Tuesday, January 31, 2006

CITY BEAT: Deferred Gratification

As endowments soar, Memphis and Mississippi State

Posted By on Tue, Jan 31, 2006 at 4:00 AM

New Page 1

 If you’re going to college, plan to go to college, or paying for someone else to go to college, a recent report on endowments might surprise you.

College endowments are loaded, and they’re growing as much as 25 percent each year. The increase is due to a combination of exceptionally large gifts and investment gains.  The University of Memphis has been one of the big winners, with a $175 million endowment and a gain of nearly 16 percent last year.

Other colleges and universities in Tennessee and the Mid-South saw gains ranging from 5.2 percent at Rhodes College to 23 percent at Mississippi State University. A bigger endowment means more financial aid for students, said David Easley, chief financial officer of the Mississippi State University Foundation, where about half of the endowment income goes toward scholarships.

The National Association of College and University Business Officers publishes a report each year on endowments of 746 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. Their Web site, nacubo.org, has the full report.

Harvard, with $25.5 billion, has the largest endowment. The only university in Tennessee with an endowment of more than $1 billion is Vanderbilt, with $2.6 billion.

The big gain at Mississippi State was due to fulfillment of a $25 million pledge from a private donor. The university earned a return of 8.4 percent on its investments, which is slightly below the 9.3 percent average return for all colleges in the 2005 survey. At the University of Memphis, three gifts of more than $1 million boosted the endowment, said Julie Johnson, vice-president of Advancement.

For students, parents, and donors, endowment surveys point out things that may not be heralded in the institution’s alumni publications or fund-raising appeals.

Endowment gifts, as opposed to, say, gifts to the athletic department, don’t get spent right away. Donors are helping future generations of college students live off the interest. College financial officials say that, on average, they spend only four to five percent of the endowment each year. If inflation takes three percent and management fees another ibe percent, a  nine-percent return keeps the endowment at roughly the same level.

It’s never a good thing to lag one’s peer group, and endowments are no exception. The difference between a five-percent gain and a 10-percent gain on $200 million is $10 million. That translates to thousands of dollars per student at a time when tuition exceeds $5,000 a year at public colleges and $25,000 at some private colleges.

The rich get richer. Yale, with an endowment of $15.2 billion, also consistently has one of the best investment returns of around 16 percent. Stanford, with a $12 billion endowment, grew 19 percent last year thanks to investments in the stock of Google and emerging companies in Silicon Valley. On the other hand, size can be a disadvantage. Givers may wonder how much is enough? What difference does a $100 gift make to a university with an endowment of more than $1 billion as opposed to a similar gift to the local food bank or high school?

Endowment growth, coupled with the Tennessee Lottery, is good news for college students. Lottery proceeds, constantly replenished by gamblers, are projected to be $240 million this year, and most of it gets spent. By statute, the lottery reserve fund is only $50 million. Some 70,000 students will get a $3,300 scholarship if they attend a four-year in-state college.

Here’s a summary of the rank, size, and growth of endowments of colleges and universities in the Mid-South:

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       Vanderbilt University, 23rd, $2.6 billion, 14.5 percent.

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       University of Tennessee system, 81st, $714 million, 7.3 percent.

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       University of Arkansas system, 83rd, $691 million, 10.4 percent.

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       University of Mississippi, 135th, $397 million, 8.3 percent.

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       University of the South, 187th, $253 million, 5.4 percent.

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       Rhodes College, 202nd, $223 million, 5.2 percent.

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       Mississippi State University, 207th, $211 million, 23 percent.

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       University of Memphis, 236th, $175 million, 15.8 percent.

 

Friday, January 27, 2006

Fallen Hero

The corruption trial of former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell has Memphis parallels.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 27, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Atlanta's version of the 1993 Harold Ford trial and the ongoing Operation Tennessee Waltz investigation got under way this week as former Mayor Bill Campbell went on trial on federal corruption charges.

This one bears watching in Memphis for several reasons.

Campbell, 52, was a black mayor in a Southern city that once called itself "too busy to hate" and which has had a black mayor since 1973. A janitor's son who graduated from Vanderbilt University, he was mayor of Atlanta from 1994 to 2002 and spokesman for the city during the 1996 Olympics. He was indicted in 2004 on 11 counts of bribery, racketeering, and fraud after a seven-year investigation that has convicted 12 city officials and city contractors.

