Thursday, March 29, 2007

Charter Schools: This Week On Smart City

Educating children from America's cities may be the toughest challenge urban leaders face. This week, we'll talk to three guests who are deep into meeting that challenge.

Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson is the nation's only mayor who has the power to charter schools. His point person in setting up and running the chartering operation is David Harris who is with us this week. David and Mayor Peterson have been recognized for their efforts with an Innovations in American Government Award.

Irasema Salcido is founder of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools in Washington, D.C. The schools use each subject - even music -- to teach public policy. We'll find out from Ms. Salcido and music teacher Emily Isaacson about life inside a charter school.

Finally, Smart City will feature the latest in city travel from Keith Bellows, editor of National Geographic Traveler.

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.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Unanimous Vote Shapes New Future For Shelby Farms Park

There is the political axiom that when the right people and the right timing align, they can change the world.

This week, they did in fact change the world of Shelby Farms Park.

The right people were Laura Adams, AC Wharton and Mike Carpenter.

The right timing was ushered in September 1 when the radically revamped Shelby County Board of Commissioners was sworn in, removing Walter Bailey and Julian Bolton from office and removing their predictable “fight to the death” attitudes toward any suggestion that operations of the park should be turned over to a private, nonprofit organization.

Light Years

And yet, even with this alignment, it’s hard to grasp how much has been accomplished in a place where seven months is considered the governmental equivalent of moving at light speed.

On Monday, commissioners voted unanimously to give Shelby County Mayor Wharton the power to enter into an agreement with a nonprofit group to manage the park and implement a master plan that turns the promise of the 4,500 acres into the reality of a world-class park.

Combined with the commissioners’ previous approval of a 50-year conservation easement and the Mayor Wharton’s appointment of a special committee to hire the firm to develop a master plan for the 4,500 acres, county government has adopted a green ethos unimaginable just a year ago.

Taking Bows

Success has many parents, so there will be plenty of people lining up to take a bow, but before history is rewritten, Mrs. Adams, Mayor Wharton and Commissioner Carpenter deserve special footnotes. Without any of the three, it’s hard to imagine that Shelby Farms Park would be on the cusp of a new era.

Mrs. Adams’ involvement began at the moment of Shelby Farms Park’s greatest setback, the failed attempt to create a conservancy in 2001 by Memphis business leader Ron Terry. Despite the presence of $20 million as an inducement and unprecedented community interest in realizing the full potential of the park, commissioners voted down the proposal after Commissioner Bailey led a hysterical political stampede that snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Mr. Terry – who single-handedly elevated Shelby Farms Park to the top of the civic agenda – recommended Mrs. Adams as a member of his proposed conservancy, giving birth to a renewed passion for the park that led her to accept the presidency of Friends of Shelby Farms in 2002.

New Friends

Her leadership brought dramatic changes to the group – moving it from a marginalized anti-everything organization to one known for its political savvy and its willingness to find common ground where long-standing controversies could be resolved and support for the park could be expanded. Through an unrelenting attention to details and the seeming ability to be everywhere at the same time, she brought new focus to the agenda of Friends of Shelby County and a new respect for its work.

Along the way, she opened up lines of communications with government that had all but disappeared over the previous decade as Friends leaders seemingly assailed county officials for every problem of the park and questioned their integrity and their stewardship.

Within a couple of years under Mrs. Adams’ leadership, Friends of Shelby Farms Park had morphed from a disorganized grassroots group into the disciplined Shelby Farms Park Alliance and its blue-ribbon board.


Conversations between Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton eventually created the mutual respect that produced momentum for resurrecting Mr. Terry’s general concept for dramatically upgrading the park and empowering the private management to manage it.

(While The Commercial Appeal headline writer erroneously referred to the change as “privatizing” Shelby Farms, it’s a careless use of the term, because it is more akin to the Memphis Zoological Society’s role at the Memphis Zoo than Servicemaster’s management of the county’s senior citizens centers. Of course, the most obvious and notable difference is that the organization managing the zoo and the one that will manage Shelby Farms Park isn’t out to make a profit for a private business.)

Along the way, Mrs. Adams provided Mayor Wharton with information about the context sensitive design process, and he appointed a broad-based committee to use the process to end the 25-year-old controversy about the planned highway through Shelby Farms Park. In the end, the committee succeeded in reaching a breakthrough agreement for a new design and alignment for the highway, and it was not lost on the mayor that Mrs. Adams was instrumental to reaching the consensus that accrued to his political benefit.

Expanding The Vision

Encouraged by the prospects of achieving a vision that could turn Shelby Farms Park from a popular regional park to a park with national importance, not to mention the chance to cut county funding by moving responsibility for park operations to a nonprofit organization, Mayor Wharton took up the cause of the master plan and appointed a committee to write an RFP and select the national planner to develop a park master plan.

But, in the end, Mrs. Adams and Mayor Wharton needed a champion on the board of commissioners who could be an effective advocate for the park and act as floor leader for the resolutions for a conservation easement and private management. Commissioner Carpenter, whose inexperience in public office and youth were perceived as barriers to his ability to be an impact player, proved all predictions about his impact wrong.

He not only served as a good salesman, but remarkably, he managed a 12-0 vote on Monday, positioning himself as an emerging leader on the body. While he’s been widely criticized by Republican Party members for voting with the Democratic majority in support of a second Juvenile Court judge, it’s beginning to look like a sage maneuver that’s positioned him to deliver up the votes to pass resolutions popular to his East Memphis base, including cuts in government budgets for non-essential services like parks and shifting operational responsibility to non-public management.


All in all, it’s a momentous time for Shelby Farms Park. No, those of us who support a plan to develop it into the eastern anchor for a Greening Greater Memphis network didn’t get everything we wanted. Despite passage of the new governance model by the board of commissioners, it seems like Agricenter International is being rewarded despite its consistent arrogance in deliberations about the future of the 4,500 acres and for treating the 1,000 acres under its control as a private preserve for which the public deserves no accounting.

That’s why it’s hard to understand why Agricenter has two members on the board. Under the resolution approved Monday, the Agricenter International board – a nonprofit private organization - will remain in place as well as the public Agricenter Commission that’s supposed to be providing oversight. Why give Agricenter a place at the table when it consistently refuses to cooperate and coordinate with park operations and whose only consistent talent is at disrupting any meaningful discussion about the best future for the entire park footprint?

It’s almost as perplexing as to why the commissioners required that someone from the Shelby County Conservation Board must be on the new park management board, since it’s an increasingly irrelevant group.


Also, the commissioners essentially guaranteed that the new management board will be an unwieldy 15 to 20 members. That’s because the commissioners, in their infinite wisdom, mandated eight members to the new board, which indicates to us that at least an identical number will be needed to offset the votes of government officials and political appointees.

In addition, in approving Commissioner Henri Brooks’ amendment to add a second commissioner to the new board, it’s layered in a more politicized environment for its decisions.

But, this isn’t the point to nit pick the details. The vote this week was a long time coming, and it proves again that all good things are worth waiting for.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Fault Lines Threaten Riverfront Potential

It seems likely that this week’s visit by Project for Public Spaces (PPS) will be a missed opportunity.

We were hopeful when we heard that the New York City-based organization would be coming to Memphis at the invitation of Friends for our Riverfront with the purpose of encouraging consensus and communication.

Based on the way it talks about the Memphis riverfront on its website, it seems to have made up its mind before it even gets here.

That’s too bad, because there’s much that’s said by PPS about great waterfronts that we all should agree with.


For example, there are its insights that riverfronts must be multi-dimensional, active, welcoming to development and home to a diversity of activities. There are its images of the great waterfronts of the world, which more often than not show waterfronts alive with activities, such as markets and buildings that bring people to the water’s edge to eat and shop, use regional transit centers and enjoy corporate-sponsored programming.

Then, too, statements by PPS that “mistakes” on riverfronts occur when riverfronts are too passive, when they are not multi-purpose destinations and when they don’t have intrinsic vibrancy also resonate with us.

However, while espousing multi-dimensional riverfronts, Project for Public Spaces seems to be projecting a singularly one-dimensional approach to the Memphis riverfront. PPS says that its process is “intended to build the local capacity to help those (RDC) plans, or any plans, succeed from a public spaces perspective. The current plans, and usually any plans at this stage, are lacking in vision in this regard.”

