Monday, December 23, 2002

Tomorrow's News Today

A way-early quiz on the events you'll be talking about in 2003.

Posted By on Mon, Dec 23, 2002 at 4:00 AM

With the new year approaching, only a Flyer columnist can foresee the events of 2003 and print them too. With apologies to William Safire, a look into the future:

1. The big arena story in 2003 will be: A) cost overruns push the price above $300 million; B) sloppy work by the general contractor leads to convention- center-style delays; C) consultants come under scrutiny for fees and kickbacks.

2. Once everyone agrees to let the University of Memphis out of its lease with The Pyramid, serious attention will be given to: A) demolition to make room for housing and an office headquarters; B) a Native-American-owned casino; C) a shopping mall centered around a massive Bass Pro Shop and indoor pond.

3. The person to watch on the Shelby County Commission in 2003 will be: A) Marilyn Loeffel, a conservative who will emerge as an unpredictable swing vote; B) David Lillard, who will play tough cop in the down-and-dirty; C) Walter Bailey, who will surprise people by reintroducing the Shelby Farms Conservancy plan.

4. When Chris Peck takes over as editor of The Commercial Appeal, readers will see that what he means by community journalism is: A) playing Memphis booster to increase circulation; B) caving in to the advertising side to boost revenue; C) jazzing up a stodgy newspaper to win credibility with reporters and editors.

5. The person whose services will most be missed by Memphians in 2003 will be: A) Memphis Grizzlies' injured guard Michael Dickerson, who will be unable to make a comeback; B) Rick Masson, a model of competence and integrity as chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis; C) weatherman Dave Brown, who will take early retirement and move to California.

6. Alabama football booster Logan Young will be: A) indicted and convicted based on the unwavering testimony of Lynn Lang; B) indicted, tried, and acquitted based on the shaky testimony of Lang and Milton Kirk; C) saying "I told you so."

7. The public servant most likely to lose his or her job in 2003 will be: A) County Commission administrator Calvin Williams because of a reconsideration of the 7-6 vote that saved his job; B) Circuit Court administrator George Reems because of conflict-of-interest moonlighting; C) Memphis City Schools board member Sara Lewis because of continuing blowups with Johnnie B. Watson.

8. The quote that will come back to haunt its author in 2003 will be: A) Commissioner Loeffel's coupling her grief over Calvin Williams' misdeeds with her grief over the death of Sheriff's Deputy George Selby; B) Jerry West's high regard for the coaching abilities of Hubie Brown; C) George Flinn's interest in buying The Pyramid.

9. The most surprising story of 2003 will be: A) the resignation of University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari; B) the Grizzlies make the NBA playoffs; C) the revelation of a suspect in the terrorist-style attack on Shelby County Medical Examiner O.C. Smith.

10. The first big story of 2003 to be blamed on the economy will be: A) the collapse of the Memphis office and warehouse real estate market; B) the financial unraveling of the Memphis Redbirds as sponsors bail out of their long-term agreements; C) the closing of another Tunica casino.

11. The next showdown at the Memphis Board of Education will be over: A) The Commercial Appeal's refusal to back up its claim that HVAC costs are grossly inflated; B) the closing of a city school because of mold fears; C) a "he/she goes or I go" blowout between Watson and Lewis.

12. The Tennessee lottery will be: A) a nonstory because the General Assembly will ignore the referendum and decline to pass the enabling legislation; B) the gateway to casino gambling in Tennessee; C) forced to revise its financial projections downward as lawmakers and the media take a closer look.

13. The sports turnaround of 2003 will be: A) the Tiger basketball team, which will make the NCAA Tournament thanks to the inspired play of Chris Massie; B) the Tiger football team, which will go to a bowl thanks to the inspired play of Danny Wimprine; C) the Grizzlies recover to win 29 games, thanks to the inspired play of Jason Williams.

14. The most successful new retail offering of 2003 in Memphis will be: A) Malco's movie theater next to the Racquet Club in East Memphis; B) new tenants in Peabody Place; C) a break-the-mold Target store in Collierville.

15. The national media will be sniping at Memphis because of: A) the fight fiasco involving Mike Tyson and Tonya Harding, which draws a scant 8,000 fans; B) the National Civil Rights Museum expansion, which is dubbed a memorial to James Earl Ray; C) Elvis Presley's Memphis, which is forced to close without the hype of a 25th anniversary.