National news coverage of the trial has noted that, with some notable exceptions, it has divided the city along racial lines. The Los Angeles Times quoted Democratic state representative Bob Holmes, who said, "White people think he was an awful, corrupt mayor. African Americans see him as a champion of the poor."

There are similarities to the trial of former U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr., who was investigated for several years and tried twice before being acquitted in 1993. Ford was a legendary Memphis congressman who fought to keep his trial in Memphis instead of Knoxville, where federal prosecutors wanted to try him. Ford won with a mostly white jury but not until both sides had played the race card.

Now it is former state senator John Ford who is under indictment in Operation Tennessee Waltz, along with two other current and former state legislators and Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks. All of the Memphis defendants are black, and all have pleaded not guilty and, so far, have indicated they will go to trial.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and John Ford will be following the Campbell trial closely, and Herenton may be called to testify as a witness along with former Herenton aide Reginald French.

Herenton was a political friend and occasional host and companion of Campbell when the former Atlanta mayor visited Memphis and Tunica. In 2003, Herenton testified for the federal government in Atlanta against Herbert McCall, one of the Atlanta city officials who has been convicted. McCall and former Atlanta chief operating officer Larry Wallace pitched a contractor, Johnson Controls, to Herenton in 2000. Herenton smelled a rat and rejected them. On several occasions, including a press conference this month, he has called proposals by bogus contractors and their consultants "crazy stuff."

The middleman for the meeting in 2000 was French, a sometimes consultant and current candidate for Shelby County sheriff, who has been with Herenton in various capacities since the mayor was elected in 1991. French, who was not charged, gave $10,000 to the Atlanta hand-out crew and testified for the government at the trial in 2003.

Consultants, of course, are central players in Tennessee Waltz. Memphian Tim Willis worked undercover for the FBI to net John Ford and paid the former senator $10,000 in cash. Ford was a consultant for Johnson Controls to help them get a state contract with a medical facility in Chattanooga. Ford was also a consultant to TennCare contractors.

Another Memphis connection to Campbell is Dewey Clark, a Memphis native who worked in Campbell's campaign in 1993 and lived in Campbell's basement apartment for six years while working as a mayoral "special assistant," according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Clark fell out with Campbell and has accused him of taking bribes.

The seven-year duration of the Campbell investigation suggests Tennessee Waltz is far from over. After some Atlanta defendants were sentenced in 2003, the Journal-Constitution, citing defense attorneys, published a story saying the City Hall investigation was about to wrap up and Campbell was "seemingly in the clear." He wasn't. The feds take their time in high-profile, racially charged cases. It ain't over until it's over.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

CITY BEAT: Fallen Hero

The corruption trial of former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell has Memphis parallels.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 25, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Atlanta’s version of the 1993 Harold Ford trial and the ongoing Operation Tennessee Waltz investigation got under way this week as former Mayor Bill Campbell went on trial on federal corruption charges.

This one bears watching in Memphis for several reasons.

Campbell, 52, was a black mayor in a Southern city that once called itself “too busy to hate” and which has had a black mayor since 1973. A janitor’s son who graduated from Vanderbilt University, he was mayor of Atlanta from 1994 to 2002 and spokesman for the city during the 1996 Olympics. He was indicted in 2004 on 11 counts of bribery, racketeering, and fraud after a seven-year investigation that has convicted 12 city officials and city contractors.

National news coverage of the trial has noted that, with some notable exceptions, it has divided the city along racial lines. The Los Angeles Times quoted Democratic state representative Bob Holmes, who said, “White people think he was an awful, corrupt mayor. African Americans see him as a champion of the poor.”

There are similarities to the trial of former U.S. representative Harold Ford Sr., who was investigated for several years and tried twice before being acquitted in 1993. Ford was a legendary Memphis congressman who fought to keep his trial in Memphis instead of Knoxville, where federal prosecutors wanted to try him. Ford won with a mostly white jury but not until both sides had played the race card.

Now it is former state senator John Ford who is under indictment in Operation Tennessee Waltz, along with two other current and former state legislators and Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks. All of the Memphis defendants are black, and all have pleaded not guilty and, so far, have indicated they will go to trial.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and John Ford will be following the Campbell trial closely, and Herenton may be called to testify as a witness along with former Herenton aide Reginald French.