Making Contact

In light of this comment, plus others about “working collaboratively,” it’s discouraging that the organization neglected to contact the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) which is responsible for maintaining the riverfront and its parks and is keeper of the vision created in the last public process. To its credit, the RDC contacted Project for Public Spaces.

Friends of Our Riverfront has a singular point of view, and most members are thoughtful, sincere people concerned about their city. What we need in Memphis is more citizen involvement, not less, so we are loath to criticize any citizen-based advocacy, and we won’t. Like many grassroots organizations that we’ve all been part of, there are always a few members whose over-the-top rhetoric derails opportunities for serious discussions that could ultimately eliminate divisiveness on these issues.

Unfortunately, Project for Public Spaces, at least as shown by its website, seems to have relied too much on that point of view. The result: the unfortunate “War on the Waterfront” headline on a website article featuring the Memphis riverfront.

Factual Quicksand

Filled with “they’re wrong, we’re right” rhetoric, the article contributes nothing to public collaborative visioning. While professing that it can be the neutral party to bring the broader community into a process, PPS presents a brief case study of Memphis that badly mangles the facts.

It erroneously calls the RDC a quasi-public agency, it falsely claims that the RDC’s premise is that development alone can animate the riverfront, it asserts dubiously that the RDC has “far less transparency” than the Memphis Park Commission and it adopts the now familiar – if hyperbolic – refrain that the “chief objective” of the RDC is to erect a “huge wall between downtown and the river.”

Such a simplistic reading of such a complex public issue belies the national reputation that PPS has developed as a leader in consensus-building and in bringing a calming effect to contentious issues.

The Question

In the same article, a critic of the RDC says that it “has gotten very quiet,” suggesting how deeply the hostility for the RDC runs for some critics of the nonprofit agency. We don’t know, but perhaps the RDC has decided that it will not criticize citizen involvement, even if directed at opposing its decisions, but the RDC rarely, if ever, gets the benefit of a doubt in these discussions.

Project for Public Spaces says it will “engage the broader community in shaping Placemaking strategy for the city’s key decisions. The basic question on everyone’s lips will be: How can the waterfront attract people and connect neighborhoods to their public spaces?”

Actually, as people who have lived and worked a block from the riverfront for 30 years, the question on our lips is: How can we add attractors to the riverfront that produce a vibrant, lively waterfront that pulls people to the river banks and sends the message that Memphis is a dynamic and progressive city that attracts and retains talent?

No Simple Answers

That’s why the ultimate solution isn’t just about parks and green space, but about restaurants, shops and new development that can usher in an enlivened downtown turning to face the river. It seems increasingly clear that moribund Main Street can’t achieve this goal, and because of it, our best chance of reenergizing Memphis’ downtown and repositioning our national image is a riverfront known for its vitality.

It’s worth remembering that to create its vision for the future, the RDC brought in the internationally-known urban design firm of Cooper, Robertson & Partners. While some people have complained that PPS has a tendency toward demeaning and diminishing the value of architects and urban designers, we don’t believe that is true. We are certain that PPS recognizes the contributions made by a firm whose work includes Fordham, Harvard and Yale Universities, Baltimore Inner Harbor, Battery Park City Esplanade, Boston Seaport, Chula Vista, Hudson Yards, Potomac Yard, Sarasota Cultural Park, Lower Manhattan Streetscape, Henry Moore Sculpture Garden, Museum Park Miami, Disney Monorail Station, and plans for several new towns including WaterColor, WindMark Beach, Bay Meadows, Celebration and The Woodlands.

Cooper Robertson’s plan was designed to “make a seamless connection between city and river through creation of a river-oriented public realm,” and surely, that’s a shared objective on which we all can agree.

A Higher Bar

The work by Cooper Robertson involved a series of public meetings attended by more than 1,000 people, and changes were made, and are still being made, as a result of citizens’ opinions.

In addition, we hope PPS will review plans for the much-needed Beale Street Landing, whose design came from an unprecedented international design competition that sent the message that Memphis has a new commitment to being the best. There’s few things as important as Beale Street Landing in realizing the potential of the river’s edge as a vibrant, dynamic, animated place. Once and for all, we would have a sense of arrival at the nexus between our legendary music street and our legendary river, and we could explode stereotypes of a slow-moving, lethargic riverfront and city.

We wish that all of our local projects had similar national aspirations and had the level of talent brought to bear on them. In recent years, the value of having bold goals and engaging the best available talent has never been clearer; look no further than Autozone Park and FedEx Forum.

Common Ground

We know there are critics of PPS elsewhere that complain that it’s never met a master plan or design that it’s liked or a public process that it says it couldn't do better, but PPS is in the public process/visioning business, and rightfully emphasizes its organizational expertise. Hopefully, it will reach out in a way during its visit that makes a contribution to our city moving ahead in realizing the potential of our riverfront.

The good news is that there is widespread interest and commitment to the riverfront from all quarters. If such widespread interest could be translated into productive communications, perhaps an objective third party could be successful in mediating a shared vision to unify our community.

At this point, it doesn’t look possible for Project for Public Spaces to play that role, but nonetheless, it’s a goal still worth pursuing by all of us.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

City Council Hopeful Leaves Us Hoping For Facts

We’re always excited by the prospect of new faces and fresh voices willing to get involved in our city’s political process.

To that end, we’ve been encouraged by reviews that we’ve heard about Denise Parkinson and by reports about her intentions to run for District 5 of Memphis City Council. That’s why her Q&A with Memphis Flyer was so disappointing.

If facts are often the first casualty of a political campaign, it could be argued that her fingerprints are on the murder weapon.

The Illuminati

The dominant features of the Q&A were mistakes of facts and insinuations about clandestine conspiracies – two tendencies already much too prevalent in this city.

The article begins with dire warnings about “shadowy, quasi-governmental nonprofits that are systematically looting the system.” She urges us to “connect the dots” and indicts Memphis Light, Gas & Water, the Riverfront Development Corporation and the Mid-South Fair as examples of these plundering agencies.

There’s only one problem: there’s not one quasi-governmental nonprofit among them. MLGW is in fact a government agency; nothing shadowy there. The RDC and the Mid-South Fair are incorporated private nonprofit organizations and are no more quasi-governmental than the Memphis Arts Council and Agricenter International.

Sticky Fingers

We’re not exactly sure how the public coffers are mysteriously being emptied by these entities, but we assume she’ll reveal that during her campaign (or to the federal grand jury). Actually, the RDC – whose performance contract with city government to maintain downtown riverfronts and parks provides about half of its budget - has actually saved Memphis city government more than $1 million. A key reason the Mid-South Fair is retrenching is because it doesn’t get public funding. MLGW budgets are debated in public meetings and approved by city officials.

But this was just the open volley of a barrage of political hyperbole that shows that her mayoral aspirations while living in Little Rock were put to good use. She then offers up the revelation that “government by demolition” is destroying our skyline.

We fight the impulse to say, “what skyline?” but instead, we think of the vacant Pyramid, the long-empty old police department headquarters, the deteriorating Sterick Building, the dozens of empty buildings on Main Street, and in our downtown neighborhood, the god-awful boarded-up eyesores across from the main Fire Department HQs that apparently pass for historic buildings.

A Good Problem To Have

Sometimes, it looks an awful lot like serious code enforcement by local government would erase a big part of downtown, so it’s a little mind-numbing to contemplate what government by demolition even means.

God forbid that we would actually want a real skyline here any way. After all, these days, even Mobile, Alabama, has more to brag about than we do.

Maybe it’s just us, but it would be an exciting problem to have if we had to demolish some of these eyesores to put up some new buildings, because, when compared to our rival cities, our downtown has underperformed for more than a decade.

Conspiracies Galore

But Ms. Parkinson’s not content to stop there. Then she raises the specter of the paving over and bulldozing of historic parks. Excuse us, but can you say Overton Park expressway? She didn’t connect these dots, but we’re confident it would have been shocking.

Next, she suggests that Memphis needs to be more family friendly and more kid friendly to beef up its tourism. There’s no specifics, just an allegation that she lays out there, but looking over the CVB portfolio of attractions, it’s pretty hard to figure out just where the family unfriendly attractions are (unless you’re dragging the kids down Beale Street at 2 a.m.).

