Friday, September 24, 2004

[City Beat] Real Deal?

The Tom Jones pension issue is

still very much alive.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 24, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Former Shelby County mayoral aide Tom Jones is expected to be back on the Shelby County Retirement Board's agenda next month. And the board's decision could have expensive consequences not just for Jones but for other county employees.

The issue is whether Jones is entitled to early retirement benefits worth $3,090 per month because he was put back on the county employment rolls for four days earlier this year after he was 55 years old. In the county system, age 55 is a threshold for higher benefits. The board will have to determine whether Jones was an employee, even though he apparently did no work and was not paid. That decision will impact his pension.

Shelby County mayor A C Wharton is once again enmeshed in a story that won't go away. He said Monday he is "99 percent certain" he will recuse himself if the issue comes before the retirement board in October, because "the way I feel is pretty obvious."

Jones is serving a one-year term in a federal correctional facility in Forrest City, Arkansas, for embezzlement with a county credit card. After working for three county mayors, he was not reappointed by Wharton in 2002. In May, Jones exercised his "fall-back rights" as a civil-service employee 28 years ago. Some paperwork was produced, and apparently without Wharton being aware of it, Jones was approved by the administrator of the retirement board for an increase in his pension from $1,595 to $3,090 per month.

In July, Wharton, who serves as chairman of the retirement board, got wind of what was going on. At the August board meeting, he persuaded members to rescind the increase. A week later, he forced mayoral aides Bobby Lanier and Susan Adler Thorp to resign over their roles in the Jones case. Two other county employees were reprimanded for facilitating the increase, which would be worth more than $500,000 to Jones, 56, if he lives another 30 years.

Beyond that, Jones could set a precedent for other county employees who voluntarily leave county employment before they are 55 years old and then have second thoughts and come back to work for a few days under fall-back rights after they turn 55.

"The plan itself has a gap or glitch in it that applies not just to the Tom Jones issue," said Susan Callison, private attorney for the retirement board. "Let's assume I work for the county, and I quit to get a better job, when I am 54 years old. And then I realize I am getting a crummy pension or I don't like the job. Then I could go to, say, another county official and ask them to hire me after I turn 55 and let me work a few days. That is a flaw."

Theoretically, at least, the flaw could cost Shelby County, already in debt up to its eyeballs, millions of dollars in pension obligations. Callison said she does not know if other employees may have already exploited the loophole.

Callison said she still thinks such a "return" to county employment is not sufficient to trigger early retirement benefits. But in a letter to board members she wrote that there are "rational arguments both in favor of and against this conclusion." What got the county off the hook in August was a procedural error within the retirement system.

Now the issue is bigger than the retirement board. Another private attorney, Jeff Weintraub, has been hired by the county to look into the Jones case. Weintraub confirmed his hiring but said he could not comment at this time.

Among the questions to be answered:

Was Jones paid for the three or four days, and, if not, should he be?

Did he report for work, and if so, where and what did he do and for whom?

If it turns out that Jones was paid, "then I think it will be a harder case," said Callison, but she still believes it is "a common-sense sort of thing that he was not an employee." Weintraub will file his report before the October meeting of the retirement board. Then the board will vote, and "if there are seven votes in favor of Jones getting an early retirement pension, he will get it," Callison said.

County records show Jones was "hired" on May 28, 2004, a Friday. On June 1, 2004, a Tuesday after the Memorial Day holiday, Jones informed the county by letter that "I am resigning from county employment, effective immediately." He requested that his application for early retirement benefits be processed effective that day.

After the August reversal, he reapplied for an early retirement pension. His case was first set for September 7th but postponed until October 5th at the request of his wife, Carolyn Hays Jones, because the attorney she hired, Bruce Kramer, was in trial. •

Pride and Prejudice

Pagan Pride Day organizers hope to dispel misconceptions and have fun.

Posted on Fri, Sep 24, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Around this time last year, more than 300 people gathered at the Overton Park Shell to watch local musicians perform, attend workshops, and purchase crafts and other goodies. Many dined on the usual festival food -- corn dogs and funnel cakes -- and some used the opportunity to meet new people.

To casual observers, it looked like every other event at the shell. And then came the ritual.

About 25 individuals, some wearing robes, ascended the stage. As they formed a circle and called out the names of various gods and goddesses, it became obvious this was a unique event. A giant banner outside the fence of the shell announced "Pagan Pride Day 2003."

This year's festival is set for Sunday, September 26th, at the shell. Pagan Pride Day's Cerea, who asked the Flyer to use her craft name, is hoping the event will draw pagans and nonpagans alike.

"The purpose of Pagan Pride Day is to educate people about who we are so we can try to change those thoughts they have about us being devil worshipers and evil people," Cerea says.