Herenton was a political friend and occasional host and companion of Campbell when the former Atlanta mayor visited Memphis and Tunica. In 2003, Herenton testified for the federal government in Atlanta against Herbert McCall, one of the Atlanta city officials who has been convicted. McCall and former Atlanta chief operating officer Larry Wallace pitched a contractor, Johnson Controls, to Herenton in 2000. Herenton smelled a rat and rejected them. On several occasions, including a press conference this month, he has called proposals by bogus contractors and their consultants “crazy stuff.”

The middleman for the meeting in 2000 was French, a sometimes consultant and current candidate for Shelby County sheriff, who has been with Herenton in various capacities since the mayor was elected in 1991. French, who was not charged, gave $10,000 to the Atlanta hand-out crew and testified for the government at the trial in 2003.

Consultants, of course, are central players in Tennessee Waltz. Memphian Tim Willis worked undercover for the FBI to net John Ford and paid the former senator $10,000 in cash. Ford was a consultant for Johnson Controls to help them get a state contract with a medical facility in Chattanooga. Ford was also a consultant to TennCare contractors.

Another Memphis connection to Campbell is Dewey Clark, a Memphis native who worked in Campbell’s campaign in 1993 and lived in Campbell’s basement apartment for six years while working as a mayoral “special assistant,” according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Clark fell out with Campbell and has accused him of taking bribes.

The seven-year duration of the Campbell investigation suggests Tennessee Waltz is far from over. After some Atlanta defendants were sentenced in 2003, the Journal-Constitution, citing defense attorneys, published a story saying the City Hall investigation was about to wrap up and Campbell was “seemingly in the clear.” He wasn’t. The feds take their time in high-profile, racially charged cases. It ain’t over until it’s over.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Interactive Journalism

Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas asks elected officials to take the pledge.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2006 at 4:00 AM

In the interests of good government, good newspapers, and their own infinite wisdom, The Commercial Appeal and columnist Wendi Thomas have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the code of ethics for city and county elected officials.

The 116-word Wendi pledge sent out last week says that an official won't accept anything worth more than $25 in a single year from anyone with city business, will "pay my own way into sporting events," and will "handle my personal financial affairs without help" from same. Finally, pledgers will "avoid the appearance of impropriety and will avoid placing [themselves] in situations which could create the perception of a conflict of interest."

Sign, date, and return by January 27th. Pretty simple, huh?

I hope that at least one elected official will sign in a heartbeat, with this condition: In the interest of interactive journalism, The Commercial Appeal, a monopoly daily newspaper which purports to protect the public interest along with the profit margins of the E.W. Scripps parent company, will disclose its net profit and profit margin for 2005 and how much of its earnings stayed in Memphis and how much went to Scripps headquarters in Cincinnati. Pretty simple, huh?

Not so simple in either case.

The Wendi pledge, with its eye-catching $25 cap, is somewhat similar to a December 8th action of the Nashville Metro Council in rewriting its standards of conduct and financial disclosure. The Nashville ordinance, however, is several pages long. It is full of definitions, clauses, and for-instances. It lists exceptions to the $25 cap and a separate $100 cap on meals, tickets, and travel expenses from people and organizations with council business.

My guess is that many council members and commissioners will decline to take the pledge for various reasons, even if it means getting flogged in the CA. Some of them will wonder if the next columnist, media outlet, or special-interest group will ask them to take an anti-abortion pledge, or anti-tax pledge, or anti-billboard pledge. Also, it may come as news to the CA, but both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission already have ethics codes. The commission's was drafted in 2004, the council's in 1999.

Both documents are six or seven pages long, which may strike some people and newspapers as unnecessarily legalistic. After all, why not simply pledge to "do the right thing"? The answer is that it is not always clear to reporters as well as politicians what that is. Does a fishing trip, tennis match, card game, or potluck supper with an important newsmaker, business leader, or lobbyist violate a code of ethics if no money changes hands? Codes of ethics, imperfect as they are, try to spell this out.

The Memphis City Council code says "that public office not be used for personal gain," but it takes several paragraphs and pages to define "interests," gifts, and campaign contributions and expenses that are acceptable or unacceptable. The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 -- with exceptions.

The Shelby County Commission's code of ethics is an august document that begins with a "preamble" which says commissioners should be "independent, impartial, and responsible to the people" and that public office "should not be used for personal gain." The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 -- with exceptions.

