Monday, July 30, 2007
In response to the post, we were asked by several people what the governor could do.
The answer: Pretty much anything he wants to do.
That’s because the law gives Governor Phil Bredesen a sweeping array of alternatives, ranging from reduced funding to abolishing the Memphis City Schools Board.
At this point, it’s worth remembering, especially by those who describe the possibility of state takeover of these schools as “draconian,” that Memphis City Schools has had four years to correct problems at these schools.
It’s not as if a warning shot wasn’t ever fired by state government. In fact, shots were fired year after year, and even in the wake of them, state officials feel that Memphis City Schools’ officials are not serious enough about the actions needed to turn around the performance of these schools.
You Say You Want A Revolution
Reports from our district to the state resisting any changes in school leadership or jargon-laden plans that lack any strategic thread are doing nothing in Nashville so much as indicating that the Memphis district wants to appear like it’s taking action without really doing anything too revolutionary.
And yet, the revolution is at hand.
Options For The Gov
As a result of these schools moving from “improvement” to “corrective action,” the governor must pick at least one of the following options:
* He defers programmatic funds or reduce administrative funds
* He institutes and fully implements a new curriculum that is based on state academic standards, including providing appropriate scientifically-based professional development
* He replaces the Memphis City Schools employees who are relevant to the failure to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)
* He removes particular schools from the control of the Memphis City Schools and sets up alternative arrangements for the public governance and supervision of these schools
* He appoints a receiver or trustee in place of the Memphis City School Board
* He abolishes or restructures the entire city district
So, in the face of these kinds of pending decisions, how does the Memphis City Schools Board send its most powerful message to Governor Phil Bredesen about their commitment to changing things?
Apparently, by appointing a former school district administrator who’s promised to make no changes and fire no one.
Can you say caretaker?
The school board seem oblivious to the need to send strong signals from Memphis to state officials about how serious they take the matter of these 17 schools.
One of the worst aspects of serving in stressful public positions in highly-charged environments, and this is especially true of school board members, is that in the midst of the battle, you are often able to convince yourself that what you are doing makes sense and you lose all ability to see how your decisions look to the outside world.
Because school board members now find themselves in the middle of the trees and unable to see the forest, they can’t grasp the common sense of getting help from an independent search firm, of finding an interim superintendent who can be an agent of change who builds on the progress started by Supt. Carol Johnson and of getting businesslike about the public’s business.
And because of it, it appears that the most effective leadership for public education in Memphis this year may well come from 210 miles to the east.
Sunday, July 29, 2007
The current archetype for this tendency is taking place at the National Civil Rights Museum, where, 16 years after being ousted, its former chairman of the board is still warring with those in charge of Memphis’ most nationally known museum.
The fact that it is a one-sided war makes it no less of a distraction for the museum at a time when it should to be dealing with its competitive position in light of a proliferation of African-American heritage museums in the U.S.
Déjà Vu All Over Again
While Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey has railed about his rejection as chairman since the 1991 vote, he has a new platform for complaints this year in light of the potential for state government to exercise the option to turn over ownership of the museum to the Lorraine Civil Rights Museum Foundation, whose board has been chaired by civil rights giant Benjamin Hooks since Judge Bailey’s removal.
The foundation has been leasing the museum from the state since groundbreaking for the $8.8 million project in 1987. The museum opened in 1991, and by then, the most dependable facts of life about it were the quality of its exhibits and the rancor that was a regular feature in its board meetings.
In the end, the vote of no confidence for Judge Bailey resulted more from the tone of the meetings and the constant conflict than it did from any fundamental differences of opinion about the future direction of the National Civil Rights Museum.
An Old Conversation
An aspiring actor who’s appeared in several Memphis-based movie productions, Judge Bailey’s script these days suggests that his demise stemmed from a take-over by corporate interests led by local civic leader J.R. Hyde III. Of course, often overlooked in the retelling is the fact that Mr. Hyde only had one vote, and it was a majority of the board that voted to remove Judge Bailey from office.
The vote did nothing to affect Judge Bailey’s board membership, but his immediate resignation from that post eliminated his best platform for have a voice in the life of the museum. Like all of us, Judge Bailey’s strengths are also his weaknesses, and the passion and outspoken opinions that he brings to his civic activities weren’t necessarily the skills needed for an effective board chair.
Repeated today in terms that sound more like control and politics, the complaints by the judge feel more and more stuck in a time warp. In casting the issue as a power struggle for the board, he appeals to populist ideas like reconstituting the board to be dominated by civil rights, labor, African-American legal and legislative members.
Wrong And Wrong
The fact that it’s the wrong question at the wrong time may indicate why it immediately attracted the support of Tennessee Representative Joe Towns Jr., who shares Judge Bailey’s incredulous notion that corporations are dominating decisions about the museum’s future.
The right questions to be asking are the ones facing every African-American heritage museums these days: How do we succeed in an increasingly more competitive world? How do we develop new sources of revenue and get more people to the ticket booth? How do we get into the top tier of museums and attract more corporate and philanthropic support?
It’s as if the critics give the board of directors of the National Civil Rights Museum no credit for the accomplishments over the years: the expansion of the Freedom Awards and the international legends attracted to Memphis to accept it each year, the ability to balance the budget and increase revenues without any state operational funding for 13 years, the designation by USA Today as one of 10 national treasures, one of only three U.S. museums named to the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience, one of only three African-American museums accredited by American Association of Museums and the 12,800-foot expansion of the museum in 2002.
In the parlance of the judge, in this case, the burden of proof rests with the complainant. In the context of similar museums, the record of the National Civil Rights Museum is an object of envy. Several African-American heritage museums and sites have shut down, more have revenue shortfalls that have caused cutbacks in staff and services and even more are saddled with debt and declining attendance.
More Cities Taking The Plunge
And yet, more and more cities – most notably Cincinnati with the $110 million Underground Railroad Museum and Louisville’s $75 million Muhammad Ali Center – have opened major black attractions, and even more are planning huge investments in hopes of grabbing a foothold in African-American tourism.
Atlanta has plans for a $100 million, 100,000 square foot civil rights and human rights center (adjacent to Georgia Aquarium) that will house the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., bought last year for $32 million by Atlanta leaders; $200 million National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, VA; $70 million International African-American Museum in Charleston, SC, and the $500 million Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Even Nashville is getting into the game with a proposal for a Museum of African-American Music, Art and Culture.
In 1991, when the National Civil Rights Museum opened, it was largely thought in Nashville that it would only be a matter of time before the State of Tennessee would be forced to take over operations of the museum because it was assumed that it would be dependent on state funding to stay open.
And yet, with only nominal financial support for the Museum from state government (no operating funds for the past 13 years and only $1 million in the 2002 expansion), its board and staff have cultivated private, corporate and philanthropic funding for operating costs and capital investments.
The opening of the National Civil Rights Museum on the site of the assassination of Dr. King was a major reason for the burst of interest in African-American heritage sites. There’s never been a more competitive environment for the National Civil Rights Museum, and because of it, this continuing controversy about 1991 is about more than political theater. More to the point, it has the potential to divert attention from the real priorities of the museum and to damage its national reputation.
Right now, Memphis needs to step up to develop and implement a plan of action that ratifies and strengthens the past success of the museum and defines it as such a nationally unique place that it stays in the top rungs of the nation’s African-American museums.
The Real Question
Today, newer museums are known for their interactive technology, their digital experience and their up-to-date exhibitry. No one can compete with the National Civil Rights Museum on history. But the staff and board understand that the museum also has to live up to visitors’ expectations, and they’re investigating the best ways to do this.
It’s hard to make the case that the present board hasn’t earned the right to make it happen.
Friday, July 27, 2007
Exploring what it means to be a Creative City has been a regular topic on Smart City. This week we'll visit with Lynda Dorrington who is leading her own creative city movement in Perth, an isolated city on the west coast of Australia. Lynda is executive director of FORM, a craft organization serving Western Australia and the platform from which she has launched a much bigger creative capital initiative.