Paganism is a broad term used to represent a number of different polytheistic beliefs. Wiccans, druids, shamans, and various other faiths fall under the pagan umbrella. It's a bit like using the term "Christian" to encompass all of its denominations.

While specific beliefs vary, pagans generally worship a number of gods and goddesses, and most believe those deities are part of one larger life force or creator. Paganism is also a nature-centered spirituality and is often characterized by a lack of strict doctrine. Pagans do not believe in Satan.

It's these basic tenets that Pagan Pride organizer Cerea and her team of over two dozen hope to teach nonpagans. Memphis' event is one of 135 planned for 44 states and seven countries this year. They are all part of the Pagan Pride Project (PPP), a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating prejudice based on religious beliefs. The first Pagan Pride Day celebrations were held in 1997, and there were only 18 throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The first event in Memphis was held in 1998 at Overton Park outside the gates of the shell. According to that event's organizer, Lynda Logan, about 50 people attended, while a few curious onlookers watched from a distance. Logan continued to organize Memphis festivals until she moved away in 2001.

"Then Cerea finally decided to quit waiting for someone else to do it," says Logan. "I turned all my ideas and contact numbers over to her, and she built what is now Pagan Pride Day in Memphis from the bare bones."

At Sunday's event, public ritual is planned, focusing on community-building and tolerance. Anyone, regardless of religion, may join in. Members of the Southern Delta Church of Wicca from Jonesboro, Arkansas, will also perform a skit about Mabon, a harvest holiday that celebrates the autumn equinox.

Pagan singer-songwriters such as Memphis' Skinny White Chick and Arkansas' Sede will play, and Rhythm Realm will entertain with drumming. The Shining Wheel Pagan Chorus from Clearwater, Florida, will perform ritual chants. Cedar Woman, a member of Summerland Grove's pagan church, will lead a Native American pipe circle.

There will be three workshops: one highlighting the differences between paganism and satanism, one on the importance of community, and another on druidism. A number of vendors will be selling everything from swords and etched glass to herbal soaps and dream pillows.

The festival is free, but Cerea suggests bringing two cans of food to be donated to Friends for Life. Last year, more than 300 pounds of food were collected for another local charity. When Cerea contacted the organization to tell them she had a donation, they never returned her calls. The food was eventually donated to Friends for Life.

Cerea sees the first charity's snub as the sort of prejudice she's hoping the event will quash. But she's ready for controversy.

"We're here to have fun, but everyone working on staff will have their eyes out for people trying to cause trouble," says Cerea. "We wouldn't cause problems at their church picnic, and we expect them to do the same." •

Pagan Pride Day will be held at the Overton Park Shell from 1 to 9 p.m. on Sunday, September 26th. For more information, go to http://www.geocities.com/paganpridememphis/PaganPride.htm

Friday, September 17, 2004

A Balancing Act

Carol Molder uses energy to bring balance and harmony to animals.

Posted By on Fri, Sep 17, 2004 at 4:00 AM

When Carol Molder's 14-year-old miniature schnauzer got sick, she knew exactly what to do. During the last two weeks of his life, she spent about 30 minutes a day channeling spiritual energy into his body. When he finally died of congestive heart failure, he was sleeping, and Molder believes he felt no pain.

Molder was practicing attunement, a method of healing that channels pure energy from a higher power. While most attunements are typically performed on humans, Molder prefers to assist dogs and cats. She began Animal Attunement about a year and a half ago after being certified in a training course in Kansas City, Missouri.

"Animals take on our stresses, and they act as a buffer between us and the world," Molder says. "We have to keep them balanced so they don't get overly stressed and manifest the same diseases that people do."

Her patients range from animals overwhelmed with living in a multi-animal household to those with more serious illnesses such as feline leukemia and HIV. Molder believes that she can bring balance and harmony to sick or distressed animals by channeling energy through her hands, which are generally hovered a few inches away from the animal. In order to remain a channel for spiritual energy, Molder practices a lifestyle of nonjudgment.

Attunement and similar energy-healing practices such as reiki, a Japanese stress-reduction and pain-relief technique, are becoming increasingly common as a form of holistic and alternative medicine.

As for Molder's decision to work with animals, she says, "They have the same bodily functions that we do, like the endocrine system, the skeletal system, and the digestive system. I've just modified the attunement modalities to work with their systems to bring balance and healing. It creates a bridge between them and their people."

If someone brings in a stressed-out cat for treatment, Molder begins by talking with the pet owner to get a feel for why the cat is feeling out-of-sorts. She then balances the owner's cervicals in the neck area. In order to balance the pet's energy, she must first balance the owner's.

