Tuesday, October 25, 2005

CITY BEAT: Time for Activism

Civic issues give activists new opportunities.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2005 at 4:00 AM

When politicians behave badly, activists of all kinds have an opportunity to make some serious changes in both the way public business gets done and who does it.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a handful of Midtowners and their attorneys took on federal highway officials, governors, and road builders and succeeded in stopping the completion of Interstate 40 through Overton Park and Midtown. In 1973, the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon from office and helped install a host of Democrats in national, state, and local offices, including Tennessee governor Ray Blanton and U.S. representative Harold Ford. In 1982, lawyers Dan Norwood, Hayden Laite, and David Cocke thwarted a backroom deal to pick the next mayor of Memphis and forced an election instead, which was won in a runoff by a darkhorse candidate named Dick Hackett.

The year 2006 is shaping up as another tipping-point year for Memphis and Shelby County, with issues galore and new opportunities for influencing them via the Internet as well as the old media.

The “long ballot” for the 2006 election will include all Shelby County commissioners and elected officials as well as state judges (but not city officials). Term limits will remove five members of the Shelby County Commission.

Operation Tennessee Waltz has knocked out state senators John Ford and Kathryn Bowers and former Senator Roscoe Dixon along with Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks. Calvin Williams, former chief administrator for the commission, has also been indicted. There could be more indictments of public officials, especially if some of those already indicted decide to cooperate with prosecutors.

A referendum on overhauling the city of Memphis charter could be held in 2006 in conjunction with the special election to fill the City Council seat being vacated by Janet Hooks. Accountant John Lunt gets credit for helping organize the petition drive that gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

Herenton isn’t on the ballot in 2006, but he’s out there raising money and support for another run in 2007, and anyone who entertains thoughts of challenging him had better get busy soon. For better or worse, Memphis Light Gas & Water is now his baby. The winter of 2005-2006 will be the most expensive ever for customers, with billing increases of at least 50 percent expected. Herenton’s hand-picked MLGW president, Joseph Lee, will have to explain the impact of fuel costs and administrative and wage expenses to a skeptical public. Some disgruntled former employees will be watching and sharing their thoughts with each other and reporters.

MLGW and The Pyramid are frequent targets of criticism, but nitty-gritty issues that got little or no attention from the media a decade ago are suddenly making headlines and drawing comments at public meetings.

Tax freezes for businesses, impact fees for homebuilders, pension benefits for public employees, and the process of choosing sites for new public schools are all getting more scrutiny from the media and elected officials. Bloggers and citizen activists like Joe Saino applied the pressure that helped make that happen.

The group Friends for Our Riverfront criticized the downtown land bridge for years before the Riverfront Development Corporation killed the idea this month. Friends now has its sights on the promenade plan.

The Rev. LaSimba Gray has made the Shelby County Board of Education more accountable to residents of southeastern Shelby County. Over an earlier 15-year period, nine county school sites were chosen by the board and the superintendent’s staff on the recommendation of a single developer, Waymon “Jackie” Welch.

Minority contractors organized to get a fair share of business from the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority during the construction of FedExForum.

Former Park Commission chairman John Malmo is on a mission to hold City Council members responsible for gutting the commission and to see that parks are not sold off for the sake of general city operating revenues.

As long as politicians live down to their public image, these and other activists, gadflies, bloggers, and grouches will have their day in 2006.

Want to respond? Send us an email here.

Friday, October 21, 2005

A Dam Shame

The dam was damned from the start. So how did it survive so long?

Posted By on Fri, Oct 21, 2005 at 4:00 AM

On Monday, the Riverfront Development Corporation unanimously voted to remove the land bridge or dam between downtown and Mud Island from its strategic and implementation plans. Not a single member expressed support for what can fairly be called a $100 million turkey, although the exact dollars are anyone's guess.

Members of the illustrious RDC board agreed that the dam was unnecessary, unfeasible, and so unpopular that it was a general hindrance to the RDC, the five-year-old nonprofit agency responsible for developing and maintaining the public riverfront.

