphis by her college professors. The reasons cited for leaving include, “you would be wasting talent because of the cronyism in City Hall” to Memphis lacks opportunities for career growth.

I also work for one of the Fortune 500 companies in Memphis and my workgroup and I are all transports with graduate degrees. I live in Cooper-Young and they all live in Collierville. When i was first transferred, the relocation services told us that we did not want to live in Memphis because of the crime. Realtors would not show us properties inside of the loop; we were moving from a Midwest city in a neighborhood close to downtown and wanted the same.

After a year of living in Alington, my wife and Ibought a house in cy and have been happy ever since. The two experiences are totally different; in cy we have everything a healthy community needs, safe streets, good housing stock, restaurants and shopping, close to downtown and work. We also have a caveat, in the neighborhood, the people that chose to live in cy are like-minded individuals that young people can relate with, even our older neighbors are more progressive than most Memphians. My wife and i realize Memphis has problems, but so does every city.

I am a former consultant and I have dragged my wife to three cities since we have been dating and we thought Memphis would be one of the cities that we settled in for a couple of years and would be off to another city. When it came time to leave this city and move to the next, I left my company and found employment in Memphis. Granted I made a sacrifice with pay, but I didn't need a huge salary since the cost of living is great, I do not have all of the responsibilities I had with my old career, those will come but I am infinitely happy with my choice.

Memphis has all of the assets of a great city but - progressive thought - is not one. Also, there is a mentality (self-mutilation) I have come to phrase it, that Memphis is so bad and the sky is falling. The only people that don't see this as a great city are the ones who were born and raised here. To answer the question of "what will it take," there are many, I'll outline a "good start":

Memphis attracts a significant number of people in this are group. The ones with promise leave because of several reasons but my suggestions are framed on retention rather than attraction.

First, Memphis needs a re-lo service that specializes in downtown and midtown, mainly midtown. Many of the re-lo services move young people to Collierville and Germantown and scare people with crime and school drop-out rates. If we get more professionals inside the loop, they will be less likely to leave. Midtown is the perfect place to raise a family which is why people move to the suburbs. How many times have you heard we loved our neighborhood but...?

Second, Memphis needs to identify small companies that need support to grow and get them the support. Memphis needs to identify growing companies and industries and provide capital and incentives for the company to invest inside the loop. I am originally from Miami, (and) Miami used tax dollars, angel investing from large companies and high-net worth individuals, tax credits and low interest loans to fuel small companies. Miami also set-up support by creating synergy for these companies, CEO roundtables, specialized job training, and networking with larger companies to help these businesses succeed. Memphis need a similar initiative. The younger generation is more entrepreneurial and many do not want to work for large companies and Memphis does not have a lot of medium and small companies to work for. It is a big hole in our economic development strategy.

Third, Memphis needs to get young people involved. In cy, we have a group of young people that meet socially, there is a young mom's group, drinking liberally, many MPACT meetings are here. I think this was the key for my wife and me. Once we plugged into the social network and saw all the young people that wanted this town to be better, we felt right at home. It becomes harder to leave if you are socially invested, for young people homes are easy to sell and jobs, careers can be replaced but the social ties are ever-lasting. I know, we have sold several houses in other cities, young people do not view home ownership like our elders.

Fourth, Memphis needs to establish a midtown development authority. Midtown and Memphis is ripe for a creative movement but needs the infrastructure. By creative, I mean the arts, music, creative business such as design and interactive marketing, e-business suites, technology companies and all the business development that supports these businesses.

Fifth, Memphis needs to move the responsibility of charter schools to the mayor's office. The mayor (not this one, think futuristic) would be able to quickly approve charters and hold them more accountable. It also removes the bias and barriers of having to get approval through the school board. Bottom line: we can teach students more accelerated work and steer the training to high priority fields, such as bio-tech, technology, etc...

Sixth, Memphis needs to establish a greenline and fund the development. This effort should not come from the city but a quasi-governmental authority that can get the job done.

Last but not least, get a new approach for sentencing criminals. non-violent offenders should be sentenced to diversion programs and other alternative sentences. That way, we can lock up the violent offenders.

That's a mouthful...

Anonymous said...
All great always - ideas - no real cut plan on how to do the ideas. MONEY is needed to stop the crime, poverty, education issues, job issues, race issues, lackluster-way-of-life issues. Memphis needs the ideas turned into action plans!!! It won't happen under the current city/county government. Maybe in the next 20 years.

Zippy the giver said...

Memphis needs to address the crime problem first. Statistically based deployment of manpower and technology (remote cameras) are the answer to that along with accessibility for private citizens and transparency.

Then it needs to address the issue of a lack of laws with teeth governing the real estate area. The possibility that if you buy a house in Memphis it will go down in value (for whatever reason) is unattractive.

Memphis is 71% black. That could be a plus.

Memphis has a style of food that is being buried by a lack of training and hygiene in the people and places that serve Memphis food. Memphis is not Vegas, or Chicago, so it needs to get rid of that wannabe thing.

It's pretty simple to describe what all people want, what design principles of people that we all have in common give us what is called for.

People want a safe, clean city where they can get paid and do business and take a break once in while without worrying about getting shot or beat up in an entertainment district. People like food that won't make them sick, grocery stores and restaurants shouldn't smell like the toilet has been backed up for weeks, but, too many here do.

Memphis fights its future and argues for living in the past because failure is familiar ground and success is unknown territory. TOO many of the youth of Memphis are very clear that they have no future and act with disregard to hamper the safety of others they FEEL are privileged.

Anonymous said...

3:14, This isn't the place to post an entire plan. The question was about ideas. It doesn't take any more money (than we are currently spending) to execute any of the ideas, posted. Actually, it would bring more money; more professionals and homeowners inside the city = more revenues from property tax, business tax and sales tax. Your attitude is part of the problem, hear a good idea and instead of helping to put legs to it, you tear into it and have 100 reasons why it will not work. There is a difference between constructive debate and unproductive naysaying.

Memphis like many other cities has crime. Memphis may have more than other cities on a per capita basis. Crime will persist in memphis if there are a lack of jobs and quality education. You will end up sending criminals away only to send another bunch of uneducated criminals with no jobs after sending the the first group. It will be a never ending cycle. The cities that have had a real crime suppression are cities that have economic development and an influx of capital to lift the entire city.

Irene said...
"Seattle and Portland don't really need more progressive thinking, but we sure as hell do."

DING! DING! DING! Great answer. Thank you for that one!

(I too really loved this discussion; it shows that there are people out there thinking very hard about what needs to happen and likely willing to organize to start making some things work/change.