Next, Molder gets to know the cat by petting it and allowing it to get comfortable with her. Once the animal is calm, she works on the cat's cervicals and the top of its head. She then moves down the animal's body with her hands as she focuses on channeling energy.

"The energy is going to go wherever it needs to go because energy follows intent," says Molder.

"If my intent is on healing this animal, I have to channel that through the spirit to find the intent in my hands. While I'm doing this, the [pet owner] needs to focus their love onto the animal."

The healing can take about 50 minutes. Molder's services are mobile since some animals, especially cats, can become nervous when taken outside the home. She can also do long-distance healing for animals who are located outside of the city, although she says she's still working on perfecting this technique.

Molder doesn't claim to be a miracle healer, and she makes it clear that successful attunements can only be achieved in conjunction with regular veterinary care.

And not all animals can be helped with one attunement. Depending on the nature of the problem, it can take several visits before results are noticed.

"The younger the animal, the harder it is for them to hold the energy. An older animal can hold it for longer," says Molder. "And it also depends on what's wrong with them. If it's something chronic, it would take more time." •

To contact Carol Molder, call 283-6694. For more information on attunement, go to www.heartattune.com or www.attunementpractitioners.org.

The Cost of Care

City Council debates change in health care.

Posted on Fri, Sep 17, 2004 at 4:00 AM

During last week's City Council meeting, the city's human resources director, Dr. Lorene Essex, updated the council on the health-care committee's plan to change the city's health benefits vendor from CIGNA to United Healthcare. CIGNA has provided services to about 6,000 city employees for the past three years. In a report last month conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, the city's health-plan expenses were projected to increase by almost 15 percent. With the vendor change, cost increases would be less than 8 percent.

The council voted to delay the decision for two weeks to give city administrators time to present more information on the new provider plan. City benefits manager Pearl Gibson said that all council questions would be answered at the next presentation.

Also at issue is whether the council can even legally direct such decisions or if the mayor and the administrative offices have the right to make changes to the health-care plan without the council's consent.

Still, council members didn't seem to be deterred from becoming involved in the issue. "This is an economic issue, and I believe the council should have a position on it and take a vote on it," said councilman Rickey Peete. "The plan change equates to a $95 increase per month for families, and I want to see that addressed." Peete and other council members expressed concern about additional deductions under the new vendor.

Essex detailed several reasons for the change, including a lower bid by United and numerous customer complaints about CIGNA. CIGNA filed a bid protest with the city on August 27th. The company's contract with the city expires December 31st.•

Friday, September 10, 2004

Taken to Heart

HBO premieres documentary featuring Memphis surgeon, children's foundation.

Posted on Fri, Sep 10, 2004 at 4:00 AM

In the documentary Chernobyl Heart, pediatric heart surgeon Dr. William Novick of Memphis cries after a successful surgery. The scene takes place in a dimly lit stairwell, so his tears are not visible to the camera. Nonetheless, his emotions are there, upfront and center.

Novick is the lead surgeon for the International Children's Heart Foundation (ICHF), which travels around the world providing heart surgery to needy children. The foundation's efforts in northern Belarus and northern Ukraine, the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion, are chronicled in the film, which focuses on the disaster's affect on the area's children.

Produced and directed by Maryann DeLeo, Chernobyl Heart won this year's Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. The film is making its television debut on HBO Thursday, September 9th, along with Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable by Rory Kennedy.

DeLeo's documentary opens in the "exclusion zone," the most radioactive area on earth where children cannot legally live. The film follows Adi Roche, founder of Ireland's Chernobyl Children's Project (CCP). The film crew visits various hospitals, adoption agencies, and mental-health institutions, all handling children with birth and heart defects linked to the Chernobyl accident.

During a Memphis screening last week, the audience was warned about the film's graphic scenes. The warning was not enough. Several images of deformed, handicapped, and tumored children filled the screen. Institutions were overflowing with abandoned or neglected children born during or after the incident.

"One percent of all children are born with heart defects, but only about 50 percent of those need heart surgery," says Novick. "What makes Belarus and northern Ukraine unique is not that [the children] had congenital heart disease but that we saw a very high incidence of particular heart defects that are extremely rare in the rest of the world."

For Novick, the emotional surgery featured in Chernobyl Heart is just one of many performed by his team each year. Novick and ICHF have performed lifesaving surgeries around the world since 1993, with their first mission to Zagreb, Croatia. Their work began in the Chernobyl area in 1994, with 28 surgeries. Supplies and airfare are donated.

Since that time, the organization has expanded to other parts of the world, including South America and China, with almost a dozen trips each year, totaling 2,000 surgeries in 17 countries to date. Part of that expansion includes additional surgeries in Belarus, with five more years of travel funded through Roche's CCP organization.