As for her call to beef up tourism, it’s worth noting that the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau – with a budget significantly lower than its peer cities - has a greater ROI than its Nashville counterpart. And it’s not even a close call.


Finally, she’s able to take inspiration from efforts to save Libertyland. We admit that we’ve never grasped the compelling reason why this makes any historical or financial sense. The best justification we've heard for saving this third-rate theme park is that it provided summer jobs for area youths, but there are many more financially sensible ways to do this than Libertyland, not to mention teaching job and soft skills these youths could actually use.

We don’t mean to be too hard on Ms. Parkinson, but when you come out of the shoot promising to deliver reform and progress – two things badly needed in this city – at least also promise to deliver the facts.

Giving her the benefit of a doubt, perhaps she was just working too hard to offer up some red meat to her supporters, but if the interview is any indication, it’s going to be a long, long summer.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Partisan and Racial Politics In Memphis Are The Same Thing

Federal investigators are justifiably thin-skinned when faced with widespread criticism in the black community that their prosecutions are racially-biased. African-Americans are equally justified in questioning whether just is really blind, particularly color blind.

This transcript of a conversation between an FBI agent investigating the “Tennessee Waltz” and a suspect does raise some interesting questions.

One thing we do know: this is one conversation you'll never hear in federal court.

FBI Agent:
We would be interested if you can tell us anything about Democrats involved in payoffs or corruption.

When you say Democrats in Memphis, it’s the same as saying black. Is that what you’re saying?

Well, we’re asking about Democrats. Can you tell us anything about them taking money from developers or anyone else? We think they’re taking payoffs, but we need someone to wear a wire or give us information.

Well, if you’re asking about Democratic officials, it’s the same as asking about African-American officials. While you’re chasing blacks for taking a few hundred under the table, there’s millions being exchanged by whites right in front of you, and you don’t even seem to see it.

While the conversation had seemed like just a footnote to recent investigations here, in light of recent news coverage about the dismissal of U.S. Attorneys for possibly being too even-handed in their investigations of Democrats and Republicans, it indicates that questions about local prosecutions being racially based might more accurately focus on whether they are partisan based. Of course, here, that ends up being the same thing.

A study of reported federal investigations published in conjunction with Congressional hearings into the firings of the federal prosecutors turned up this interesting fact: from 2001-2006, 79 percent of the 379 elected officials and candidates who’ve been investigated were Democrats. Only 18 percent were Republicans.

Perhaps our local news media would calculate the percentages for Memphis, because on first blush, it looks like they would be even more unbalanced than the national ones.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

This Week On Smart City: The Spirit Of Independence

Comparing the unique shops and restaurants of cities is one of the pleasures of traveling. Kaie Wellman has made it her business to find them, photograph them and present them to readers in her series of Kaie is a native Oregonian who attended Parsons in New York, then traveled the world, doing a stint as art director for Motown Records before landing back in Portland.

Also with us is Michael Sylvester, who has a different story about independence. Michael is publisher of fabprefab, a web resource dedicated to tracking developments in the market for modernist prefab dwellings. If you think prefab is about dreary trailers and look-alike tract housing, then think again, because prefab homes are among the most exciting being built today. Michael is also content strategist for Dwell Magazine.

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, March 21, 2007

The County Mayor's Office: Ahead Of Its Time

After 31 years of being maligned and ridiculed, it actually looks like Shelby County was being visionary when it created the mayor’s job.

At least that’s the conclusion we draw from recent debate in the largest local government in the United States – Los Angeles County, California.

There, they are considering a major “reform” of their $21 billion county government, and to do it by creating the office of mayor.

Here’s the problem. In California (except in its only consolidated government, San Francisco), the county government structure is a five-member board of supervisors that rotates the chairman’s job.

RX: Danger

It’s a prescription for disaster, or at least the governmental version of it – there’s no strong CEO to direct policy and set an overarching agenda. Too many things are the product of groupthink or political hardball, and with the power shifting yearly to a new chairman, there’s not much hope for continuity or cohesiveness.

Of course, this was almost the case when Shelby County Government was restructured by public referendum in 1974. But we only had a three-headed monster engaged in our power-sharing arrangement – one elected official over administration and finance, another over public works and a third over community services.

This clumsy structure was replaced in 1976 with a single county executive, and to top things off, the new county charter called for this office to be called mayor.

Batting .500

There were two reasons this was done.

First, it was thought that by having a mayor and structuring county government to look like a mirror image of city government, the public would see the wisdom of consolidating the two large urban governments.

Second, it was thought that having a mayor at the helm would give that person the best chance of elevating the image and impact of county government.

Well, one out of two ain’t bad. Despite the logic of consolidation, there’s never been a vote scheduled since the county mayor’s position was created, but without question, having the title of mayor has given all four county mayors a stature that actually surpassed their power.

Strong Executive Powers

That’s the real lesson for LA County. The fundamental obstacle to improved county efficiency is the plethora of elected officials that populate all kinds of obscure offices and sometimes manage only a handful of employees.

When Roy Nixon took office as the first county mayor in 1976, he often said that he was mindful that his actions would determine whether county government had a strong mayor structure. His concern was right on target, but with nothing done back then to reduce the number of political outposts, the truth is that the mayor never was going to be the kind of strong mayor seen in City Hall. Even today, when you look at the budget of Shelby County Government, the mayor has direct control over less than one of every four dollars.

In LA County, they are talking about creating a county mayor, but based on our experience, it can never have its full impact if they aren’t also talking about eliminating some of the elected heads of county departments, such as the tax collector, appraiser and clerks.

Ruling Nothing Out

We now have that unexpected opportunity as a result of the ruling by the Tennessee Supreme Court that many of these elected positions – register, trustee, sheriff, clerk and assessor - were not legally ratified when the county passed home rule government in 1984.

As a result, the county board of commissioners has the chance to make county operations more efficient and lean. The question is whether they are up to the task.

On paper, it looked simple to some observers, because it would give the Democratic majority on the board of commissioners the chance to eliminate elected offices now held by Republicans. But here’s the catch: the political calculus clearly concludes that by the next election, the demographic wave in this county will sweep in Democratic officials any way, so why eliminate jobs whose spoils the Democratic Party can enjoy in three years?

Doing Something More Than The Ordinary

If the commissioners take the easy way out, they’ll do little more than ratify the same elected officials and we’ll continue to have someone elected to file legal documents, someone to collect taxes and deposit them in the bank, someone to sell marriage and car licenses, someone to appraise property, and, well, you get the picture.

There’s little logic for why these offices are elected and not simply part of the mayor’s administration, and it would be regrettable if the commissioners didn’t take this opportunity to give some serious thought to what a new, improved county structure could look like, what could make it more efficient and what models are working best in other parts of the country.

Even with the mayor and home rule, Shelby County Government possesses a culture that defies even Mayor A C Wharton’s determined attempts to make it more entrepreneurial and innovative. With political power bases scattered across the county org chart, the presence of these offices is a contributor to what a county commissioner calls the incestuous culture of county government.


Symptoms range from issues as small as getting every elected official to follow county personnel policies or as large as removing arguments about the authority to invest the billions of dollars collected by Shelby County each year. Perhaps, rather than rubber stamp the elected offices in question, county government could use this as the launching pad for a renewed campaign to reduce the growing bureaucracies taking place in department like finance, where, like many support departments, managers no longer see their customers as other departments but see themselves as having veto power over policy decisions by county directors and administrators.

In California, it has been said that in county government, the buck stops nowhere. Here, we would quibble with that conclusion, because even when it’s not his decision, the buck stops in Shelby County with the county mayor, regardless of which elected official actually made the decision or created the problem.

These days, we toss around words like accountability, efficiency, transparency, lines of authority and performance standards, but the convoluted structure of our county government often makes the words little more than rhetorical flourishes.

Fixing The Fragments

The Los Angeles Times editorialized that “the nation’s largest government is broken. There is no one really in charge (of county government), exercising full executive authority.”