We'll also talk to Dan Himmelberg, an architect turned workshop leader. His firm, Xpress Ideas, uses innovative methods to gather public opinion to create good design solutions, long range planning and programming. Dan's base is Overland Park, Kansas.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, July 26, 2007
The irony is that vibrancy often stems from small-scale, organic activities like those organized in Memphis by Lantana Projects.
Propelled by the goal of making art appear in surprising places, the group recently unveiled an outdoor art installation by 54-year-old Amsterdam artist Eric Knoote as part of a month-long residency in Memphis.
“From the Underground Up” was installed on the side of a building at a major downtown intersection, Main and Jefferson, and it features a number of mirrored flowers reflecting outward into the neighborhood.
It seems to symbolize Lantana’s approach to art – taking it to the street, producing “art-based events” rather than “art exhibits.” Recently, its members have even thrown in some “guerilla gardening” as they set out flower plants – what else but lantanas – to beautify previously dreary public space.
From artwork in new condos up for sale to the engaging “emerging artists show” and “Class of ’06” shows, complete with d.j.’s, Lantana is shaking up the way that people look at art. More than 1,000 people attended the “Clas of ‘06” show in two nights. Also, it maintains a lively blog on what’s happening in arts to make it more accessible and ubiquitous in the life of the city.
Working Without A Net
The young organization normally operates without a net – and precious little financial support - and yet, the energy and animation from its events pay big dividends for downtown Memphis.
Founded as a way to connect Memphis with cutting-edge contemporary artists from other countries, Lantana is now creating a virtual community for Memphians, particularly young artists, to talk about ways to achieve their goal of making “Memphis a city of vitality and creativity, and consequently, act as a magnet for talent.”
The international artists residency program remains the centerpiece for the organization, which refuses to yield in its belief that by tapping into international trends, they can also shake up their hometown and make it a leader in contemporary international art.
Music Is Art
She shrugs off suggestions that in a city with a storied music history, it’s hard to find traction for Lantana. “Memphis can embrace its rich cultural history and still embrace contemporary organizations, because they are complementary, not incongruous,” said Elizabeth Lemmonds, Lantana Projects executive director.
These days, Lantana is trying to connect better with the community. “We want to reach out to other organizations and to all sections of the city,” said executive director Elizabeth Lemmonds. “We trying to align with the goals of the Memphis Manifesto Summit and show that art doesn’t have to go only in predictable places.”
That’s why she and her colleagues especially like guerrilla art shows – the kind of art in unexpected places – that’s their passion, she said. “Art doesn’t have to be in a gallery. It doesn’t have to be in a certain place. It can be found when someone turns a corner and bumps into it.”
Looking Beyond Ourselves
She rallies a community of believers who pay attention “to what’s going on in other cities.” “If you say you want to be part of a global community, you need to pay attention to what’s going on in other places,” she said. “And you have to look for opportunities that are good fortune. Someone told us that a friend of his, a Dutch artist (Eric Knoote), was coming to Memphis. We approached him about doing a public project, a lasting piece at a visible downtown corner. It brought the community together. It was community-based and community-backed.”
In talking about what’s important for her organization, she could just as easily be talking about what’s important for cities. “I’m 35-years-old, and I don’t do the same thing that I did as a 21-year-old,” she said. “So, I don’t speak for young people. We need to ask them what they want. If we’re trying to build a legion, it needs to be around what’s important to them. It’s about becoming common ground for a discussion with artists about how we can come together.”
Echoing the recent words of John Seeley Brown in a speech to Leadership Memphis, she adds: “If you want to be a leader, go to the fringes and see the people pushing things forward. They are taking chances. That’s what we have to do, too.”
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
As he once put it, he set out to be one and he’s gotten awfully good at it.
For almost 35 years, he has upbraided mayors, disabused city and county engineers of any notion that they are godlike and lived the life of a pariah at hundreds of public meetings he attended.
But last Friday, he sat in the audience and led the applause as his beloved Shelby Farms Park finally was preserved once and for all for future generations.
It was a long time coming, but the anticipation only made the satisfaction sweeter, he said. The lesson to the rest of us: sometimes it is the rebel, the squeaky wheel and the in-your-face advocate who is a key in making something historic happen.
For him, it all began in 1973 when Shelby County Government announced plans to use a 4,500-acre tract of public land at the heart of the Memphis region for a planned development. The outcry was immediate, and in time, county officials backed down after a firestorm of criticism, saying that the land would be “set aside for public use.”
In the ensuing years, that “public use” included proposals for a zoo, a golf course and conference center, baseball stadium and community college; for selling off some of the land to pay for park development and for running a major highway through the heart of the park. Every time, Mr. Wolff was there leading the opposition, ratcheting up the heat and demanding for the land to be protected.
Today, about 3,000 acres is largely as it was in 1973. About 1,000 acres is being used by Agricenter International, which signed on to the conservancy agreement and maintains control of the area earmarked for agricultural research and as a showcase for innovation.
Sitting in the audience Friday with fellow elderly activists, Ken and Lois Kuiken, Mr. Wolff understood it was a day for dignitaries and speeches. To some in the room, it was also a day to celebrate a fact of life about cities that is too often forgotten – one person can still make a difference.
In what seemed a direct response to questions asked by Mr. Wolff and others since the mid-1970s, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton said: “Today is about more than the signing of this important conservancy agreement. More to the point, it’s county government’s answers to two questions first asked 34 years ago and every year since.
“Today we deliver two answers: One, Shelby Farms Park is now and forever preserved and protected for all future generations of this county, and two, through this conservancy, Shelby Farms Park will be transformed into one of America’s great urban parks.”
Effective August 1, the newly formed, 34-person Shelby Farms Park Conservancy will take charge of the operations, management and leadership of Shelby Farms Park. The nonprofit group will lead the development of a masterplan of national importance and will raise local and national funding to implement the plan, and it will operate all concessions, set all fees and make all decisions about the parkland. In addition, Shelby County Government agreed to keep its funding at its current level.
History In The Making
Success on the conservancy was a major victory for Mayor Wharton’s style of leadership, the quiet influence of the Hyde Family Foundations on all things Memphis and the grassroots group, Friends of Shelby Farms Park, that morphed from an anti-everything organization into the platform for a new organization, Shelby Farms Park Alliance, that built consensus for the new direction for the park.
An earlier effort – in 2002 – had failed after it turned into a political controversy more related to old political grievances than the merits of the actual proposal. Bruised and beaten, advocates for protecting the park regrouped, developed a new plan of action, recalibrated its message, communicated its vision and slowly and methodically put together a new collaboration of supporters over the past four years.
There were milestones of progress as the pace quickened in recent years. The highly intrusive plans for the highway through the park were scrapped, replaced by the area’s first context sensitive design committee appointed by Mayor Wharton. After about a year of give and take, the committee produced a new road recommendation that balances transportation and environmental concerns.
The Stars Aligned
Building on that momentum, after decades of resisting a conservation easement for the park, county government signaled its interest in an agreement between key players at the park, and an easement was approved last December. The newfound optimism was warranted, because on March 26, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners – led by Commissioner Mike Carpenter – overwhelmingly voted in favor of the conservancy.
First items on the conservancy agenda are to hire someone to lead the master planning process and to hire staff for the new organization. Faced with the opportunity to convert a black canvas of 3,000 acres of parkland into a great urban park, there should be no shortage of interest.
Mayor Wharton said that over the past four years, time and time again, the right person emerged at just the right time to move things ahead. As he spoke, it was hard for us not to think of Laura Adams.
Over that time, as progress was often measured in inches, small victories and the change of a word in an official document, she worked skillfully as president of Friends of Shelby Farms Park. Quickly, she became known for her diplomacy, persistence and commitment to success.
In time, her explanations about what could be accomplished at the park were taken up by every one involved, and in time, she convinced her members that there was a better way to succeed than the regular confrontations which had defined the group for decades.
To prove her point, she convinced the members to shift gears and she guided them to a more modulated attitude, reaching for compromise and ultimately, becoming a totally different, more business-oriented organization, the Shelby Farms Park Alliance, where she was named as executive director. That group now disbands and give the Conservancy its support and help.