Better late than never. But the history of the land bridge is an instructive lesson in public process in Memphis.

One of the first people to propose it was E.H. Crump, the political boss of Memphis, who made the suggestion to a newspaper reporter in 1953, 25 years before work began on Mud Island River Park. But the latest 38-acre brainstorm was the product of a group of consultants -- Cooper, Robertson & Partners -- who were hired in 2000 and paid $750,000 for a 50-year master plan whose relevance is suddenly nil.

Nice work if you can get it.

High-priced consultants don't materialize out of thin air. Mayor Willie Herenton hosted public forums on the riverfront in 1999 and supported the creation of the RDC, which supplanted the Memphis Park Commission, in 2000. A former city division director, Benny Lendermon, was hired to run it. The board was packed with influential downtowners and celebrities such as Cybill Shepherd and Jerry West.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners conducted a series of community meetings on the riverfront. After 18 months, they issued a Memphis Riverfront Master Plan. Its centerpiece, literally, was the land bridge or dam between Court Avenue and Poplar Avenue. Whence it came, no one really knows. Community forums, like reporters' interviews, are a small and subjective sampling of public opinion. It is usually a stretch to generalize from them, but consultants and reporters do it all the time.

My guess is that high-priced consulting is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For $750,000, Cooper, Robertson & Partners couldn't very well stop with such common-sense recommendations as a better boat landing, well-manicured parks with additional activities, an improved Promenade, and a nicely lighted sidewalk from Tom Lee Park to The Pyramid. For a big price, there had to be a big deal.

The land bridge was always couched in uncertainty: It might not be built for several years, it might or might not have high-rise buildings on it, it might or might not screw up the Wolf River harbor, it might or might not be paid for by private development. But it was too big to ignore. It was right there in the models and renderings. Of course people were going to react to it, and react they did. A second group of consultants, the Urban Land Institute, which was paid $110,000, threw up a bunch of red flags in 2003 but stopped short of recommending that the land bridge not be built.

For a while, Lendermon and the RDC tried to downplay the land bridge by pushing back the timetable. But everything else in the master plan was contingent upon it in some way. The death blow probably came last month when Jack Belz, developer of Peabody Place and the Peabody hotel, ripped it in a speech to a civic group.

Once the dam was broken, the flood broke through. RDC board members led by Dan Turley, Angus McEachran, Rickey Peete, and Kevin Kane, said kill it and kill it good. "It's not going to go away if we are vague," McEachran said. Board member Jim Hunt noted that nearly half the board members were absent and that the decision would reverse years of planning. Heads nodded in agreement.

By my watch, the RDC "debate" lasted five minutes. The land bridge was a dead duck, and the RDC's new signature project is the $27.5 million Beale Street Landing, which has its own critics but looks like a relative bargain and will probably get built.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

CITY BEAT: A Dam Shame

A downtown land bridge to Mud Island meets an early demise.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The dam was damned from the start. So how did it survive so long?

On Monday, the Riverfront Development Corporation unanimously voted to remove the land bridge or dam between downtown and Mud Island from its strategic and implementation plans. Not a single member expressed support for what can fairly be called a $100 million turkey, although the exact dollars are anyone’s guess.

Members of the illustrious RDC board agreed that the dam was unnecessary, unfeasible, and so unpopular that it was a general hindrance to the RDC, the five-year-old nonprofit agency responsible for developing and maintaining the public riverfront.

Better late than never. But the history of the land bridge is an instructive lesson in public process in Memphis.

One of the first people to propose it was E.H. Crump, the political boss of Memphis, who made the suggestion to a newspaper reporter in 1953, 25 years before work began on Mud Island River Park. But the latest 38-acre brainstorm was the product of a group of consultants — Cooper, Robertson & Partners — who were hired in 2000 and paid $750,000 for a 50-year master plan whose relevance is suddenly nil. Nice work if you can get it.