My answers: 1. C; 2. C; 3. B; 4. C; 5. B; 6. C; 7. B; 8. A; 9. C; 10. B; 11. A; 12. C; 13. C; 14. A; 15. B n

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

CITY BEAT

MATA wants a $400 million rail link between downtown and the airport.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 18, 2002 at 4:00 AM

THE NEXT BIG THING Big-league cities have major-league teams, expensive new stadiums, and rail-based mass-transit systems. Two down, one to go, Memphis. Or so say proponents of a $400 million light-rail line between downtown and Memphis International Airport. With the arena controversy reduced to rear-guard actions now that construction of the facility is well under way, the airport train shapes up as the next big public debate in 2003. Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) officials gave members of the media a peek and a pitch earlier this month, and an environmental-impact statement on two alternative routes is expected to be released for public comment early next year. The question most likely to be asked is “Why?” The proposed rail link would fix a problem that does not yet exist, at least not on the order of the daily traffic jams at I-40 and I-240 or Walnut Grove and Humphreys Boulevard. The trip from downtown to the airport takes 12 to 20 minutes by car or taxi and 45 minutes by MATA’s hourly DASH van, which costs $15 and stops at nine downtown hotels. The downtown-airport link would be a slightly different animal from the Main Street Trolley. It would connect to the Medical Center extension now under con struc tion and run on similar tracks. But the cars would be bigger and travel at about the speed of automobiles. One proposed route goes through or past Overton Square, Cooper-Young, the Fair grounds, and Air ways Boulevard. The other turns south at Pauline and fol lows Lamar to Air ways. Tom Fox, director of planning and capital projects for MATA, said getting people to the airport is only one benefit of the link. It will also connect downtown to neighborhoods and businesses in Midtown and along Airways and Lamar, reduce pollution, and possibly spur new development along the right of way. The proposed airport corridor comes with a high price-- $400 million over several years Ñ equal to the combined cost of the new NBA arena and all of MATA’s other rail projects of the past decade put together. And it would require a much larger percentage of city funding than previous projects. Urban mass-transit projects used to be funded 80 per cent by the federal government. That share has recently changed to 50 percent on capital costs. The city of Memphis and the financially strapped state of Tennessee, in other words, could be on the hook for $200 million plus operating subsidies if, like the trolley, the light-rail train is a lightly used train. Farebox revenue covers only 20 to 25 per cent of MATA’s current cost of operations, which Fox said is typical for urban systems. There is another “hidden” cost. For the last two decades, Memphis has had a unique source of funding for transportation projects: the $273 million that it would have cost to complete I-40 through the center of the city and Overton Park. When that project was abandoned, Memphis got to keep the so-called inter state substitution funds and use them for, among other things, the Main Street Trolley and Nonconnah Parkway. Fox noted that visiting transit officials are often impressed and even envious of the Main Street line and the Riverfront Loop. Then he tells them the financing story and the tale of I-40 and Overton Park. That golden goose has stopped laying eggs. Interstate substitution funds would not be available for the down town-airport link. Cost is likely to be the main concern about the project but not the only one. Construction of the Medical Center link along Madison has caused significant disruption to businesses and car traffic, and at a recent neighborhood meeting with Cooper-Young residents Fox acknowledged that sentiment ran against the Midtown alternative. Nor is it clear exactly who is driving the proposal. Airport Authority president Larry Cox said the airport, including FedEx, is “one of the largest employment centers in the state of Tennessee, and it makes sense to have public transportation to the extent that it is frequent, reliable, and cost-effective.” International travelers in particular, he noted, frequently ask “where is the train?” when they deplane. ”It’s going to be a hotly debated issue as to whether it’s going to happen or not,” said Cox, a member of the Regional Rail Steering Committee. A spokesman for FedEx said the issue is “so far below the radar” he was unable to find anyone there to comment on it. Jeff Sanford, chief executive of the Center City Commission, suggested the push is coming from MATA. “If the decision is made to go forward with light rail, then downtown is a logical terminus for the system,” Sanford said. Since 1993, MATA has completed four major downtown projects: the $34.9 million Main Street Trolley, the $9.4 million Riverfront Loop, the $23.3 million renovation of Central Station, and the $6.7 million North End Terminal. The Medical Center line will cost $74.6 million. The least expensive of these, the North End Terminal, is heavily used by bus passengers making transfers and by patrons of the daycare center in the building. In contrast, the Central Station renovation is essentially an apartment building with a nice train lobby and a huge parking lot in back where MATA buses make a pointless lap around the empty outdoor waiting area before going on their way. City council members and their constituents might want to take a close look at both of them before spending $400 million on a train to the airport.