We made strides with the restructure of Shelby County Government in 1974 and with home rule 10 years later, but the truth is that the LA Times editorial applies to us, too, because as long as there are domains that fragment and splinter executive authority, the county mayor will never realize the founding philosophy so long ago of a single, strong county executive.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Coordinated Economic Development Is Music To Our Ears

At first blush, the news items seem unrelated: the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission is breaking its ties to the Music Foundation, and Memphis and Shelby County Port Commission policy sends projects to nearby counties.

And yet, they are symptomatic of a long-standing problem: the lack of an overriding philosophy of economic development that brings coherence to the dozen public agencies charged with creating economic growth.

First, the city/county commissions in question.

While it’s our predisposition to resist anything that resembles fragmentation, it’s hard to argue with the Music Commission’s decision to divorce the Music Foundation. From appearances, the Commission has gone to great lengths to be a good soldier and work as a full partner with the Foundation, but it could never shake the feeling that it was clearly more of a junior partner and that promises made when the working agreement was being reached never materialized.

Sensitivity To Light

Back then, the Commission was the vehicle used to hire staff, but in time, staff appeared to chafe under expectations that a public agency complies with state laws about public records and public meetings. The head of the commission moved over to a nonprofit, private corporation – the Music Foundation – where the glare of the public spotlight could be avoided.

At the time, the deal between the Commission and the Foundation called for the staff to serve both organizations, but it became clear that the real allegiance was to the private nonprofit organization. Increasingly, Commission members felt ignored and neglected, feelings that crystallized when their request was ignored for the staff to appear with them to answer questions of the Memphis City Council. In the end, Music Commission officers appeared alone but didn’t have enough information to answer some key questions.

At that point, the seeds of discontent were planted, and with little done to allay them, the Commission voted to go its own way despite the Foundation’s recent hire of a new president, hinting at how deep the bad feelings run.

It’s The Musicians, Stupid

As we wrote last week in the posts about Memphis music, it’s time for success needs to be defined by whether more money is being put into the pockets of local musicians. That seems to be the prevailing sentiment of the Commission members, many of whom feel that the Foundation has chased too many big, and ultimately futile, projects.

Speaking of philosophy, over at the Port Commission, its board members continue to see themselves as land barons, and as a result of its hidebound focus on the needs of its own bureaucracy, Memphis loses out in jobs and growth. It’s a debate that’s gone on within local government for a decade, as mayors, staff of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Economic Development and prominent business leaders have failed to convince the Port Commission to act more entrepreneurially.

The crux of the issue is that the Port Commission is so focused on generating money for itself that its decisions on policy are clouded by its own financial self-interest. As The Commercial Appeal reported Sunday, the prime example of the consequences of this myopic policy is that Hillwood, the second largest industrial developer in the world, was forced over the county line where it now owns 1,200 acres housing four million square feet of distribution and assembly facilities valued at $150 million.

Holding Firm

Meanwhile, though, the Port Commission seems to be proud that it held firm, refusing to budge from its position that it only leases land in its Pidgeon Park and never sells it. The comments by the head of the staff at the Port Commission are telling, “If we sell…to developers, then we’re out of business.” Like too many agencies, the commission seems unable to grasp the fact that its ultimate success might be when it no longer needs to exist.

Back when Hillwood indicated its interest in land owned by the Port Commission, not even the county mayor could persuade a change in commission policy, and he left one key meeting shaking his head and muttering about “out of control” public boards.

At the time, it seemed to those in county government that the Port Commission policy was short-sighted and illogical, because while it refuses to sell the land for fear of reducing its revenues, the 3,000 acres remain vacant. As a result, they produce no revenue for anyone, and that’s the way it’s been for more than 10 years.

The Thread

But, what is the thread that unites these two commissions? The lack of an overall philosophy for the public agencies engaged in economic development – agencies like the Office of Economic Development, the Center City Commission, the Port Commission, the Music Commission, the Film Commission, Airport Authority, Sports Authority, Depot Redevelopment Commission, Agricenter, Memphis Cook Convention Center and the Health, Educational and Housing Boards.

These boards own and control substantial land, waive taxes, receive revenues from special taxes, grant low-interest loans and invest in infrastructure. A few show a disdain for answering to the public, but most labor in obscurity day in and day out.

Some of the organizations cooperate and some sit on each other’s boards, but by and large, they operate without any communications, must less a shared plan or strategy. To compound things, local government has no dependable, systematic way of measuring whether they accomplish their missions.

Creating The Model

While it’s probably impossible to create a model organization like the Portland Development Commission, it’s a worthy goal, because it would integrate for the first time economic development policies into an overall plan of action.

In the meantime, it would be a start if organizations here began to meet on a regular basis to map out strategies, to evaluate options and to target opportunities. A logical place for these kinds of conversations would seem to be the Office of Economic Development housed in the Memphis and Shelby County Department of Planning and Development.

Unlike the other agencies, the head of the Office of Economic Development is not hired by members of a board, but appointed by the Memphis and Shelby County mayors. It’s this direct line to the top that gives it the best opportunity – not to mention the clout – to communicate and coordinate an agenda for local governments.

Key Queries

Perhaps, with a little luck, this kind of coordinating committee could actually lead to considerations of the most important questions of all:

• What is the most effective way to structure economic development in Shelby County?

• How can this structure create a culture of creativity and innovation, a talent strategy for the future and a brand that positions Memphis competitively for the future?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Surviving The Siege Requires A Different Mentality

The main problem with a siege mentality is that you don’t even know you have it.

You lose the ability to recognize the true dimensions of a problem.

You think cleverness can make things better and are mystified that it only compounds the problem.

You lose sight of the organization’s best interests because you think your own survival and the organization’s are the same.

You begin to believe your own justifications and lose sight of how badly they sound to other people.

You issue prepared statements that you think are buying you time while they are seen by every one else as stonewalling or desperation.

You close off your circle of advisers, eliminating divergent views when you need them most.

The Slow Bleed

Because you are trapped in the siege mentality, in the end, you are destined to die a death by a thousand pin pricks. And, along the way, you squander any reserve of good will and compassion that you ever had.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve been reading newspaper coverage of the sad saga of MLG&W. It is destined to end ugly, shredding the reputations of both MLGW President Joseph Lee and the public utility company itself.

Here’s the strongest indication of how distorted this embattled world becomes: Mr. Lee and his supporters have come to believe that the tide has turned and that he can ride out the current controversy.

It’s amazing to imagine, but in such an insular world, the 7-6 vote by Memphis City Council against removing Mr. Lee from his job is interpreted as a major victory. Lost in the process is the simple logic of the public sector -- anyone in a key appointed job who has his future voted on by the city legislative body has already lost the battle.

An Oncoming Train?

But in the pressurized environment that is the president’s office at MLGW, they are so caught up in winning the vote by City Council – with the surprise help of City Council member and mayoral hopeful Carol Chumney - they see the one vote margin as evidence of light at the end of the tunnel.

They seem oblivious to the fact that this razor thin margin is tantamount to a vote of no confidence for Mr. Lee, and clearly, it is no longer possible for him to perform his job in a way that it deserves.

All of this is a symptom of how politicized the environment of MLGW has become. Once a sanctuary from the political machinations that shroud most public agencies, it now is so deeply entrenched in politics as usual that it gauges success in terms of City Council votes about its president and politically calibrated prepared statements.

Over his decade and a half in office, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton has pointedly, and repeatedly, said that he’s not a politician but a CEO. If that is the case, he’s forgotten the first rule of an effective CEO – the soundest decision is based on what is best for the enterprise, not what is best for an individual in the corporation.

It’s Not About You

At this kind of pivotal point in the life of the private sector, the decision isn’t made on the basis of whether the person is right or wrong or on whether he is good or bad. That’s not the issue. It’s simply whether the person has the backing from the stockholders and public to do his job.

If Mayor Herenton is truly a CEO, there’s no time like the present to demonstrate it.

If all of this isn’t reason enough for Mr. Lee to step aside, it’s now obvious that the news media are in this for the long haul.

If Mayor Herenton cares anything about MLGW having a chance to rehabilitate its badly damaged public image, he should urge Mr. Lee to step aside. Otherwise, every decision made by him will be scrutinized to assess whether it is further proof of the poor judgment and preferential treatment that have been revealed in recent weeks.