High-priced consultants don’t materialize out of thin air. Mayor Willie Herenton hosted public forums on the riverfront in 1999 and supported the creation of the RDC, which supplanted the Memphis Park Commission, in 2000. A former city division director, Benny Lendermon, was hired to run it. The board was packed with influential downtowners and celebrities such as Cybill Shepherd and Jerry West.

Cooper, Robertson & Partners conducted a series of community meetings on the riverfront. After 18 months, they issued a Memphis Riverfront Master Plan. Its centerpiece, literally, was the land bridge or dam between Court Avenue and Poplar Avenue. Whence it came, no one really knows. Community forums, like reporters’ interviews, are a small and subjective sampling of public opinion. It is usually a stretch to generalize from them, but consultants and reporters do it all the time.

My guess is that high-priced consulting is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For $750,000, Cooper, Robertson & Partners couldn’t very well stop with such common-sense recommendations as a better boat landing, well-manicured parks with additional activities, an improved Promenade, and a nicely lighted sidewalk from Tom Lee Park to The Pyramid.

For a big price, there had to be a big deal.

The land bridge was always couched in uncertainty: It might not be built for several years, it might or might not have high-rise buildings on it, it might or might not screw up the Wolf River harbor, it might or might not be paid for by private development. But it was too big to ignore. It was right there in the models and renderings. Of course people were going to react to it, and react they did. A second group of consultants, the Urban Land Institute, which was paid $110,000, threw up a bunch of red flags in 2003 but stopped short of recommending that the land bridge not be built.

For a while, Lendermon and the RDC tried to downplay the land bridge by pushing back the timetable. But everything else in the master plan was contingent upon it in some way. The death blow probably came last month when Jack Belz, developer of Peabody Place and the Peabody Hotel, ripped it in a speech to a civic group.

Once the dam was broken, the flood broke through. RDC board members led by Dan Turley, Angus McEachran, Rickey Peete, and Kevin Kane, said kill it and kill it good. “It’s not going to go away if we are vague,” McEachran said. Board member Jim Hunt noted that nearly half the board members were absent and that the decision would reverse years of planning. Heads nodded in agreement.

By my watch, the RDC “debate” lasted five minutes. The land bridge was a dead duck, and the RDC’s new signature project is the $27.5 million Beale Street Landing, which has its own critics but looks like a relative bargain and will probably get built.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Support Your Local Newspaper

Why printed newspapers need us, and why we need them.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Newspapers are in trouble. From New York to Memphis to Los Angeles, they're losing advertisers and readers and cutting their budgets and their staffs.

The problem, we have decided, is the Internet. Young people spend way more time on computers than they do holding newspapers. So newspapers are putting their content on line and trying to figure out how to get advertisers and even readers to pay for it.

The funny thing is, if the printed newspaper had been invented as an improvement to the online newspaper, people would recognize its advantages. Such as:

Newspapers respect your privacy. When you read a newspaper online you get pop-up ads and cookies that tell strangers where you go and what your interests are. What you read in the paper is your own damn business.

The printed newspaper is a perfect information delivery system. It is ideally suited to taking to bed, the kitchen, the coffee shop, or the bathroom. You can pick and choose what to read and when to read it. You can tear out articles and ads you want to save or give to someone or leave on your dresser or in your pants pocket.

Anyone who tells you they're reading a newspaper on a cell phone is lying. At most, they're glancing at headlines. It's hard enough to read a newspaper on a laptop computer screen much less a desktop. You can take a laptop to the bathroom, but that's uncouth. Bathrooms and newspapers, on the other hand, were made for each other.

If you don't have broadband, it takes a long time to load stories, and there is always the possibility that your computer will crash or lock up, especially if the story has a lot of pictures. Newspapers get wet but they don't crash. I can only remember two times in the last 24 years when my daily newspaper was not delivered to my driveway or front door.

The newspapers you carry around or leave on your coffee table or desk make a statement about the kind of person you are. A computer or BlackBerry makes a statement about what you can buy.

You can read a newspaper and talk about it with the people you live with as a morning ritual. It's a communal experience. Gazing at a computer is a personal experience.