In truth, she was another contribution that Mr. Wolff made to protect the park. After all, Mrs. Adams is his daughter.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Memphis Tourism Foundation is launching its first website in a few days and along with it, a new approach to improving the opinion of Memphians about Memphis.
It’s a total departure, because rather than fall back on the bumper stickers and slogans of most self-image campaigns, the Foundation is asking citizens of Memphis to define the program themselves through their own videos, photographs, music, insiders guides and blogs.
While the Foundation was forming its agenda, Paul O’Connor, executive director of World Business Chicago, agreed to speak in Memphis about city branding. He emphasized that the first audience for any city brand is its own people, who are often much more negative about their city than outsiders.
“Stereotypes come face-to-face with perceptions,” he said. “Branding is hard for a product, and for a city, it’s very, very yard. We see our warts and our problems and we think everyone sees them. Locals are too critical of themselves.”Mr. O’Connor also delivered a warning about cities relying on taglines and slogans when they have not come to grips with their higher purpose.
Because Memphis is only now considering a branding project, the Tourism Foundation decided that in lieu of bumper stickers, it would ask Memphians to offer their own personal opinions.For examples, Memphians are asked to submit a photograph of their city, but not just any photo.
“We’re asking that people send in a photograph that answers one question: If you could only send someone one photograph that represented your Memphis and why you love it, what would it be?” said Calvin Taylor, who is heading up the Foundation as vice-president of its parent organization, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
In addition, the Foundation is soliciting short videos from Memphians completing a sentence that begins, “This is my Memphis because…”
To jump start the videos, Christopher Reyes of Live From Memphis and My Memphis TV is sharing his interviews with about three dozen young professionals telling what they like most about the city.
The interviews are featured in a special DVD produced in response to a recommendation of the Memphis Talent Magnet Report, which concluded that if Memphis is to attract 25-34 year-olds successfully, the most convincing stories would be peer-to-peer. The DVD is widely used by Memphis recruiters to sell the city to young workers.
In addition, the Foundation website is posting insiders guides to Memphis, starting with “Memphis: It’s More Than You Think.”
In setting a goal to improve the city’s self-image, the website is now recruiting bloggers to write about music, clubs, art and culture and dining, and Memphis’ young professionals organization, MPACT Memphis, is helping out.
To round out its internal image agenda, the Tourism Foundation will soon release a CD to prove that Memphis’ legendary music is not all in its past. Drawing on its healthy live music scene, the foundation has asked some of the city’s leading bands to reinterpret Memphis classic songs as a way of connecting the past to the present.
The Tourism Foundation has set an ambitious agenda in three priority areas - workforce development, internal image and research and advocacy – but its board members have placed a special priority on improving the city’s self-image.
As Mr. Taylor said, “We’ve decided that rather than try to tell our citizens what we think they should feel about Memphis, we want them to tell each other and hopefully create a buzz about the cool, funky aspect of our nature.”
Monday, July 23, 2007
Dr. Aaron Shafer represents the talent that so many cities are concentrated on attracting, but for now, Memphis has him.
He’s a post-doctoral fellow working as a scientist in the labs of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where he’s part of its internationally respected research in molecular immunology.
This much we know in Memphis: St. Jude’s is one of our strongest magnets for talent, attracting hundreds of the smartest scientists in the world to research the molecular and genetic basis for catastrophic diseases in children.
Praying For Change
Because of the post-doc fellows and the internationally known scientists that are drawn to the hospital, more is known these days for its scientific breakthroughs than for its origins in a prayer to the patron saint of lost causes by legendary comedian Danny Thomas.
And yet, Dr. Shafer continues that tradition, too. These days, he’s praying for a skate park in downtown Memphis.
His work on the skate park is a reminder for Memphis as it tries to do better in attracting young professionals: Sometimes, it’s not the mega-project, but the smaller projects – that generate activity and vibrancy – that offer the most immediate returns on investment with this coveted demographic.
Man On A Mission
For seven months, Memphis officials have debated whether to build a new football stadium – at a cost estimated at between $175 and $300 million – while the grassroots campaign mounted by Dr. Shafer and two St. Jude colleagues, Dr. Steve Zatechka and Dr. Zachary Baquet, has been slow to attract official attention at a fraction of the cost – probably about $3 million.
Dr. Shafer is a man on a mission – owing to the childhood example of his father, an Episcopalian minister, and his own interest in helping kids - and he sees the skate park as a place where the spirit of community is strengthened.
When he thinks about Memphis, he draws inspiration from his work with cells. “The complexity of how cells work creates an appreciation for how cities operate,” he said. “Cells are like cities in that what appears to be a series of insignificant collisions and interactions lend themselves to a productive order of things.
Cells And Cities
“To me, it strongly parallels how a city works. Layered in them are checkpoints, and it’s in finding these key events, often obscure, that leads us to understand how a cell works. Similarly, it leads to how a city works.”
Referring to cells as “community-minded entities,” Dr. Shafer said they “respond to external enrichment and never operate by themselves. A successful cell is tightly regulated but at the same time is completely free. When it is no longer regulated, or sensitive to its environment, cancer results. The same happens in cities.”
All of this led Dr. Shafer – a California expatriate who missed the camaraderie of surfing – to see a skate park as more than a place for recreation. To him, it can be the place where people come together, form bonds and strengthen the city itself. Or put another way, it’s a place where seemingly insignificant events have the potential to improve the city itself.
Fighting For An Idea
In support of the skate park, he’s set up a website and regularly blogs on the impact that a park can have on the lives of Memphis youths. “Long-term plans for this facility not only promote Memphis as a recreationally rich city, but to use it as a vehicle for community-building and reconciliation between two cultures,” he writes.
These days, he’s attracting key supporters – Hyde Family Foundations, Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and Memphis Division of Parks – and his vision for a skate park in downtown Memphis on the riverfront is picking up steam. Soon, he’s hoping for a feasibility study to be undertaken for the potential site and for a design that would make the park the largest of its kind in the U.S.
Along the way to this point, he’s learned that cells and cities are alike in other ways. Most of all, the same patience and persistence that bring success in the laboratory are needed for anyone who sets out to change things in cities.
More about this issue later this week.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
This is fun. Get your neighborhood's walkability score here. Just log in with your address. Super simple.
My current Chicago neighborhood scores a 67 out of 100 (no doubt due to too little retail in the immediate vicinity, but plenty within my walking distance -- we're only 17 minutes on foot to Michigan Avenue), but my soon to be neighborhood scores a 93. (One obvious problem with the scoring: Info comes from Google maps which are not always up to date. The Borders across my new location, for instance, is not included in the bookstore listing.)
My downtown Memphis neighborhood scores an 80.
“Leadership is about telling stories,” he said to this year’s class of Leadership Memphis.
We were reminded of his advice in light of our past week’s discussion about great mayors, because in his job, Mr. Bergstrom works with one of them, Providence Mayor David Cicilline.
In recent years, Providence has made impressive strides in turning around the city, reducing crime, reforming government, using technology to track public services and more. The Rhode Island Economic Policy Council helps to set the agenda for the city through its work as honest broker of economic development data and as a think tank identifying emerging trends affecting Providence.
“We tell stories using data,” said Mr. Bergstrom, heading up an organization with an uncanny ability to find just the right data to modulate Providence's courses of action. “The right kind of story at the right time can make organizations – and cities – vulnerable to new ideas. Story telling is one of the best ways to change a city.”
In his position, he concentrates on three priorities: 1) improving the business climate, 2) enhancing quality of place, and 3) increasing change for innovation.
Play To Win
But he acknowledges that every city should be working on these goals so they do nothing to differentiate Providence. “These days too many cities play not to lose, rather than playing to win,” he said. We’re figuring out what we need to play and then we figure out what we need to do to win.”
Cities need to take a Wayne Gretzky approach to its economic growth. He said when the ice hockey legend was asked the secret to his success, his answer was, “‘Some skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck will be.’ Cities that succeed are skating to where the puck is, and today, that means they are creating an ethos of innovation.”