Another telling indicator for the siege mentality gripping the MLGW president’s office is Mr. Lee’s refusal to cooperate fully with the City Council investigation directed by respected local private attorney Saul Belz. It is directly connected to a flawed understanding of the Council vote, because Mr. Lee assumes that he is safe for now because of the 7-6 vote and that he can stonewall the inquiry.

It is the worst mistake of all. At best, his refusal to answer questions reinforces the public perception that he places his personal interest ahead of the public interest. At worst, it sends the message that he fears action by the federal grand jury, leading him to avoid answers to questions that will be recorded and reported by the Council’s investigator.

This crisis has reached the point where no one can take care of Mr. Lee but Mr. Lee. Apparently, his gut told him a couple of weeks ago that it was time to resign, but Mayor Herenton refused to accept it. If Mr. Lee believes that the mayor and others are giving him advice based solely on what is best for him and his future, he’s misreading this situation as badly as he did the request by Councilman Edmund Ford for special treatment with his overdue bills.

Mr. Lee feels that he is under siege. But he has the power to get out of the foxhole and do what’s best for himself. In so doing, for the first time in months, he can take back control of his own life. At this point, there is no greater victory than that.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Calling Our Nation's Capital Home: Next On Smart City

Not too many years ago, our nation's capital was considered unsafe, unappealing, and generally unlivable. But today, everywhere you look, there are cranes in the air, and housing prices have soared as redevelopment and new building have made the district a very attractive market.

This week, we talk about Washington, D.C. as a place to live and do business with experts who are two of its major change agents.

John Hill is CEO of Federal City Council in Washington, D.C. John works to enhance the nation's capital by focusing the creative and administrative talents of Washington's business and professional leaders on major problems and opportunities that are facing the city.

Erik Bolog is managing partner of Tenacity Group, a Bethesda, Maryland-based vertically integrated real estate conglomerate that specializes in turning apartment dwellers into homeowners.

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, March 14, 2007

A To Do List For Memphis Music That Helps Our Musicians

This post was previously published in Memphis Business Quarterly's Winter Issue:

Continued from the previous post...

No longer dependent on “artist development” from record companies managing the modern equivalent of the company store, musicians now have the ability to create their own success, build their own value, maintain control of their own careers, and follow their muse. In a sense, when the changes are complete, the music business will have become the musician business.

It’s a new world of customer customization and musician empowerment, and the independence that lies at the heart of it is a fundamental characteristic of Memphis music itself.

The digital wave will inevitably wash away the vestiges of the music industry as we have known it, and with Memphis’ history of entrepreneurial leaps – whether inventing American popular music or modern international commerce – there’s no reason that our city can’t get there first and become a dominant player in music again.

Guiding Principles

Knowing this, what guiding principles should we follow?

Invest in talent.
It’s the mantra in the knowledge economy, and it’s especially true in Memphis, a city with a rich vein of creativity. Rather than put millions of dollars on the line for big ideas, a venture fund is needed to invest in creativity that refuses to be limited by conventional thinking or old business models.

Empower bottom-up solutions. Memphis’ history shows that top-down programs find little traction with musicians known for their independence. (Required reading: the Chips Moman file in the Memphis Room of the Central Library.)

Create musician-centric strategies. With the Music Commission swinging for the fences, musicians often feel like afterthoughts. There is the widespread suspicion that music initiatives aren’t about musicians, but an agenda thrust upon them. Successful strategies need to be defined simply – whether they put money in the pocket of local musicians.


Make Memphis music ubiquitous. Our music should be the thread that weaves together the fabric of the city. When people dial the mayor’s office in Seattle, they hear local bands, and the city website even offers information about bands, their web links, and podcasting subscriptions. That would be a start, but we’ll know we’ve succeeded when our music finally greets people at Memphis International Airport.

Make music a key part of a larger creative worker strategy. Rather than treat music as another economic development program, it should be a way to unleash the creativity that is an innate part of Memphis’ psyche and create the vibrancy that makes cities appealing to knowledge workers.

Pursue distinctiveness as a competitive advantage.
There is a proven economic advantage in difference, and in recent CEOs for Cities’ research of the 50 largest cities about talent, innovation, distinctiveness, and connectivity, Memphis scores highest on distinctiveness. In the report’s “Weirdness Index,” Memphis is #19, and if Memphis wants to emulate Austin in anything, it should be its “Keep Austin Weird” campaign.


Help become the digital standard. Long before anyone else, Memphian Christopher Reyes realized that a change is gonna come, and his musician-centered website, connects Memphis bands directly to consumers. is Memphis’ outpost on the digital frontier, but with the serious financial support it deserves and needs, it could become much more.

Make music strategies transparent.
Programs of the Music Commission and Music Foundation have been dragged down by turf issues, questions about priorities, and lack of dependable communication and involvement with government and community organizations. Yes, it’s a lot of trouble, but ultimately, success depends on it.


Create a nationally televised music show. It’s the long-held dream of all local music aficionados that Memphis will be home to a national television paying tribute to Memphis talent and those drawn by its mythology. A good starting point for this project is considering how Beale Street Caravan could make the shift to video.

Create a digital music resource center. Youtube, myspace, webcasts, podcasts, and blogs are just the beginning of the revolution. That’s why artists need access to a virtual infrastructure that connects them to world markets. A center where musicians learn the principles of a media economy and embrace the opportunities of the digital marketplace is just as essential to Memphis musicians as their instruments, because today, many consumers are seeking the authenticity, the connection, and a sense of community built around their favorite musicians on-line.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lessons From Memphis' Music Past Key Its Music Future

This post was previously published in Memphis Business Quarterly in its winter issue:

They were outsiders.

Poor, unsophisticated, and living on the margins, they created music that carved out a mythic reputation for Memphis around the world.

Their heirs today are by their nature also outsiders, and perhaps, this is the fundamental fact of life that is hardest to grasp in Memphis’ quest to channel past music glories which defy top-down business plans. If this isn’t challenge enough, doing it in the midst of a music industry whose old business models are in meltdown gives our city special opportunities.

Talent Is The Name Of The Game

Memphis’ music heritage reminds us that there is no substitute for talent, and our city must be a magnet for it, as it was with B.B. King and other bluesmen who escaped to Memphis from Delta plantations, from small Northern Alabama towns like W. C. Handy, from fading Arkansas towns like Johnny Cash, and from Mississippi, like Elvis, looking for a better life promised by public housing. They also walked out of Memphis neighborhoods like Messick and South Memphis, where their music trumped segregation.

The fact that so many of them were drawn by the siren’s call of Beale Street only contributed to their lack of acceptance in mainstream Memphis. The street was a parallel universe, an island where African-American culture flourished in a sea of Southern sensibilities. As a result, every one there was an outsider, and there wasn’t any real interest in what took place anywhere else in Memphis.

There was always action on Beale Street, where art reigned supreme – whether it was the art of music or the art of the hustle. It was the Promised Land and a cauldron of creativity where musicians were isolated from influences that could have stunted the originality of their music.

Free At Last

Freed from any expectations or control by mainstream society, they were free to follow their hearts and lay down the sounds, and just as important, the ethos, that would make Memphis famous. There was an urgency and a timelessness to life on Beale, and it came to define the music.

It’s tempting now to write a revisionist history that says that Memphis recognized the genius in its midst, but that was not the case. Looking back, it’s almost comical how little thought these men and women were given in the daily life of the city, and certainly no one would have suggested that their names would become synonymous with Memphis’ and in the process define Memphis as the embodiment of “hip.”

It’s a tale so durable and remarkable that decades later, it paints the picture of Memphis as a “musical mausoleum,” in the words of the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, which concluded six years ago that the vibrancy of the current music scene should be one of Memphis’ most persuasive selling points with the coveted demographic of young, educated workers that are the Gold Standard for the new economy.

Talent And Time

Fortunately, music has a higher profile now. That’s why the fits and starts – not to mention the limited success - of the Music Commission and Music Foundation over the years are so disheartening.

Memphis has the talent. What it doesn’t have is time.

More and more today, economic development is about talent strategies – how to attract it, how to retain it, and how to unleash it. That’s particularly true with music.

The Lessons

So, what does the history of Memphis music shout out over the decades that is relevant to us today?