The printed newspaper is morally superior to the computer. General circulation newspapers don't have porno in them. You have a better chance of influencing your children to read, stay informed, and think about current events with a newspaper than a computer. The fact that the news is not about them is exactly the point -- there's a big world out there, kid, and it ain't all about you and your friends.

Newspapers have good manners. If you want to pester the crap out of your friends by telling them what you're reading or what some pretentious columnist is thinking even though they don't care, you have to buy several copies or print them on a copier and hand them out. By the time you do that you're out a few bucks and several minutes and your friends are probably off the hook. With a computer and e-mail, they don't have a chance.

Newspapers are a bargain. That's especially true of this one, which is free, but it's also true of The Commercial Appeal, which is getting better, and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which have more information in them each day than most books. Those two newspapers charge for online content, as well they should. Value for value. Full access to The New York Times costs about $50 a year. A year of AOL and its idiotic promotions and features costs about $300.

Finally, printed newspapers support working journalists. So what?, you say. Well, somebody has to gather information by going to meetings and interesting places and events and talking to people with different points of view. Somebody has to pay for that, and so far online advertising doesn't come close. Opinions and blogs and summaries of other people's work may be interesting, but they're not news. So go buy a paper.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

CITY BEAT: Support Your Local Newspaper

Why printed newspapers need us, and why we need them.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 11, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Newspapers are in trouble. From New York to Memphis to Los Angeles, they’re losing advertisers and readers and cutting their budgets and their staffs.

The problem, we have decided, is the Internet. Young people spend way more time on computers than they do holding newspapers. So newspapers are putting their content on line and trying to figure out how to get advertisers and even readers to pay for it.

The funny thing is, if the printed newspaper had been invented as an improvement to the online newspaper, people would recognize its advantages. Such as:

Newspapers respect your privacy. When you read a newspaper online you get pop-up ads and cookies that tell strangers where you go and what your interests are. What you read in the paper is your own damn business.

The printed newspaper is a perfect information delivery system. It is ideally suited to taking to bed, the kitchen, the coffee shop, or the bathroom. You can pick and choose what to read and when to read it. You can tear out articles and ads you want to save or give to someone or leave on your dresser or in your pants pocket.

Anyone who tells you they’re reading a newspaper on a cell phone is lying. At most, they’re glancing at headlines. It’s hard enough to read a newspaper on a laptop computer screen — much less a desktop. You can take a laptop to the bathroom, but that’s uncouth. Bathrooms and newspapers, on the other hand, were made for each other.

If you don’t have broadband, it takes a long time to load stories, and there is always the possibility that your computer will crash or lock up, especially if the story has a lot of pictures. Newspapers get wet but they don’t crash. I can only remember two times in the last 24 years when my daily newspaper was not delivered to my driveway or front door.

The newspapers you carry around or leave on your coffee table or desk make a statement about the kind of person you are. A computer or BlackBerry makes a statement about what you can buy.

You can read a newspaper and talk about it with the people you live with as a morning ritual. It’s a communal experience. Gazing at a computer is a personal experience.

The printed newspaper is morally superior to the computer. General circulation newspapers don’t have porno in them. You have a better chance of influencing your children to read, stay informed, and think about current events with a newspaper than a computer. The fact that the news is not about them is exactly the point — there’s a big world out there, kid, and it ain’t all about you and your friends.

Newspapers have good manners. If you want to pester the crap out of your friends by telling them what you’re reading or what some pretentious columnist is thinking even though they don’t care, you have to buy several copies or print them on a copier and hand them out. By the time you do that you’re out a few bucks and several minutes and your friends are probably off the hook. With a computer and e-mail, they don’t have a chance.

Newspapers are a bargain. That’s especially true of this one, which is free, but it’s also true of The Commercial Appeal, which is getting better, and The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, which have more information in them each day than most books. Those two newspapers charge for online content, as well they should. Value for value. Full access to The New York Times costs about $50 a year. A year of AOL and its idiotic promotions and features costs about $300.