Like Memphis, Providence faces challenges with the performance of its public schools. “In K-12, the schools are doing exactly what they were designed to do – creating an industrial workforce. The only problem: there is no industrial economy, but we’re still educating graduates for jobs that don’t exist any more.”
Innovate Or Die
That’s why the mantra for cities today is “innovate or face precipitous decline.” He said that Memphis Bioworks Foundation’s success in marrying medical devices with logistics is a well-known national model of innovation.
“Cities that have innovation-ready workers will succeed,” Mr. Bergstrom said. “The end game is for our workers to develop skills so they can offload rules work to free up pattern recognition skills.”
In advice particularly relevant to Memphis, he said that the frontline workers on which the service economy is built must be the focus of innovation strategies. “After all, they are delivering the experience for our customers,” he said.
Because growth of the national economy is being driven by immigration, he said that “The first city to figure out the ways to turn immigrants into knowledge workers win the game. Is there any reason this shouldn’t be Memphis or Providence?”
One potential trouble spot is the “collision course between low literacy Latinos and the innovation economy.”
Another issue of importance is regionalism, because regional answers are needed for the toughest problems facing urban areas. However, he cautions that regionalism is not the magic cure for all that ails cities.
“The beginning of regionalism is not the end of rivalry,” he said. “Rivalry can be good for a region. Regions gain consciousness from outside in. In other worse, Boston will not ‘get’ the region first. Providence will.”
So, if the theme of Mr. Bergstrom’s message is that leaders tell stories and innovation is the key to whether cities succeed, it leaves us with some deafening questions:
Why are our stories about snakes and sex plots?
Who is best able to tell the kinds of story that can inspire Memphians and promise the
best hope of success for Memphis?
Who understands and is prepared to lead a city of innovation?
Friday, July 20, 2007
Bereft of positions that don’t seem to spring from a political place, the board is creating the perception that it’s incapable of asking the kind of strategic questions that have to be answered if the district is to build momentum for change.
But they better address them, because more and more, the Bredesen Administration signals that it has no such reticence. In fact, lack of confidence in Nashville that Memphis City Schools can solve its problems has reached the point that one key education official said the progress of the Superintendent Carol Johnson era is “smoke and mirrors.”
It seems an unusually harsh assessment, but it does suggest the depths of frustration that state officials have reached in their discussions with the superintendent and her key staff about the 17 schools whose lack of progress over several years opens up the prospect for state takeover.
In particular, state officials assessing the governor’s options are dismayed at Memphis City Schools’ inability to produce some basic reports with the kind of data needed for routine management of a school district. One state official went so far as to say that Carroll County (in rural West Tennessee) does a better job of collecting data about its students, capacities, performance and trends.
“You’d never known that you’re in a major urban school district,” said one person during a recent visit to Memphis before delivering the cruelest cut of all: “We can’t imagine how anybody in leadership in Memphis has been making any kind of informed decisions based on the information that we’ve seen.”
Culture Trumps Strategy Every Day
It’s all a little reminiscent of the consultant who only a few years ago found vital personnel records kept on index cards by Memphis City Schools. Despite some technological improvements, HR polices of the district remain needlessly bureaucratic and unimaginative.
The district can’t seem to get even the simple things right. Case in point: teacher orientation sessions last week started three hours after the announced time and based on reports, it was most notable by its basic ineffectiveness.
Worst of all, most of this information - particularly conversations with state officials - are only slowly finding their way to board members whose grumbling aggravation is replacing the lovefest of only a few weeks ago when Dr. Johnson announced her departure for the green pastures of Boston.
Sending A Message
With board attitudes souring and with state officials asking increasingly hostile questions, it’s beginning to look like Dr. Johnson can’t get to Beantown soon enough. Already, the so-called palace guard is beginning to scatter, seemingly accepting the premise that their futures won’t be as part of Memphis City Schools.
As for Governor Bredesen, he’s given the clearest possible marching orders. He’s not interested in political expediency or in conclusions tempered for public consumptions. It's a message sent unequivocally in a report, as yet uncirculated, shared by the state with the superintendent's office.
Rather, state officials says he’s got a “take no prisoners” attitude about Memphis City Schools, and as a result, rumors swirl in district offices to the extreme, such as the one this week that the governor will soon swoop in and take over the entire district.
Game Of Chicken
While Governor Bredesen has shown that he’s not too far removed from his days as a hard-nosed businessman willing to make the tough calls, it’s hard to imagine that his Department of Education is doing anything to encourage such a comprehensive approach by him. After all, DOE has played games with state regulations for years to stall the inevitability of Memphis City Schools’ lack of progress with the 17 schools.
That said, this much is clear. DOE won’t make the final call; the governor will.
That’s why state officials are frantically investigating options, including the possibility of assigning the management of the schools to the University of Memphis.
So far, Bredesen representatives suspect that the district believes that the state is just rattling its saber and will never take over the 17 schools. At this point, irritable and frustrated by discussions at Memphis City Schools and by requests for information that never comes, state officials are increasingly sending a message not fully comprehended yet on Avery Street.
To the district’s “you’d never do it” attitude, the state is increasing saying: Just try us. The question is whether anybody's listening at Memphis City Schools.
That's what Portlanders are doing, and it's paying big dividends for their city. Joe Cortright, economist with Impresa Consulting, will tell us about the calculations he's made that produce Portland's Green Dividend.
We'll also find out from Jon Herrmann and Josh Sevin about Philadelphia's comprehensive program to attract top college students...introduce them to the city while in school and hang on to them once they graduate. Jon heads Campus Philly, an organization that promotes active involvement of students with the city's social, civic, and professional communities. Josh is the Manager of Knowledge Industry Initiatives for Philadelphia's Department of Commerce.
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, July 19, 2007
We’re hard-pressed to think of any recent enterprise reporting that’s more impressive than Memphis Flyer reporter Chris Davis’s coverage of Memphis Light, Gas & Water’s troubled investment in Networx.
Methodically, he has connected dot after dot until the entire the Byzantine story is coming into focus, a story of interconnected people, conflicts of interests and conflicting loyalties to the public utility and the private company.In a prize-worthy series of stories, Mr. Davis has built the story brick by brick in a way that pays tribute to the role that the alternative press can play in a city like ours, where the daily newspaper continues to decimate its reporting staff and seems intent on jettisoning the institutional memory of the old-timers.
That he has been given free rein to spend the time to mine the records and connect the dots speaks volumes on the quality of editorial direction at the weekly and should inspire our daily to do more.
But back to Networx, since Mr.
As his coverage points out, there are many questions remaining to be answered if the public is to have any confidence about the recommendations for the sale of MLGW’s stake in the troubled company.
We’re also hoping that he will also ask if anybody at MLGW has thought about the utility turning its share over to City of
Some cities are already using fiber optics so that utility customers can go online at any time and see their usage. Others use it to track citizen complaints, identify trouble spots and keep real time reports on potholes, road repairs and more. In this way, every morning, the mayor and his administration – and miracle of all miracles, the public – can go online and see exactly how their tax dollars are being used.
We rise in defense of Sidney Shlenker.
Now, we bet that’s something you didn’t ever expect to hear in this city.
We do it because of a comment in the otherwise impressive reporting by Chris Davis of the Memphis Flyer in his coverage of the Networx controversy.
In one of the articles, he of the multiple hats – both board member of MLGW and Networx - Nick Clark was quoted, comparing an offer to buy the troubled fiber optics company to the now legendary Sidney Shlenker, who fell from grace so fast that he went from being voted Memphis “Man of the Year” to much-despised goat in about three years.
Mr. Davis states it thusly: “
First off, Mr. Shlenker arrived on the scene after The Pyramid had already been championed by a number of local leaders, including financier John Tigrett, the politically-connected Lewis Donelson and others possessed by a dream for a signature building on the city’s riverfront. It was they, not Mr. Shlenker, who promised an arena for $39 million, “including the balloons at the opening,” as Mr. Tigrett once promised our mayors.