Thursday, December 12, 2002

Moonlighting in Memphis

Investigation of the Calvin Williams case expands to Circuit Court clerk's office.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 12, 2002 at 4:00 AM

When a guy says, "We hate each other and it's public. He wouldn't spit on me if I was on fire and I wouldn't ask him to," you might say they have a little history.

On the surface, the history of Calvin Williams (the author of the above quote) and Jimmy Moore (the nonspitter) is simple enough. They both ran for the office of Circuit Court clerk in the 1994 Republican primary. Moore was a member of the Memphis City Council. Williams was a deputy administrator in the circuit clerk's office who had gotten some publicity for being a young black Republican active in local politics.

Moore won the primary and the general election and is still the circuit clerk. Williams finished a distant fourth in the primary, but a few months later his Republican friends got him a consolation prize: assistant administrator in the Shelby County Commission office at a salary of $39,504 a year. When the chief administrator, Joe Cervetti, retired, Williams, a protégée of former Commissioner Buck Wellford, got his job.

Today, Williams makes $101,000 a year, and, lately, he doesn't even have to go to work because he's been suspended with pay pending an investigation of his moonlighting business, T & T Temporary Services.

Only in Shelby County can you get a 150 percent raise in seven years and also moonlight as a supplier of temp workers to other government agencies, including the Shelby County trustee's office and the Memphis City Schools.

But back to Williams and Moore.

Williams is no friend of Moore, but he does have a friend in Moore's office named George Reems who, like Williams used to be, is a deputy administrator. Reems owns or used to own -- he isn't clear on this point -- a little moonlighting business himself, called Best Supply. Best Supply shared an office in the 100 North Main Building, Suite 943, with T & T Temporary Services and a third enterprise called Strategic Solutions, owned by one Tim Willis. (More about Willis later.)

Williams told a private investigator working for the Shelby County attorney on the T & T investigation that he has no interest in either Best Supply or Strategic Solutions. The investigator didn't talk to Reems, but he should have.

Reems told The Memphis Flyer this week that Best Supply is not affiliated with T & T and is no longer in business. The company, he said, "sold all kinds of supplies." When asked whom he sold them to, he said, "I have nothing more to say."

But he had something to say to his boss, Jimmy Moore, this week, and it was enough to make Moore call in the county attorney to investigate. Moore told the Flyer that Reems admitted to him Monday that he had a business license, sent out flyers soliciting business to attorneys, and sold supplies to the city of Memphis. Moore said he would have to tell Shelby County Attorney Donnie Wilson about it. Reems then said he had also sold supplies to Calvin Williams for the county commission.

"He said he had sold them six or eight weeks ago but had not gotten paid," said Moore. "He said it was only a couple thousand dollars."

Moore said he reported that to assistant county attorney Danny Presley who, coincidentally, also ran for the clerk's job unsuccessfully against Moore and Williams in the 1994 Republican primary.

"It was a shock to me because George Reems is a top-notch employee who has been here 34 years," Moore said.

Sharing an office and their political contacts, Williams, Reems, and Willis had quite a little business network going.

T & T Temporary Services placed temps with Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson and, as WMC-TV first reported last week, did $24,953 worth of business with the Memphis City Schools and Williams' wife, who works in a special-education program where the temporary workers were placed. Williams was rebuffed, however, by Shelby County Assessor Rita Clark, and it was his irate telephone call to Clark last month that sparked the current investigation.

Willis earned his stripes working for former Juvenile Court Clerk and former Shelby County Commissioner Shep Wilbun, getting $33,000 for "political consulting" for five months in 2001. Willis was also hired by the Public Building Authority to do public relations for the new arena. But he had to give up that gig when the PBA learned he had neglected to tell them he recently pleaded guilty to federal credit-card fraud charges in Mississippi and had a four-month prison sentence pending, which he served this year.

Willis was one of two full-time employees of T & T Temporary Services, working as "chief recruiter." Clark confirmed that he also did work for her office in the past.

Last week, assistant county attorney Brian Kuhn reviewed the private investigator's report and recommended that Williams be suspended with pay while the Shelby County Commission decides what to do. The commission's personnel committee will meet Wednesday, with the full commission meeting Monday, December 16th. Kuhn's report was limited to violations of the county charter and personnel policy. Federal and state authorities will determine whether there have been any violations of criminal law.