• Memphis’ music came from its success as a magnet for talent

• Memphis’ distinctiveness was midwife to this burst of creativity

• The creativity was rooted in the values of a new generation

• The creative breakthroughs happened far outside the mainstream and were created bottom-up

• The revolution resulted from a historic fusion of creativity and technology

No Rules Are The New Rules

These are themes for all of Memphis’ economic growth plans. They show that Memphis transformed popular culture by connecting its music to the marketplace with new technology, and it can do so again. In fact, in a music industry with no rules, the absence of a traditional business infrastructure could actually be a competitive advantage.

Nashville’s music industry is more than 10 times larger than Memphis’, but it’s heavily invested in systems of old business models, and as a result, its impulse is to preserve legacy systems that are irrelevant in a digital world. It’s a corporate town, seeing retailers as the customers, rather than the music lovers who are turning the industry upside down by integrating technology into their lifestyles.

The change is Biblical, and when it ends, the first shall indeed be last. Record companies, long at the top of the food chain, will be replaced by artists. In a city with little infrastructure and a wealth of talent, it’s hard to find better news, because we are witnessing the end and the beginning of the music industry.

Part Two On Tuesday

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Report On School Funding Gets Grade Of Incomplete

It appears that the Task Force For Quality Education is about to unveil its final report, and it’s all beginning to sound like an old conversation.

Champions for Memphis City Schools are expecting the worst, suspecting that the recent flurry of activity by Shelby County Schools to breathe life into its proposal to become a special district is foreshadowing of the report’s recommendations.

In a way, it all just seems too bizarre, considering the fact that the task force began as a group convened by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton to consider consolidation and now seems poised to give validity to the county district’s position.

Shelby County Schools Board Chairman David Pickler set the tone recently for the upcoming debate by blaming school problems on Memphis annexations. In truth, they are more likely caused by the county’s tendency to build schools that aren’t needed, build them where they shouldn’t be located and create attendance zones that seem intended to create a separate but equal system.

Logic Lost

It’s been almost two years since Mayor Herenton convened the group of civic leaders to hear his presentation – the most thorough, documented and intelligent one ever made in this community about the wisdom of our dual school systems being merged into a single unified system.

It was his attempt to set in motion a process that would consider the consolidation of the city and county schools systems, and the logic of his argument, based on the data that he presented, should have made it a priority for public debate.

However, the substance of his presentation got no media coverage, because reporters were instead captivated by the no-shows of the petulant chairs of the two school systems, Wanda Halbert and Mr. Pickler. Rather than setting the stage for a much-needed civic conversation about educational policy, the media instead sacrificed policy debate on the reliable altar of personality conflict.

It was a lesson in how much any proposal by Mayor Herenton polarizes the community, and within four months, he had bowed out. In truth, the mayor’s proposal hardly reflected consolidation as we know it. Rather, it was a pragmatic merger of operational services, while setting up five academic districts with approximately 41 schools and 32,000 students in each.

Political Pragmatism

It was anything but a bomb-throwing performance by Mayor Herenton. After all, a similar structure had been proposed almost 20 years earlier by former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris, who saw it as eliminate the county’s onerous debt. Two decades and $1 billion in county debt later, it’s clear that he was on the right track.

In City Hall, the Task Force for Quality Education is called simply the “hijacked committee,” since by the time Herenton waved the white flag and abandoned yet another of his priorities, city officials considered the committee hijacked by interests largely sympathetic to the positions of the Shelby County Board of Education.

In its final report, the task force is expected to spotlight:

• School funding, which feels like an outdated conversation about a subject whose relevancy has faded;

• International competitiveness, complete with graphs of data already proven simplistic by researchers;

• Assumptions about public perceptions about public education that have more to say about the inability of city schools to mount a persuasive communications campaign than the realities of county schools;

• Construction cost comparisons that hail the county’s cheaper schools, failing to grasp the central fact that building cheaper schools isn’t the same as building better schools or building community; and

• Some time-honored bromides like we need to make quality education a priority and fund it accordingly (although we invest more than $1 billion a year now) and the nation’s strongest suburbs surround the strongest cities (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

Missing The Target

More to the point, the report seems built on the premise that the conflict between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools is caused by their competition for scarce local funds. That conclusion is wide of the target and trivializes the deep differences that have more to do with the county district’s political opportunism and narrow political agendas (pick almost any quote by Mr. Pickler) and the tendency for the tail to wag the dog on questions of public education. In fact, in 20 years of debate about school funding and school construction funds, it’s actually remarkable that competition for funds has never come up.

It’s stunning how successful Shelby County Schools has been in selling its bundled special interests as enlightened public policy. As we’ve said before, it may have more to say on the shortcomings of Memphis City Schools to articulate its vision, its more innovative programs and its indicators of progress.

But the real meat of the report begins on page 23, where the major conclusions and recommendations are listed, including two with special districts and one with a consolidated district.

One of the lures of the special district approach apparently is that it could freeze current school boundaries, but it seems lost in translation that the boundaries are already frozen by the state law on urban growth boundaries. As a result, Shelby County Schools will inevitably be comprised of only the students living within the smaller municipalities, extreme northeast Shelby County and the Shelby Forest area.

Nothing Special

There no excuse these days for anyone, including Mr. Pickler, to act like annexation is the root of these problems, because ever since Chapter 1101 required the setting of growth boundaries, for the first time, every one buying a house in Shelby County knows what school district they ultimately will be in. (More to the point, only about 28 percent of the families in Shelby County have children in school anyway, so for the vast majority, the issue of school districts is a non-starter in decisions about where to live.)

For the record, Tennessee has 135 school systems, and only 14 of them are special districts. As we’ve pointed out before, the trend is toward consolidation (Shelby County is the only non-consolidated metro district in the state), and financial analyses show that these merged districts are less costly, contrary to the rhetoric of county board members.

The number of county students peaked in 1999 with 48,770 students, and over a 10-year period, its enrollment was largely flat. Projected enrollment for 2010 is less than 40,000, and by 2015, enrollment will be about 35,000 and continue to decline to about 30,000 by 2020.

As some other issues in the report, the freezing of the districts is a subject that had some legs 10-15 years ago, but these days, it’s resolved. And if the county district expects any widespread support for it becoming a special district, it needs to make a case for it, including the impacts on finances and academics.

The Real Problem

The report says it’s about school funding and governance reform, but it fails to mention the most problematic fact of life of all – we have one of the nation’s most regressive tax structures in the U.S. The “real” answer may actually lie in a more progressive, equitable tax structure, but that would require a different conversation than the one taken up by the task force.

The report also reportedly keeps its distance from the devastating impact of sprawl, the interlocking relationship between county schools’ decisions and sprawl and the absence of new policies to change land use patterns. There are public policy decisions that could have mitigated the growing county budget in the past, but the free spending attitude of Shelby County Schools and the placement of schools to benefit favorite developers drove county debt up and fueled sprawl out.

Here’s one recommendation that could make the most difference. Shelby County Schools doesn’t need to build any new schools, except for maybe one elementary school. If the Shelby County Board of Commissioners wants to do something innovative, it should simply refuse to fund any more county schools – except for one elementary school – and adopt a simple, straightforward policy: if a school needs to be built in Memphis’ annexation reserve area, Memphis City Schools should build it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Environmental Report Fuels Greening Greater Memphis

If the Greening Greater Memphis movement needed any extra boost, it’s come in the form of Memphis’ scores on the Urban Environment Report by the Earth Day Network.

In rating 72 cities on more than 200 environmental health indicators, Memphis finished # 50.

We can thank our water quality for keeping us from sinking lower. In a category where we still have bragging rights (if only about the water, not MLGW), Memphis was 12th in drinking and surface water.

Our second highest rating was substantially lower - # 38 in air quality – and in the other five categories, Memphis ranked from 52 to 60.

Not Easy Being Green

All in all, it underscored the importance of the new alliance unveiled at the Greening Greater Memphis event a few weeks ago at Memphis Botanic Garden. There, dozens of environmental groups and a SRO turnout of more than 1,000 people signed on to a declaration demanding greater public attention to the creation of parks, greenways, waterways, bike paths and more.

The centerpiece for the movement is a green necklace of natural assets, including Shelby Farms Park, Wolf River, the rails-to-trails project for the abandoned CSX Railroad line, and the downtown riverfront.