Second, it’s not as if Mr. Shlenker really conned anybody in
Big And Bigger
In the end, it wasn’t Mr. Shlenker’s greed that ruined the big plans for The Pyramid. It was city government’s. Once Mayor Dick Hackett convinced Mr. Shlenker that he should add
Had he been allowed to focus his financing and his plans on just The Pyramid, it seems likely that he could have succeeded.
It’s also worth remembering that it wasn’t just Mr. Shlenker’s plans that kept shape-shifting. So did the promise by Hard Rock Café founder Isaac Tigrett that he’d build one of the chain’s restaurants in the bottom of The Pyramid.
While Mr. Shlenker can’t seem to catch a break by the authors of the city’s history, it’s essentially a revisionist history that portrays him as conman and unethical fast talker. He was what the city asked him to be, and it was he who put all of his financial chips into the game against mounting odds and in the face of growing dissension with his partners.
Jaws Of Victory
In the end, he lost everything at the precise moment when it appeared that success was finally at hand. By that time, he and Mr. Tigrett would no longer come to a meeting in City Hall at the same time. Only days after a letter of intent was delivered from French bank Société Générale, agreeing to provide Pyramid financing for the music attraction, the restaurant, the inclinator and the attraction at the apex, the offer was withdrawn when the bankers received a devastating letter from a Memphian whom they would not identify that caused the bank to question and summarily withdraw the loan.
Mr. Davis is right in describing Mr. Shlenker as
Sitting up in his hospital bed in the
And he did.
A few weeks later, the entire Pyramid plan was as dead as Mr. Shlenker’s chances of being named again as “Man of the Year.”
All of this should serve as a cautionary tale for what strange things can happen when political expediency and civic boosterism converge and give birth to promises that outstrip common sense. It is in such a cauldron that promoters of implausible ideas are treated as saviors of the city by politicians reluctant to conduct basic due diligence for fear of having to abandon the latest magic answer to the problems of
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
We have a bad case of
We’ve already overdosed on race-baiting rhetoric, style over substance, divisive posturing and election coverage more in tune with the reporting at Churchill Downs.
And, the campaign season has barely kicked off.
More Heat Than Light
We keep hoping that someone will accidentally trip up and talk about something that really matters, a real problem or a real issue. It’s beginning to feel that we might as well get used to media coverage that emphasizes heat over light, but meanwhile, we think the rest of us should take it on ourselves to ask the kinds of questions and engage in the kind of discussions that are needed on the campaign trails.
Maybe, it’ll even be contagious and a candidate or two will start talking about some new answers to some of our city’s oldest problems.
We promise to keep things in perspective. After all, despite all the inflammatory coverage,
We Are Not Alone
The former mayor of
And that’s just a few of the headlines from across the country.
Missing The Boat
In other words,
There’s New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s unveiling of the most comprehensive greening plan in the U.S. – 127 separate initiatives aimed at reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he also says he’s going to tackle poverty in the Big Apple.
Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s takeover of the city’s public schools and the first experiment with pilot schools continue, and inspired by Menino’s success,
Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson rolled out a $85 million, multi-pronged crime-fighting plan that builds on his leadership on regional issues. Speaking of regionalism, we’ve previously mentioned Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s phenomenal victory at the polls, winning a regional referendum in which voters increased their taxes to pay for 119 miles of new and extended light rail and commuter train lines that cost about $5 billion (not to mention his victory with a referendum for $378 million jail bond issue).
If there’s any single issue that best exemplifies
Digital technology is being used widely in other cities to reinvent government services, but here, our local governments can’t even give us websites that are usable or useful, much less offer serious e-government programs.
Wi-fi plans proliferate in more than 300 cities, but not in
Most of all, it brings a data-driven approach to government administration that in time changes the culture itself through budgets based on performance measurements. Budgeting for results seems like a pretty straightforward concept, but legislators often resist it because they rightly conclude that the measurements could just as easily be used to hold them accountable.Knowledge Is Power
As former Martin O’Malley – now governor of
All in all, there is a widespread lack of understanding in government about how data can be used to drive important decisions, and normally, its implementation is driven by a single disciple elected to the mayor’s office. As a result, it’s unlikely to become part of our city government anytime soon, but hopefully, it will at least become a topic for the campaign trail.
At a time when revenues are getting tighter and tighter, more and more elected officials are grasping the connection between dollars and results. Best of all, the results are being given to the public so it can see what’s being done with its tax dollars.
Data And More Data
No one in public offices seems to grasp the potential of a data-driven government as much as Mayor Bloomberg. But then again, he made billions by creating a company based on real-time data.
A final lesson to be learned from Mayor Bloomberg is an emphasis on hiring the smartest people and letting them do their jobs. His directive to one newly appointed manager: “It’s your agency. Don’t screw it up.” We wonder the last time any city director heard that from Mayor Herenton.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper - one of our favorites - opened the April session, and here's an abbreviated version of IssuesPhiladelphia's observations (you can read the full version here) about him and a summary of what he said:
LESSONS FROM A BREWPUB:
The John Hickenlooper Guide To Civic Success
We started our Profiles in Leadership: America’s Great Mayors series to answer a simple question: what does a great mayor look like?
We weren’t expecting to find out that, sometimes, a great mayor looks like a brewpub manager. But John Hickenlooper is used to surprising people.
He surprised his friends and family in Narberth by morphing from an awkward, unambitious kid into a dynamic, successful businessman. He surprised his bankers by turning a risky brewpub venture into a catalyst for a neighborhood’s development. He surprised everyone in Denver by beating the pants off of a field of well-established politicians and becoming mayor.
And he surprised our audience by explaining that restaurants and city halls aren’t that different. “I think that any candidate is greatly improved by having spent a few years running a big, popular restaurant,” he said. “Whether it’s the restaurant or a big city, you never have enough money. You have a diverse group of people you’ve got to weld into a team. And the public is always ticked off about something.”
In 2003, Hickenlooper rode a wave of ticked-off voters to victory. Public frustration with Denver’s political establishment had opened the door to an outsider candidate like him. Hickenlooper seized the opportunity not by railing against his opponents but by presenting a positive vision for the city. He emphasized the need for teamwork. He vowed to improve city services and balance the budget. He promised to end the old-school game of political insider-ism and put the best possible person in every city job.
So far, he has delivered enough that his re-election is virtually assured. He balanced the budget despite declining revenues. He passed key civil service reforms. He reached far beyond his circle of friends and supporters to find qualified, diverse appointees. He helped end years of city-suburb political warfare, paving the way for a groundbreaking regional transportation initiative. TIME Magazine has called him one of America’s top big city mayors, and he faces no significant competition for his second term.
How did he do it? He turned to the lessons he learned on the brewpub floor.
Lesson One: Listen
As a candidate, Hickenlooper listened to local businesspeople and found out that tax revenues were more likely to shrink than to grow. That allowed him to craft a smart budget that helped him win early endorsements from the local papers. He listened to leaders in the towns and suburbs surrounding Denver. That helped him end years of animosity and start money-saving, region-growing regional projects. He listened to average Janes and Joes all around Denver, and that helped him grasp the importance of improving city services and restoring faith in government.
And from the minute he launched his campaign, he listened to his own gut instincts. “At that first meeting, we’re sitting there with a bunch of political consultants,” he recalled. “There’s six other candidates- it’s almost like a made-for-TV movie – there’s the Greek former police chief, the Latino former city auditor, the African American state senator – all the way down the list. And one of the people said, ‘You’re at 3 percent in the polls. If you’re going to distinguish yourself, you’ve got to pull down one of these frontrunners.’ And my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Well that’s exactly the direction we’re not running.’
“We never did opposition research. We never did a negative ad. We never attacked. We tried to run a campaign where we said, ‘We’re going to hire the best person for the job for every single job in the city.’ We were going to focus on being transparent, inclusive, and collaborative in a way that no one in the city has seen.” The message worked: Hickenlooper won 65 percent of the final vote.