Even with the increased trips, most of the affected children will not be seen by ICHF's staff. "Our problem is the problem of all charities: We have more work than we have money," says Novick. When the program began, children were flown to Memphis' Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. When costs increased to $30,000 per surgery, the foundation decided to take a more cost-effective route and go to the children. Now surgeries cost just $1,700 per child.

"The film has helped [ICHF] in terms of awareness, not in terms of dollars yet," says Novick. "It has allowed other doctors in the United States doing this type of work to coordinate our efforts."

ICHF's goal this year is to perform 350 to 400 surgeries. To reach that goal, additional surgeons have been brought on board to oversee projects in other countries. To make a more lasting impact, the foundation is conducting training sessions for physicians in the affected countries on detecting heart ailments, early treatment, and surgery.

DeLeo says her film idea grew out of a desire to give "voice to the voiceless." "There are too many kids out there who are suffering," she says. "When I realized how many kids had been affected, it was shocking. I think it's a story that has to be told."

The Memphis screening of Chernobyl Heart was preceded by Indian Point, Rory Kennedy's documentary that details the potential for a nuclear disaster at the Indian Point power plant in New York. Viewers will recognize Kennedy as the younger sister of Robert Jr., who is featured prominently in the film for his fight to close the facility. The film explores the facility's proximity to Manhattan (35 miles south), its security procedures, and government oversight. Through interviews, internal investigations, and computerized simulations, Kennedy makes the case for the facility as a possible target for terrorists.

Both films will run on HBO during a 21-day period. Check HBO.com for listings.

Friday, September 3, 2004

"A New Perspective"

Tomeka Hart is looking to unseat longtime school board member Hubon Sandridge.

Posted on Fri, Sep 3, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Ask Tomeka Hart about her career aspirations and she's quick to point out that she's not a politician. She says that two terms on the Memphis City Schools board will probably be the extent of her public service. If she's lucky.

Her political future depends on the voters of District 7, who for 17 years have been represented on the school board by the Rev. Hubon Sandridge. If Hart wins, the 33-year-old lawyer will represent a district that includes five of this year's No Child Left Behind failing schools. She says she is ready for the challenge.

"My main issue is and always will be the children," says Hart. "Every decision the board makes should be determined by the question, Does it benefit the students? If it doesn't, I will vote against it. We have to somehow get everyone involved in the education process, especially parents. If they won't come to the schools, we've got to go to them."

After graduating from Trezevant High School and the University of Tennessee, Hart moved to Georgia and taught junior high and high school business courses in Cobb County. When she decided to go to law school, her mother convinced her to return home and apply to the University of Memphis. "I was so surprised when I moved back and heard all the negative news about the school board," says Hart. "Our kids deserve so much better than what they are getting, which is a lot of grandstanding."

Cardell Orrin, Hart's campaign manager, says his candidate offers a "new perspective." Hart and Orrin plan to meet with community organizations, parents, and students during a door-to-door introduction campaign. Orrin says he wants to raise $25,000 for his candidate. Hart is also backed by a young professional organization called New Path, and Orrin has organized volunteers from that group and is meeting with potential contributors. Last week, there was a fund-raiser for Hart in the South Main district.

Although Hart has not talked with Sandridge, she knows his platform and his board history. "I don't see this as old versus young, but you have to have a change in ideas," she says.

The platforms of Hart and Sandridge, 54, are almost completely opposite. Sandridge supports corporal punishment; Hart opposes it. Sandridge vehemently opposes closing underpopulated schools, specifically Manassas High; if closing a school is in the best interest of students, Hart would support it.

"I do not think [this position] should be a lifetime appointment," she says. "If you haven't made a difference and empowered somebody else in that time, then it's time to move on."

But being in politics is a lifetime appointment, says Sandridge. "They're [Hart and other opponents] just campaigning. You don't just run a race to get out there. You have to be on the field every day," he says. "Don't get me wrong. I'm delighted to see the interest in these young people, but I don't ever intend to get out of the political arena, because it patrols our lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Sandridge has been criticized for his tumultuous relationships with other board members. His antics, including yelling, finger-pointing, and stormy walkouts, have all been chronicled by local television. Still, Sandridge doesn't seem worried about his reelection chances. "My constituency knows me. The record is what you run on," he says. "The arguing within the board is not always fighting, but what you call political debate. All you see on TV is me arguing, but I'm just a passionate leader. And at the end of the day [the media] does not show what happens positively."

Hart is single, has no children, and works for the law firm of Young and Perl as a labor and employment attorney. "What shocks me the most is when people ask why I care, since I don't have any children in the school system," she says. "Do we have to have kids in the system to care? We have to care because we will pay for not caring about these students, one way or another."

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