Finally, printed newspapers support working journalists. So what?, you say. Well, somebody has to gather information by going to meetings and interesting places and events and talking to people with different points of view. Somebody has to pay for that, and so far online advertising doesn’t come close. Opinions and blogs and summaries of other people’s work may be interesting, but they’re not news. So go buy a paper.

Want to respond? Send us an email here.

Friday, October 7, 2005

Radioactive Politics

Is there a financial motivation behind opposition to a radioactive-waste incinerator?

Posted By on Fri, Oct 7, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The rallying cry for opponents of a proposed radioactive-waste incinerator on Presidents Island is a real zinger: "Hell No We Won't Glow."

But exactly what does this takeoff on a 1960s antiwar slogan mean? That Memphians will glow like lightbulbs if the proposal is approved by the Memphis City Council on October 11th? That there should be a ban on radioactive-waste incinerators? That radiation is so dangerous that we should all stop going to the doctor and dentist?

No one knows better than the opponents themselves that there is a place in this modern world for companies that dispose of radioactive waste.

And one place is in the investment portfolios of anyone (including me) who owns shares in the Longleaf mutual funds managed by Memphis-based Southeastern Asset Management. Vivendi Universal, a global conglomerate with businesses as diverse as entertainment and waste management, is the largest single holding in the Longleaf Partners fund. Waste Management Inc. is another company in the Longleaf fund. The total value of those investments is approximately $900 million.

C.T. and Kelley Fitzpatrick are secretary and president of MemphisTruth.org, the umbrella organization for those opposing the incinerator proposal by Radiological Assistance, Consulting, and Engineering (RACE). C.T. Fitzpatrick is a vice president and financial adviser for Longleaf Partners. Kelley is his wife.

With $30 million in annual revenues, RACE is not likely to put Vivendi or Waste Management or their subsidiaries out of business. It is more like a flea on the back of an elephant, but it is a competitor nevertheless.

"This is a break-the-company deal," said Robert Applebaum, co-chairman of RACE. "Without the permit, we couldn't do what we do."

The connection between a vice president of Southeastern Asset Management and MemphisTruth.org was brought out by RACE attorney Robert Spence last week.

"How can the Fitzpatricks truly be against radioactive-waste processing and incineration yet have investments in companies which perform those services?" asked Applebaum.

The proposed incinerator has become a fairly big story because of the emotional arguments and the pressure being applied to the City Council. Opponents are represented by Richard Fields, a veteran civil rights attorney. Spence is a former city attorney and school board candidate. Kelley Fitzpatrick, a former Wall Street trader, describes herself as "a mom going into PTA mode and panicking" when she read a short newspaper story about RACE in February.

"I couldn't believe an incinerator [for radioactive waste] was going in a metropolitan area," she said. "Nobody seemed to have any outrage. I was naive enough to think I will do it myself. My husband said, 'I will be your secretary. Go for it.'"

C.T. Fitzpatrick said he is involved in numerous civic activities, and it is "laughable" to think his company has a vested interest in this issue.

"From an economic point of view, I could not care less," he said. "MemphisTruth is not opposed to RACE operating a nuclear-waste incinerator. We are opposed to operating a facility like this in a large metropolitan area. We think the risks are unacceptable."

RACE was founded in 1999 by Applebaum and Gerald Webb. Applebaum formerly worked for the Frank W. Hake waste company on Presidents Island, has a master's degree in health physics, and served on a nuclear submarine in the Navy. RACE is a privately held company, unlike Vivendi and Waste Management, in which individuals can buy stock. RACE has facilities only in Memphis.

The City Council will have to weigh whether a company that plans to process millions of pounds of radioactive waste is "absolutely safe," as Applebaum said. Presidents Island is an industrial park where employees do dirty jobs and are not likely to belong to the Sierra Club. Unless you work there, there is no reason to visit.

It is often said that if you like hot dogs you are better off not seeing how they are made. Something like that may apply to the business of radioactive waste. Most of us have no idea how hospitals, manufacturers, and bioscience centers get rid of their ugly mess. We are about to find out.

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