Lesson Two: Know Your Real Budget
One of the first things that candidate Hickenlooper did was make the rounds of local businesses. Based on what he heard, along with other research, he decided that instead of tax growth, Denver was about to see a significant decrease in tax revenue; so he made up a budget, took it to the newspapers, and won early endorsements.
The next thing he knew, he had jumped to 33 percent in the polls, with his nearest competition at 15. “I still remember my wife reading the details,” he said, “and she was not terribly happy about this. She lowered the newspaper so just her eyes were above it and said, ‘You never told me you were going to win.’”
But he did win, and his projections proved correct. But he arrived armed with the mandate he needed to make tough budget cuts.
Lesson Three: Know your Real Competition
When Hickenlooper opened his brewpub in a half-forgotten downtown neighborhood, his employees thought he was crazy when he put ads for other local restaurants in his restrooms. “The other restaurants couldn’t believe it. Our staff came up to me and said, what are you doing?” he recalled. “I said, they’re not our competitors. You’ve got to look at our self-interest in broader way. They’re really our allies. Our competitor is the TV set. We’ve got to work together to get people off the couch and out to enjoy life.”
That attitude helped revitalize what’s now known as LoDo – for Lower Downtown – and Hickenlooper brought it to the mayor’s office. One of the first things he did was throw a party in his loft for every regional county commissioner and their spouses. “I gave a two-minute speech: ‘The history of divisiveness, and us trying to get benefit at your expense, is over. And from now on, the City of Denver will do everything we can to help the suburbs,” he recalled. “I got a huge round of applause. There was this tremendous hunger there.”
Similarly, he reached out to the Republican governor, who’d had epic battles with Hickenlooper’s Democratic predecessor, Wellington Webb. “On my first day in office I walked across the green. I spent about an hour and a half with him, and I said, ‘I guarantee you I will never embarrass you for political gain. We agree on about 90 percent of the stuff. It’s crazy for us to get in fights over these other things."
Why reach out? Because just as a successful brewpub needed a successful LoDo, a successful Denver needs a successful Colorado. “Denver doesn’t compete anymore with Seattle or San Diego,” he said. “We’re competing with metropolitan Shanghai. And metropolitan Bombay. If we don’t begin working together at a much higher level, we’ll find that not just our grandchildren’s jobs but our children’s jobs will have gone away.”
Lesson Four: Never Stop Building Your Team
Don’t ever expect to see Hickenlooper pat himself on the back. As he talks about Denver’s successes, he credits his partners, his predecessors, his employees, his advisors, his wife, his parents – everyone but himself. This is no accident. It’s part of his strategy of keeping his team together.
Restaurants depend on a team of diverse people with many backgrounds and skill sets, all of whom have particular needs if they are to get their jobs done. Cities depend on the same thing. When he came into office, Hickenlooper made sure that he brought in a staff of appointees who were not only highly qualified, but diverse and representative, with connections to all parts of the city’s social and political culture. He appointed one of his competitors for mayor as a leader in his transition. He established transition teams that could reach far beyond his personal circle to find qualified candidates for appointment. He made a highly visible effort to put a team in place that Denver’s citizens could trust.
And he never stops building up his teammates, listening to their needs in private, and praising them in public whenever he can. He praises the city employees who helped him trim Denver’s budget. He praises the suburban officials who helped make transit reform a reality. He happily declined to put his picture up in the Denver airport, substituting pictures that celebrate regional landmarks.
“Symbolic stuff really matters,” he said. “You end up coming out better in the end. By taking your own picture down, it’s as if you had a bigger picture up there.”
Sunday, July 15, 2007
It’s a mantra that we repeat often in cities where we work on issues that affect their competitiveness in a highly competitive global economy. We say it because time after time, we’ve seen it play out in city after city that has been transformed by inspired and inspiring leadership.
Because this is so, we think the pressing question to ask as we look at the announced major candidates, “Which one of these has the potential to be the great mayor needed so desperately in Memphis?”
Sadly, when we ask the question, our answer ends up being: “None of them.”
Because of it, the most pressing priority for Memphis right now is to identify, develop, nurture, and motivate a new breed of candidates poised to enter the mayor’s race in four years.
We are encouraged by the examples found in mayors’ offices across the U.S., and we are particularly inspired by the most exciting models of all – the many nontraditional candidates who have come forward, been elected and captured the imagination of their citizens.
It’s hard for us not to think immediately of Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, and how we need to find his counterpart here. A geologist and a restaurateur, he went from a candidate with name recognition of less than five percent to a mayor who has now united the entire Denver region behind visionary plans for the future.
It illustrates the power that a new political leader with new ideas can have. Absent the unlikely entry of Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton into the city mayor’s race, Memphis is about to launch the fourth term of the Herenton Administration.
If the past eight years are any indication, the next four years of a Herenton mayoralty will be an era of marking time, and at the end of it, Memphis will have problems that will have reached catastrophic proportions - all the more reason to start now to find the kind of candidates who can be immediate impact players in 2012.
As we think about this issue, we reprint a post from one year ago this month. It was also previously published in the City Journal column of Memphis magazine.
This is the golden age of great city mayors.
In Chicago, Richard Daley transformed “Beirut on the Lake” into one of the world’s great cities - sophisticated, vibrant, seedbed for an astonishing array of enlightened “green” programs.
In Denver and San Francisco, two restaurateurs – respectively John Hickenlooper and Gavin Newsom – transplanted their customer service credo into city services and designed revolutionary programs for the homeless. Also, Hickenlooper’s determined regional fence-mending produced a 70 percent approval rating in the metro area, and he in turn used this reservoir of good will to lead seven counties and 31 cities to pass a sales tax increase to pay for 119 miles of new light rail and commuter trains costing $5 billion.
In Atlanta, Shirley Franklin slashed 1,000 jobs as well as her own salary, convinced 75 companies to analyze city government at no cost and began a 22-mile linear park connecting 45 neighborhoods. Through force of personality, Jerry Abramson convinced Louisville citizens to approve the largest government consolidation in 40 years; New York’s Michael Bloomberg turned a projected $6.5 billion deficit into a $3 billion surplus; Baltimore’s Martin O’Malley developed a unique computerized complaint system making city departments more accountable; Miami’s Manny Diaz moved the city bond rating from junk to A+ while rolling out a six-year program to rebuild the infrastructure; and Washington Mayor Anthony Williams delivered something thought impossible – stability.
In other words, cities are in an epic period of rebirth, and great mayors are the reason.
Memphis has had great managers, great motivators and great speakers. But there’s no argument that Memphis has had a mayor who measures up to the standards of today’s great mayors.
Mayor Willie W. Herenton, contrary to critics who tend to blame him for everything from the economic downturn to global warming, flirted with a “Nixon to China” brand of greatness, but in the end, it was not to be and now seems as elusive as his being cheered at halfcourt at FedExForum.
In truth, the concept of Willie Herenton has always been more compelling than the reality of Willie Herenton. To his political base, he has special status as the city’s first African-American mayor, and the voter loyalty attached to that milestone will not be replicated again.
With civic leaders, explanations for support have frequently begun with the sentence, “He’s better than….”
When a political brand outstrips personal reality, it’s often a good thing for the politician. The formidable image silences critics, drives public opinion and overwhelms public discussions.
In Herenton’s case though, it’s no longer fair to him, and it’s not now fair to the city, because it has mutated into a mythology that polarizes every issue he touches. The seminal example took place just over year ago when he convened a meeting to consider his innovative proposal for merger of the two local school systems. On that day, he made the best researched and most detailed analysis by a public official of the $1 billion spent locally each year for schools, and he did it all without mentioning once that Memphis is the only major metro area in Tennessee where schools aren’t already consolidated.
And yet, none of the statistics, none of the projections and none of the historical trends were reported. Instead, the media fixated on the fact that the chairs of the city and county school boards – respectively, Wanda Halbert and David Pickler - were petulant no-shows at the meeting.
