Over the past 38 months, there’s nothing in any of the four agreements they have signed that binds the store to anything. Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising since three of the agreements actually bore the adjective, non-binding, in their titles.
And yet, city government officials contend that the agreements bind them - to only talking to the big box retailer.
Horns Of Dilemma
Today, we felt like we had a peek into this parallel universe when City Hall lead negotiator Robert Lipscomb said:
“I can’t negotiate with that person (any one other than Bass Pro Shop), because that would violate every ethical thing I can think of.”
The horns of this ethical dilemma surfaced when theme park proponent Greg Ericson announced that he will submit his own development agreement (complete with financing and a plan of action). That’s a gutsy strategy and actually helpful in clarifying these issues (we just hope it doesn’t include Mud Island).
There is no question that Mr. Lipscomb is serious about his ethical standards. However, that’s not what this is all about. It’s about acting in the best interests of the taxpayers of Memphis and Shelby County.
No Real Risk
After all, what’s really at stake for Mr. Lipscomb in negotiating with someone else? The risk that Bass Pro Shop may cancel an agreement that doesn’t mean anything anyway?
If Mr. Lipscomb feels that he and city government can’t negotiate with anyone but Bass Pro Shop, we don’t understand it, but we respect it.
But there’s no reason Shelby County Government can’t, and for that matter, there’s really nothing stopping the Pyramid Public Building Authority, which is the owner of The Pyramid in the first place.
We respect Mr. Lipscomb not only for the sincerity that he exudes in his projects to improve his hometown, but for being one of the rare sources for new thinking in city government. We’ve agreed with him on some, and we’ve disagreed on others.
In this case, however, he seems to have fallen prey to one of those peculiarly public sector syndromes: He seems so determined to prove that city government can close a deal that he’s developed a tunnel vision that undermines all that he is doing.
For that reason alone, it is a good time for some fresh eyes to look at this issue. After all, Mr. Lipscomb has invested three years of his life in the futile hope that he can get Bass Pro Shop to ink a substantive agreement. We understand how hard it must be to admit that he’s fallen short of his goals, but there is no logical basis for Bass Pro Shop to be given exclusive control of The Pyramid for the next 18 months while it determines if it wants to move ahead.
It seems to us that county government can provide this fresh look. City officials even seemed peeved that Shelby County Attorney Brian Kuhn rightly (not to mention ethically) ruled that the draft development agreement was a public record. Mr. Lipscomb, on the other hand, called it a “working document” which should not have been released to the public.
As for us, it’s immutable that on a matters of this importance, local government should always err on the side of public disclosure. The public deserves to see the details of the “development agreement” and they shouldn’t have to rely on city negotiators to spoon feed the information.
In light of the move to change the Tennessee Sunshine Law to allow a return to the days of backroom deals, we are thankful for the unshakable clarity of the Tennessee Public Records Act. As Mr. Kuhn understands and ruled, there is no exception for “working documents.”
An Easy Call
It’s actually so easy that even a non-lawyer can make the call: A public document is any document sent to a public official by someone outside of government. (We would even argue that it applies to any document sent by someone within government to another department of government, but we’ll save that more aggressive argument for another day.)
Suffice it to say, if ethics is the rules of conduct recognized for specific kinds of actions, Mr. Kuhn’s decision was anchored in the first rule of public ethics: The public’s right to know what is being done in their names. It is this transparency that lies at the heart of ethical government.
Back to The Pyramid: When it was built, The Pyramid was supposed to become the physical symbol of our confidence in the future of Memphis. It was supposed to mirror our greater ambitions.
Tomb Of Doom
Time after time, The Pyramid’s big promises have collapsed and promises have gone unmet. The Memphis Pyramid has buried more big dreams than its Egyptian predecessors buried kings. There’s been the Hard Rock Café, the inclinator ride to the apex, the American Music Experience, the NARAS museum, Island Earth, the Wonders exhibit, and finally, the arena itself.
Today, it’s not too late for The Pyramid to symbolize our confidence and speak to our ambition. Can we really say that our city’s ambition is truly captured in a Bass Pro Shop in the signature building on our doorstep?
What should we have learned from from Memphis’ Shlenker Era?
Sending A Message
It’s simply this - it wasn’t his cleverness or his charisma or his glibness that conned us into giving him the keys to the Pyramid. Rather, it was our own neediness and feelings of unworthiness, which manifested itself in the deadly notion that we don’t deserve the best. Instead, good is always good enough for Memphis, and we think we’re lucky to get it.
Our city fathers profess to have great ambitions for Memphis. This is our chance to aim high. Right now, with the push for Bass Pro shop, it unfortunately us beginning to feel like the same old Memphis to us.