The good news is that it’s all affordable and doable, and at much less cost than a football stadium, which would serve fewer people and do little to position Memphis positively in the national competition for talent. In fact, when compared to the competitive advantage of outdoor recreational opportunities in the knowledge economy, the stadium is a non-starter.

Safety Valve

The unexpected turnout at the Greening event indicates the untapped and pent-up energy in support of environmental responsibility and for public leaders who understand how to respond to the interests of their citizens.

The Urban Environment Report, released a couple of weeks ago, put an exclamation point on the themes spotlighted at the Greening Greater Memphis event – green spaces strangled by sprawl, disconnected neighborhoods with limited recreational activities, the meager number of bike paths, developer-driven decisions on open spaces and a general insensitivity to the impact of these natural resources in creating a healthy city.

In placing 50th in the list of 72 cities, Memphis’ rankings were:

# 58 – Toxics and Waste

# 38 – Air Quality

# 12 – Drinking and Surface Water

# 52 – Quality of Life

# 60 – Parks and Recreation Opportunities

# 55 – Human and Public Health

# 59 – Global Warming Climate Change

Parking Low

The fact that Memphis’ lowest rating came in parks and recreation is validation for the importance of the Greening event and the focus taken by its sponsors. (In the interest of complete disclosure, we acknowledge that we were a host of the event.)

In ranking cities from 1 (best) to 5 (worst), Memphis got the lowest possible scores in average number of parks per square mile and park programs to assist low-income park users. Unfortunately, in all but one of the other indicators, our city scored 4’s – average area dedicated to parks per square mile, park area per 1000 residents, parkland as percentage of city area, adjusted park spending per resident and total urbanized area percentage.

Even the highest rating for parks – scoring 1 – wasn’t exactly great news, since it was for the collection of data about crime in parks.

Memphis’ overall ranking placed it in the bottom third of the list in the company of cities like Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. Nashville finished 43rd, Little Rock 37th, Charlotte 25th, Birmingham 61st, Jackson MS, 65th and New Orleans 67th. Detroit was the last place city, and Fargo was top rated.

High And Low

Some measurements where Memphis scored highest are percentage of recycled municipal waste, year-round particle pollution, irrigation in million gallons per day, fresh water consumption, agricultural pollutants, sprawl and urban pollutants, industrial pollutants, total violations, annual congestion delay and fuel cost, cost of utilities and cost of health.

The indicators where Memphis received the worst possible score – 5 – were more numerous, and included cumulative developmental toxicant releases, municipal solid waste generation, percentage of municipal solid waste to energy, high ozone days, percentage of people who walk or bike to work, percentage of people who work at home, cumulative graduate rate, voter turning in 2004 election, volunteering rate, number of small, local, sustainable food sources, Mini-Kyoto participant, greenhouse gas emissions reduction program and green building standards.

In the global warming category, Memphis was dragged down by the lack of state programs to address greenhouse gases, renewable energy and green building standards.


The Washington-based Earth Day Network was founded by organizers of the first Earth Day in 1970, and its mission is to promote environmental citizenship and progressive action worldwide. The Urban Environment Report is the first of its kind, not only because of the quantity of data, but in its use of environment to embrace public health, poverty, education and other quality of life issues, the organization said in its release.

The city-by-city data is at

By the way, Earth Day is April 22, and if you are looking for a perfect way to spend it, you should be interested in the Hip to be Green Day at Shelby Farms Park. While it is really hip to be the rock group Green Day, on this occasion, it’s hip to be green by attending a gospel service, restoration projects and environmental projects on the 4,500 acres that are the linchpin for the Greening Greater Memphis vision.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Mayor Herenton's Meaning Depends On Who's Listening

Some people say the recent behavior of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is crazy. To many of his supporters, he’s crazy as a fox.

Those who currently underestimate him do so at their peril, because they don’t understand how calculated his behavior is, as proven in Friday’s appearance on WDIA’s Bobby O’Jay Fun Morning Show.

The cultural divide in Memphis leads many observers, particularly white ones, to dismiss the mayor’s comments as outrageous and irrational. In truth, they were anything but, as members of his base in hardscrabble areas of Memphis can attest.

Shots Across The Bow

In truth, the two things reported by the news media as examples of how out of control the mayor is are actually proof of how clever he can be in playing hardball politics.

The comments:
1) “There’s a man up in here in City Hall. If they’re looking for a boy, they identified one in Herman Morris…”
2) “I think there is something going on wrong at MLGW with regard to the billing system and the meter reading. It makes no sense, so that’s the issue that we need to get at.”
As The Commercial Appeal pointed out, boy has long been an in-your-face insult to African-American men, because of its history as a racist epithet used by whites to put blacks in their places. But, like some other words, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same when used by African-Americans. It’s still an insult, but more akin to being called an Uncle Tom.

Lost In Translation

As a result, the emotional message that Mayor Herenton was sending was two-dimensional. The most obvious was in dismissing Mr. Morris as inexperienced and unprepared for the city’s top job, but the other was much more devastating – the suggestion that Mr. Morris is the pawn – or boy - of white people trying to get Mayor Herenton out of office.

In other words, boy was used to advance the impression left by the photograph on the front page of The Commercial Appeal that showed Mr. Morris surrounded by white people at his announcement for mayor, including those who led the failed effort to recall Mayor Herenton as mayor and those who ran failed races for Memphis Charter Commission.

Then again, Mayor Herenton’s comments about MLGW bills also carried a subliminal and special meaning to Memphians living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It’s widely believed there that their electricity rates are higher than those paid by people in wealthier (read: white) parts of Memphis.

It’s All About Context

Within this context, Mayor Herenton was allying himself with these suspicions of preferential treatment in billing, and in the process, he was sending a more subtle message - white people are railing against the special treatment for Councilman Edmund Ford, but many of them may be getting preferential treatment themselves. By extension, there’s the implication that this is why MLGW President Joseph Lee is being hounded our of his job.

All in all, it was an effective performance by Mayor Herenton in communicating to his base, and all the while, under the radar of the mainstream news media. But the loudest message that he was sending was the one he was sending to opponents – this campaign will be a street fight and nobody fights better than me.

In response to being called a boy, the Morris campaign relied on its main theme of returning dignity to the mayor’s office, and in the coming weeks, it surely will broaden its message, recognizing that leadership is about much more than mere dignity.

Game Of Volleys

But there was another target for Mayor Herenton’s volleys. They were also directed at those working to convince Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton to enter the race for city mayor. There was a time when Mayor Wharton was the lawyer for Mayor Herenton with the issues involving his relationship with a city school teacher while he was school superintendent. In addition, Mayor Wharton served as campaign manager for Mayor Herenton in early mayoral elections.

Polls indicate that Mayor Wharton has the highest approval rating of any elected official in Memphis, and if he could be convinced to run, the closeness of the past relationship between the mayors portends a campaign that would be especially personal and hostile. Polling show Mayor Wharton besting Mayor Herenton in a theoretical campaign, but it’s much too early for these kinds of straw polls to mean much.

These days, there is a distance between the two most powerful political camps in the city, and the prospects of such a race between them enlivens political junkies. Whether it takes place or not, Mayor Herenton has already signaled that this year, he’s in a fight to the death.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Real Leadership Is Putting The City's Interest First

The Joseph Lee fiasco has become political theater, but at the end of what is now destined to be a three-act play, the ending will be the same.

Mr. Lee will exit stage right.

The die is cast, and while Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton tries to wring every ounce of political gain out of it, it becomes just a sad spectacle for our city.

F In Math

Here’s the political calculus of the mayor’s advisors in explaining the reason for his refusal to accept Mr. Lee's resignation:

1) As long as MLGW is in the news, so is Herman Morris, the former utility president who recently announced as a candidate for city mayor, and some of the mud that splatters on Mr. Lee will also hit Mr. Morris;

2) Mayor Herenton can’t appear to cave in to pressure from Council members like Carol Chumney, also a candidate in the upcoming election for mayor;

3)If Mayor Herenton removes Mr. Lee now, it only emphasizes that it was a bad decision to give him the job in the first place and after dismissing Mr. Morris; and

4)This is a red meat issue for the mayor’s base, who responds favorably to his refusal to bow to the power structure, and the undertow that this is a white-directed conspiracy to take down a prominent African-American leader and it is led by a favorite old scapegoat, The Commercial Appeal.