Losing The Pulpit
It was a defining moment in the Herenton Era, because it was at that moment that it became unambiguously obvious that his personality, not his positions or programs, would be the overriding factor defining the news from then on. In this way, it no longer mattered if he was right, because he was robbed of his bully pulpit.The sad truth of Memphis politics – and it is sad whether you like Herenton or not – is that the mayor no longer has the potential to be great, because the ultimate prisoner of the Herenton myth is now Willie Herenton himself.
Because of it, he’s denied the chance to emulate great U.S. mayors who are creating bigger dreams for their cities that every one sees themselves being part of, reaching across political and racial boundaries and inspiring all of their citizens with the confidence to move ahead together.
Friday, July 13, 2007
Simeon Bruner is founder of the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, a national award for urban places, and this year's Gold Medal winner is the Pittsburgh Children's Museum and Family District. We'll talk to Simeon about the competition and the projects recognized this year.
Also with us is Margi Nothard, designer of an outstanding new public space in Hollywood, Florida - ArtsPark at Young Circle - which may define a whole new category of urban amenity.
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, July 12, 2007
More and more, it becomes a pressing question in light of the growing national awareness of how much politics plays a part in federal prosecutions. It becomes more and more a pressing local question in light of the indictment of former MLG&W president Joseph Lee.
We were probably as critical as anyone of the actions of Mr. Lee in the last months of his tenure at the helm of the nation’s largest multi-purpose utility company, and we were equally perplexed at why Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton would force him into a situation that inevitably painted a target on his back.
A Federal Case
Despite our criticisms, we find yesterday’s indictments more of an indictment of the current U.S. Attorney’s office than of anyone else. It gives new meaning to the phrase, “making a federal case out of something.”
Seldom has so much been made out of so little.
As we have commented previously, there are few people whose integrity is as respected here as David Kustoff, who assumed the U.S. Attorney’s position in late 2005. Perhaps, some say, his lack of experience in criminal law creates an over-reliance on the old-timers on his staff who seem able to criminalize any behavior of which they disapprove.
The Yellow Brick Road
After generations benefiting from the public perception that federal prosecutors are above the whims of political interests and beyond the reach of partisan pressures, the curtain has been drawn back and all of us can now see Oz. If anything, the perceived wizardry at discerning the truth and fighting the just fight has now given way to the reality that there’s often a thumb on the scales of justice – the thumb of political considerations by the party in power.
It’s easy these days to feel Pollyannish, but we prefer to think that we were suffering from a malignant case of idealism that made us want to believe that the U.S. Attorney’s office could rise above the politics fundamental to a political system. And yet, it’s more and more clear that the tendency of the Clinton Administration to inject political influence where it didn't belong has become an art form in the Bush Administration.
From surgeon general reports to NASA white papers to environmental alerts to scientific research, this administration has pressured experts to change their conclusions, and when they didn’t, the political appointees did it for them.
Ham And Egg (On Their Face)
It is in this vortex of political conceit that the Joseph Lee indictment has to be placed. We abhor the wrong-headed decision by Mr. Lee to place Councilman Edmund Ford’s overdue MLGW bills into an account for the truly disadvantaged and to give him special treatment, but it is difficult to understand how this rises to a criminal violation.
We know the old adage about the U.S. Attorney’s Office being able to indict a ham sandwich, but with this one, the office seems to have a boarding house reach.
Surely there are better ways to wield the overwhelming power of the federal government.
Here’s the thing. Like it or not (and we are in the latter category), this is the reality of government and public agencies. We even hazard a guess that Mr. Lee would have gone out of his way to do whatever he could to help any member of Memphis City Council if they called him. In fact, he did.
He’s just like any other political appointee operating in government. When the call comes, the pressure is on. It’s only released when the appointee has done something to help (or appears to help) the elected official calling him. There are also the calls of close friends of elected officials, or major contributors, or family, well, you get the picture.
It happens every day from the White House to the courthouse. The name of the game is for the appointee is to prevent complaints that he’s unhelpful or aloof or unresponsive and to keep from creating a political problem that festers until it explodes in a public meeting. In the case at hand, the ultimate objective if for Mr. Lee is to do whatever he can to do to prevent a hostile reception when he appeared before Memphis City Council with an important MLGW matter.
Like it or not, it is the nature of the beast.
A Bit Player
If the federal grand jury wants to take action, it would be more accurate to indict the whole system rather than one small actor playing his role within it. And, knowing that politics is every present in government, who assures the public that it’s not happening in federal prosecutions where questions of race, class and power tinge recent investigations?
If Joseph Lee’s indictment does anything, it effectively sends the message to every employee of government that they can be indicted at any time. It appears that expediting a permit for a friend of a friend is grounds for federal action, that allowing time payments for overdue tax bills is suspect depending on who you are, that serving on a campaign finance committee and then accepting a job in a new administration and that even being appointed to a committee setting policy could fall under the standards set by Mr. Lee’s indictment.
For years, federal investigators talked about their concerns about special privilege for special developers in building permitting and zoning, but the statue of limitations ran out with no action. They talked about their alarm at the public investment of funds influenced by political loyalties, but no action was taken. They’ve poked around the contracting process several times, but it always faded away. And yet, Mr. Lee’s decisions, of all things, produce an indictment.
No There There
If the charge is stupidity, he may deserve the death penalty, but the last we checked that wasn’t a federal infraction. Otherwise, we’d all have charges against us.
In reading the indictment, it’s inescapable to feel that there is no there there, fueling the simmering resentment in a large part of this community that there are two kinds of justice in Shelby County. (Not to mention that throwing Joe Cooper into the mix only seems gratuitious and designed to smear Mr. Lee further.)
Sitting in the rarified air of the federal building, investigators and prosecutors see Memphis out their windows and think they understand it. But like the guy who yells into the cave, hears his own voice and thinks all is well, they are inoculated from the real Memphis and the fulminating emotions that are only made more explosive when the federal system of justice over-reaches as badly as it has done in the case of Mr. Lee.
Burden Of Proof
We are certain that Mr. Kustoff is dead serious about cleaning up government (and there’s no denying it was needed), but it also seems that in being so intent on doing that, there is a definite lack of proportionality in his office’s decisions. If Mr. Kustoff is anything, it is someone who loves Memphis deeply, and rather than call press conferences urged on him by his assistants and the FBI, we hope he will get out into the community and take ownership of the anger and distrust that is building there.
There is no justice if there is no confidence in those who administer it. We’re not making any comment about any indictments of the Tennessee Waltz or Operation Main Street Sweeper or any of the similarly silly-named investigations launched here. But it is the U.S. Attorney that has the burden of proof to convince all of Memphis that his prosecutions are color blind and party neutral. There's no better time than the present.
Lowering The Standards (And The Boom)
There are many things that we know about Mr. Lee. He is prone to bouts of self-importance, he made the mistake of seeing his job as serving Mayor Herenton more than serving his customers, he relied on clever legalisms when the truth would have set him free and he was unprepared for a job of the scope of the presidency of MLGW.
But that said, he is a person who is rigid about his moral foundation, and it is impossible to imagine him doing anything that he knew to be illegal. Somehow it seems that the line between what is an ethical lapse and what is a legal lapse is now forever blurred in the deliberations of the federal grand jury.
A friend, an FBI agent, once said: “We don’t pursue quid pro quos. They’re just too hard to prove.”
Apparently the standard has now been put so low that anyone can trip over it.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Frankly, we see nothing wrong with this – as long as commissioners do it too.
After all, they’re the ones whose opinions matter most to us, and we think it would be a political boon for them to send the message to the public that everything they say is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It’s possible that the real purpose of this trial balloon was to attract media attention to the continuing dispute about the future of a second Juvenile Court judge, since there are more questions than answers about such a policy, a condition that regularly accompanies a proposal by volatile Commissioner Henri Brooks.
For example, if the board of commissioners has no power to compel someone to appear before the board of commissioners, how does it plan to make people appear to answer their questions in the first place? This doesn’t even seem to work in the nation’s capital, so it’s hard to see how the board of commissioners can pull it off.