For the record, Moore said "I don't use hate words" and was distressed when some people apparently thought he was the one who made the "spit on me if I was on fire" comment.

Glad to clear that up.

Thursday, December 5, 2002

Season of Mistrust

When it comes to public money these days, everybody's watching their back.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 5, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Man, it looks like a cold winter.

The Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission don't trust the contractor, the Public Building Authority, or the PBA's consultant on the Grizzlies arena. On a project that is already a virtual full-employment act for consultants, they want to hire another super-consultant accountable to them.

The commission doesn't trust the county auditors who are looking into county travel and credit-card use so it hauls them into a meeting and puts them on the spot instead of the credit-card abusers.

The county attorney doesn't trust his office's objectivity in the current "sensitive political environment" so it farms out an investigation of county commission administrator Calvin Williams to a freelance investigator. The commission doesn't trust the objectivity of the freelancer so it brings in an old hand to review his report.

The Land Use Control Board doesn't trust the Office of Planning and Development so it overrules its recommendation on the boundaries of a downtown sports and entertainment district.

The city council doesn't trust the Land Use Control Board so it overrules its recommendation and changes the boundaries back the way they were.

The Memphis City Schools Board of Education doesn't trust Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson on the moldy situation at East High School so it demands another investigation.

The white members of the school board don't trust the $14 million being spent to overhaul the air conditioning at two schools so the daily newspaper commissions an expert who says the job could be done for about half that much.

The black members of the school board don't trust the white members or the newspaper so they vote to spend the $14 million anyway.

Is everyone in the holiday spirit yet?

Conflict is par for the course in Memphis politics, but we're breaking new ground, sailing into uncharted waters, taking it up a notch, and all that.

First, the arena. Once upon a time 15 years ago public officials thought that by creating a public building authority and putting some business heavyweights on it they could take politics out of a project. FedEx CEO Fred Smith took the job, The Pyramid got built, and there was a minimal amount of grumbling until Sidney Shlenker came to town to try and fail to develop its interior space at the top and bottom.

The new arena that will sooner or later drive The Pyramid into extinction will cost $250 million, including millions spent on consultants making $250,000 to $450,000 to oversee everything from luxury suites to public relations to the hiring of minorities and union members. Last week David Bennett of the PBA presented the city council with a report listing expenditures to date. The project, he told the council, is on time and within budget. Councilman Myron Lowery and others were not impressed and voted to hire, what else, another consultant.

Second, the school board. Relations between Watson and board members Sara Lewis and Hubon Sandridge have never been good but lately appear to be positively poisonous. East High School has been a career killer for principals and a festering sore for various complaints for more than a decade. It won't be a surprise if Watson doesn't last more than another year. The pending departure of board member Barbara Prescott, an informed and invariably calm voice, won't help matters.

Finally, county government. Mayor A C Wharton said this week he had never seen such an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. While the investigation and long-overdue audit of personal use of county credit cards in the previous administration continues, a new one is under way involving a couple of old political pros, Williams and Assessor Rita Clark.

Shelby County Attorney Donnie Wilson took the unusual step of hiring an outside investigator, attorney Les Bowron, to look into Clark's complaints about being pressured to hire employees from Williams' staffing agency and then being verbally abused by Williams when she wouldn't go along.

Bowron, an attorney since 1982 and a former member of the Wyoming Legislature, interviewed all of the main players and submitted a report to Wilson which was made public this week. The report is both interesting and troubling. Bowron didn't have subpoena power and nobody has been charged with anything. Bowron insists he was merely an independent finder of fact.

But, in a way, Williams has been charged with improper conduct in the report and in the media. As former county attorney Brian Kuhn told the Flyer this week, special investigators are usually used in low-profile sexual-harassment complaints against the county. Clark vs. Williams is a heavyweight bout. Kuhn has, by mutual agreement of the commission and the county attorney, been assigned to take the report wherever it will go next.

Bowron's report and its attached exhibits read like a deposition, or, if you prefer, unedited reality television. When a reporter investigates a story, the public gets a two-minute or 1,500-word story, not the raw notes and outtakes. In Bowron's interview with Williams' "managing partner" Valarie Richardson, to take just one example, you had a trained professional investigator with a law degree skillfully questioning a nervous 33-year-old woman having a hard time getting her answers straight about some very sensitive questions, and then giving the transcript to the county attorney who gave it to the press at their request.

If I were her, I would have wanted a lawyer.

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