It’s A Matter Of Time

In the end, the advisors reason, Mr. Lee will likely have to leave his MLGW job any way, but it will at a time and place of the mayor’s choosing. And that will happen only after more time has passed, the air has cleared and the mayor proves that he cowers to no one.

We admit that math was never our best subject, but as far as political calculus, none of this adds up to us. In the end, in doing this, the message the mayor sends is that he puts his personal political gain ahead of the best interests of Memphis.

Even if Mayor Herenton is making points with his base, he is, at the same time, hardening the opposition by those who see him as divisive, obstinate, erratic and imperious, driving up his seriously climbing negatives even more. For the first time in his 16 years as our city’s top elected official, he is politically vulnerable, and polls show devastating problems with white voters and growing erosion of African-American support.

It's way too early for straw polls to mean much, but the fact that he's not fared well in recent ones when pitted against potential candidates could foreshadow a major shift in our political landscape.

The Witching Hour

The comment that illustrates his political strategy perfectly is when he blamed the firestorm of criticism about Mr. Lee’s performance at MLGW as a “witch hunt.”

To use his metaphor, if it is a witch hunt, it is because Mr. Lee himself admitted to being a witch. The attempt to paint Mr. Lee as a victim of media savaging makes about as much sense as blaming Britney Spears’ hairdresser for her baldness.

The mayor seems to forget that the media didn’t decide that Mr. Lee was guilty of special treatment for City Councilman Edmund Ford. Mr. Lee admitted it himself in the delivery of a prepared statement following his testimony to the federal grand jury that seemed more like a perp walk than public contrition. Meanwhile, rumbling inside MLGW about other revelations suggest that the controversy if far from over.

In the end, the mayor needs to quit reading The Commercial Appeal and answer his office phone. It’s not reporters who are mad, discouraged and disdainful. It is the public. He ignores that seminal fact at his own peril.

I And I

What the mayor needs to remember is that everything isn’t about him. More precisely, this is about restoring public confidence in a public utility that only a few years ago was one of Memphis’ proudest success stories. Surely, there is at least one thing that can rise above the normal political machinations of City Hall, and shouldn’t MLGW it?

After all, this isn’t Mayor Herenton’s utility company. It isn’t Mr. Lee’s. It is the public’s.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what your think of Mr. Lee. All of us who know him like him, but what matters most now is that Mr. Lee can no longer perform his duties as president. Mayor Herenton admitted as much when he blamed the controversy on internal sabotage at MLGW. Of course, the simplest way to have thwarted internal sabotage was to treat Councilman Ford like every other MLGW customer and cut off his electricity. You really can’t complain if someone shoots you after you've loaded the gun for them.

A Salvage Operation

Most of all, Mayor Herenton has done Mr. Lee a disservice. Yesterday, Mr. Lee tried to do the honorable thing and resign. It was a wise thing to do to salvage his reputation and continue his career in Memphis.

He had the opportunity to show that he understands the depths of the damage being done to MLGW and that he would do what’s right for the utility. In refusing to accept his resignation, Mayor Herenton has set up Mr. Lee for the day when he will be forced out, and at that point, Mr. Lee will not have the good will that would have greeted his resignation yesterday.

Of course, if Mr. Lee really wants to resign, there it is dependent on the mayor accepting it. Even in City Hall, indentured servitude is against the law.

There’s still time for Mr. Lee to salvage things, and he does that by resigning outright. If he really wants to serve the mayor best, he would do it because only then would he protect the mayor from himself.

An Authentic Sense Of Place: This Week On Smart City

Authenticity is one of those qualities that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it - or feel it. We're going to explore its meaning and its application to places this week with James Gilmore and Scott Russell Sanders.

Jim Gilmore is the man who, with his partner Joe Pine, introduced the idea of The Experience Economy. Now, Jim believes the next big idea for business is authenticity. And he believes the same may be true for cities. Jim and Joe run the business consultancy, Strategic Horizons and he is a Batten Fellow at The Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia.

From his vantage point as a writer and Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University, Scott Russell Sanders has challenged the "brand and bland" direction of our communities and urges us to re-discover what makes each one special. Scott's latest book is A Private History of Awe, which is a coming-of-age memoir, love story, and spiritual testament.

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, March 01, 2007

Addressing The Real Problem For Memphians Is A Taxing Challenge

It is inevitable.

It comes in every meeting talking about the future of Memphis or in every committee discussing solutions to current problems. It’s the “consolidation moment,” the time when someone holds up the merger of city and county governments as the answer to all that ails our city.

Few issues are discussed as much. Few topics are as much fiction as fact.

A few years ago, a local corporate leader, speaking to Leadership Memphis, singled out the lack of consolidated city/county government as the primary reason Memphis isn’t keeping pace with cities like Nashville, Indianapolis, Dallas, Houston, Charlotte, and Atlanta.


Actually, only two of the six cities he mentioned even had consolidated governments, but so pervasive is the myth of consolidation that no one in the audience corrected him, because every one assumed that every city has it but ours.

The truth is that most cities operate – and compete - with a government structure precisely the same as ours. There are 3,066 counties in the U.S., and only 35 have consolidated governments. In fact, of the 100 largest cities in the U.S., only nine have merged governments in the past century.

In Tennessee, there have been 20 referenda to consolidate governments since 1958. Only three passed, and only one of these was in a major urban center – Nashville/Davidson County. Campaigns for consolidated government failed twice in Memphis, four times in Knoxville, and twice in Chattanooga. (Interestingly, school consolidation – the third rail of suburban politics here – took place in every metro area but Shelby County.)

Simplicity In Shelby

With rejections outnumbering approvals by about three to one across the U.S., it’s surprising that such weight is given to consolidation as the panacea to our problems. Part of the answer springs from its simple logic: it eliminates expensive duplication, it increases efficiency, it creates a unified vision of the future, it aligns resources behind that vision, and it improves accountability by clearly assigning responsibility.

Those in favor of consolidation often complain that our local government structure is hopelessly complex. However, there are only eight governments in Shelby County. St. Louis County has more cities than that bordering just its airport, there are 130 different governments in Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), and in Louisville, even after consolidation, there are more than 90 units of government. In fact, a recent study of 35 major U.S. metros with the most units of government ranked Memphis 32nd, which should suggest a rich potential for cooperative governmental arrangements in lieu of merger.

Often consolidation itself becomes a formidable barrier to that kind of cooperation. Its leading proponent is Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton, whose calls for consolidation are as dependable as the lack of follow through. His support enflames armies of suburbanites against it, and that’s problematic, because if consolidation is to occur, voters inside Memphis must approve it in a tally of only their votes, and the same goes for voters outside of Memphis.

Suburban Cowboys

Ironically, it’s conceivable that suburban antipathy toward Herenton could be used to produce something unimaginable in the past – support for consolidation. That’s because voters there could come to see a vote for consolidation as the political equivalent of shooting Herenton’s horse out from underneath him by eliminating his city mayor’s office.

That said, its chances are still slim, and because of it, consolidation is often a distraction from pressing problems that can be addressed whether it takes place or not - like the disparity in the tax burden between the citizens of Memphis and those in the other six cities of Shelby County. Now, Memphians pay a disincentive to live inside the city limits, and it makes little sense that they pay more to provide services that benefit the entire county.

That’s why a more pertinent question facing Memphis isn’t how to onsolidate government, but how to equalize the tax burden in Shelby County? Former Memphis CAO Rick Masson, who possessed a clear-eyed understanding of his city’s challenges and a passion for attacking them, made a stab at it in the late 1990’s, but ran headlong into a largely uncaring county administration.

The Right Focus

Masson’s idea was to shift public services that are regionwide – such as parks, museums, education, libraries, education, arenas, and public transit – to the regionwide tax base of Shelby County. In this way, Memphis’ combined tax rate could move down from its current combined rate of $7.47 to something more in line with Germantown’s $5.63.

These days, there’s a more sympathetic partner in Shelby County Government - Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton. His administration possesses an enlightened self-interest about the importance of a strong Memphis to its own financial health. Better yet, it possesses a clearer understanding of its role as the regional government, and that’s a good place to begin a journey toward a tax structure that makes more sense, with or without consolidation.