It’s our bet that a new policy – already dubbed by top county staffers as the “Inquisition Resolution” - would result in the dumbing down of the whole legislative process, as the “gotcha” environment becomes official and makes the number of no-shows go up and the quality of the discussion go down.
Ducking Down In The Foxhole
In the world of county employees, political advantage is a primary motivator. We’d expect the hundreds of political appointees to simply stay out of the line of fire, delegating the responsibility for answering questions down to third-level Civil Service employees who can probably answer the basic question but will not be able to give any insight into the overall philosophy or justification.
We also wonder about elected officials. Would the commissioners required elected officials like the sheriff and the mayor to be sworn in as a new ritual of disrespect?
Finally, who’ll be put in charge of deciding what the truth is? After all, this is an environment – like those in most legislative bodies in all levels of government - where there is a waver-thin line between a falsehood and skillful manipulation of the facts.
Help Wanted: Solomon
Most likely, the commissioners will look to County Attorney Brian Kuhn to play the role of Solomon. However, because he is legal advisor to all of county government, what happens when one client – the commissioners – are battling with another client – in the administrative branch? Normally, the county attorney is “conflicted out” and an outside attorney – and his legal bills – are called in.
So, who would define what the truth is? Surely not the political body itself, because it conjures up images when the truth would be defined by a 7-6 vote.
If the commissioners really want to send a message about the importance of telling the truth at their meetings, we think they should go for broke.
They should hire one of the many retired FBI agents in Memphis and make this into a spectacle worthy of the Roman Circus: hook every one up, including the commissioners, to polygraph machines at every committee and full board of commissioners meeting.
The retired FBI agent will be scorekeeper. Anytime someone bends the truth or spins the facts, he’ll call a foul, and after five, the person is disqualified from the meeting and put in the penalty box for 30 days.
There could even be box scores – minutes present in the meeting, falsehoods per minute and number of disqualifications.
It would certainly solve a problem the commissioners have worried about for decades - how to get more people to attend their meetings.
It would be the hottest ticket in town.
Sunday, July 08, 2007
So far, with the interim appointment, there’s been a maximum of political horse-trading and personal agendas and a minimum of vision, priorities and objectives.
Overall, the quality of the candidates for the interim superintendent’s job should be testament to the failure of this approach, so hopefully, by the time the school board turns its attention to the hiring of a new superintendent, it will get the cart before the horse. It does this by the board members deciding what they want Memphis City Schools to be and then going out and finding someone uniquely qualified to do it.
The Real Power
If this isn’t done, the natural tendency of a political organization is to gravitate to putting a friend in charge, such as current city school staffers, or to be more concerned about personal power than a shared vision for the future of Memphis City Schools.
A couple of board members harbor the opinion that the new superintendent should be appointed from within the existing district staff, but there’s no proof that any has the qualifications to run a major urban district. After all, if they were that qualified, there would be other districts coming here to recruit them already.
In a sentence, it’s the difference between Johnnie B. Watson and Carol Johnson.
More Than Cruise Control
Back to the interim superintendent’s appointment, there’s really no need to rush. The truth is that bureaucracies of this size can run without anyone at the helm for awhile. After all, the staff members who run the district day-to-day are still there, and in the normal course of business, precious few had any contact with the superintendent in the first place.
Perhaps, taking the extra time, the board could even move past its current thinking of the interim superintendent as a place holder until the real superintendent is appointed. Since it’s possible that the search for a new superintendent could take 12-18 months, the idea of appointing someone to “keep things in the road” is short-sighted and squanders momentum that’s under way.
More to the point, if the school board would elevate its sights – say, a retired superintendent or a former superintendent now working as a consultant or for a nonprofit organization - the district could do more than mark time. It could actually make sure reforms under way continue and the board members could give themselves time to conduct the research and have the discussions that would lead to a more informed decision about the future.
It’s The Teacher, Stupid
If there’s ever been a time for the school board to elevate its sights – and the discussion – this surely is it. Rather than talk about who can get the votes put together or concentrate on the normal political calculus, it’s the perfect time for the school board – as the policy-setting body for the district – to talk about what its priorities are, about what its vision is and then, about what qualifications are needed in a superintendent – interim or permanent – to address them.
For our part, we think teacher recruitment and retention is at the top of the list. The recent op-ed column in The Commercial Appeal by George Lord of Partners In Public Education (PIPE) should be an attention grabber for anyone interested in improving city schools.
A recent study by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future put the national cost of teacher turnover at $7.3 billion a year. The study looked at the costs of recruiting, hiring, processing and training teachers, and put the average cost for each lost teacher at about $8,500.
Turning Over Millions
In other words, the cost of teacher turnover for Memphis City Schools is likely more than $10 million a year. The report found that few urban districts actually know the cost of this problem, and based on the poor track record of the city district for compiling meaningful statistics, we suspect Memphis City Schools would fall into this category.
It’s a disturbing irony in our nation that the profession of teaching – shaping the lives of the next generation and determining our national ability to compete and innovate - is treated as if anybody could do it. It’s found in programs built on the belief that all that’s needed to teach is a love of learning, strong discipline, a passion for children and good grades in college (regardless of the major).
What’s been missing from Memphis City Schools’ decisions are good data and a comprehensive approach. While the New Teacher Project was a major step toward increased teacher professionalism, it appears to have done it with some district staff members kicking and screaming. In the end, the full potential of the program has been undercut by an entrenched culture that still defines success in terms of control and power.
Of course, when Memphis City Schools – with a straight face - can release the recent survey that claimed that 89.4 percent of teachers feel safe and 80 percent of students say they never feel afraid at school, it’s clear that the district has real problems in candor and communications.
The survey seems to be the latest example of the kind of internal processes driven to preconceived conclusions, and saddest of all, these kinds of surveys only lead many in the community to question other measurements of success that are verifiable. It’s too bad, but Memphis City Schools can’t seem to craft a strategic communications program that prevents it from shooting itself in the foot.
Clearly, some board members are tone deaf. They ordered their communications department to get out the good news about the safety survey, further wounding the district’s credibility. Anytime a public agency tells citizens something that so flies in the face of their own experiences and opinions, it had better be able to point to an unquestionable, authoritative source. That doesn’t include a survey conducted by the district itself.
If the district is serious about determining opinion about safety (and other issues) in the schools, it should hire an independent, third-party professional to do it.
But, we digress. Back to the subject of teachers, the district would be wise to invest in a study of the workplace, because research in other districts indicates that supportive working conditions are key to teacher retention. Key factors include time to plan, leadership, access to resources, teacher autonomy and professional development.
Urban districts like ours need to come to grips with the fact that about 66 percent of teachers who leave the profession report that they are able to balance their personal and professional lives better in their new jobs. In thinking innovatively about the schedule, schools can create more teaching time with students and more time for teachers to plan and collaborate with their colleagues.
Reform Is A Journey
For example, to pursue this, the school board could turn its attention to answering the seminal question: How does Memphis City Schools create a teacher-centered environment based on clear expectations, support for instruction, incentives for highly effective teachers and positive and supportive principal leadership.
In other words, if the school board took the time to evaluate where it is and where it wants the district to go, it could also commit the district to a continuous journey of reform. That’s because as the board is learning, superintendents (if they’re good) come and superintendents go. Because of it, there has to be a higher purpose and a shared vision that can sustain the district as it changes management.
Research has shown that it’s not the “program of today” or the latest magic bullet that solves the problems of education. Rather, it is a sustained, continuous dedication and an unflinching course of change that make the difference. When that sustained commitment is translated into the entire structure of the school – all the way from Avery Street to every city classroom – real reform and change can take place.
All Things Are Possible
It’s in this way that the district has its best chance to transform the district’s rhetoric - like “community schools as the hub for neighborhoods” - into reality.
But the truth is, when there is a strong, shared purpose and clearly understood vision for the future, anything is possible.
That’s the kind of thing that the city school board needs to be doing right now. Armed with these fundamental decisions, board members then know exactly what kind of superintendent it’s looking for, and most importantly of all, it could begin the “reculturing” of Memphis City Schools that’s only been hinted at in the past three years.