It is not surprising that the CA pays so much attention to $25 gifts and so little attention to financial disclosure. Scripps' newspaper division made nearly $200 million last year, but the company doesn't disclose financials for individual papers. So readers must take it on faith that times are tough and cuts must be made in staff and the CA's news hole, which included room for 14 stories Sunday about pro and college basketball.

Good questions about lots of things sometimes don't get good answers. Ask someone about their weight, salary, or feelings about their boss and the answer may well be "I'm not telling you." Elected officials can play that game too.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

CITY BEAT: Interactive Journalism

Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas asks elected officials to take the pledge.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2006 at 4:00 AM

New Page 1

In the interests of good government, good newspapers, and their own infinite wisdom, The Commercial Appeal and columnist Wendi Thomas have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the code of ethics for city and county elected officials.

The 116-word Wendi pledge sent out last week says that an official won’t accept anything worth more than $25 in a single year from anyone with city business, will “pay my own way into sporting events,” and will “handle my personal financial affairs without help” from same. Finally, pledgers will “avoid the appearance of impropriety and will avoid placing [themselves] in situations which could create the perception of a conflict of interest.”

Sign, date, and return by January 27th. Pretty simple, huh?

I hope that at least one elected official will sign in a heartbeat, with this condition: In the interest of interactive journalism, The Commercial Appeal, a monopoly daily newspaper which purports to protect the public interest along with the profit margins of the E.W. Scripps parent company, will disclose its net profit and profit margin for 2005 and how much of its earnings stayed in Memphis and how much went to Scripps headquarters in Cincinnati. Pretty simple, huh?

Not so simple in either case.

The Wendi pledge, with its eye-catching $25 cap, is somewhat similar to a December 8th action of the Nashville Metro Council in rewriting its standards of conduct and financial disclosure. The Nashville ordinance, however, is several pages long. It is full of definitions, clauses, and for-instances. It lists exceptions to the $25 cap and a separate $100 cap on meals, tickets, and travel expenses from people and organizations with council business.

My guess is that many council members and commissioners will decline to take the pledge for various reasons, even if it means getting flogged in the CA. Some of them will wonder if the next columnist, media outlet, or special-interest group will ask them to take an anti-abortion pledge, or anti-tax pledge, or anti-billboard pledge. Also, it may come as news to the CA, but both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission already have ethics codes. The commission’s was drafted in 2004, the council’s in 1999.

Both documents are six or seven pages long, which may strike some people and newspapers as unnecessarily legalistic. After all, why not simply pledge to “do the right thing”? The answer is that it is not always clear to reporters as well as politicians what that is. Does a fishing trip, tennis match, card game, or potluck supper with an important newsmaker, business leader, or lobbyist violate a code of ethics if no money changes hands? Codes of ethics, imperfect as they are, try to spell this out.

The Memphis City Council code says “that public office not be used for personal gain,” but it takes several paragraphs and pages to define “interests,” gifts, and campaign contributions and expenses that are acceptable or unacceptable. The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 — with exceptions.

The Shelby County Commission’s code of ethics is an august document that begins with a “preamble” which says commissioners should be “independent, impartial, and responsible to the people” and that public office “should not be used for personal gain.” The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 — with exceptions.

It is not surprising that the CA pays so much attention to $25 gifts and so little attention to financial disclosure. Scripps’ newspaper division made nearly $200 million last year, but the company doesn’t disclose financials for individual papers. So readers must take it on faith that times are tough and cuts must be made in staff and the CA’s news hole, which included room for 14 stories Sunday about pro and college basketball.

Good questions about lots of things sometimes don’t get good answers. Ask someone about their weight, salary, or feelings about their boss and the answer may well be “I’m not telling you.” Elected officials can play that game too.

CITY BEAT: Interactive Journalism

Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas asks elected officials to take the pledge.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2006 at 4:00 AM

New Page 1

In the interests of good government, good newspapers, and their own infinite wisdom, The Commercial Appeal and columnist Wendi Thomas have taken it upon themselves to rewrite the code of ethics for city and county elected officials.

The 116-word Wendi pledge sent out last week says that an official won’t accept anything worth more than $25 in a single year from anyone with city business, will “pay my own way into sporting events,” and will “handle my personal financial affairs without help” from same. Finally, pledgers will “avoid the appearance of impropriety and will avoid placing [themselves] in situations which could create the perception of a conflict of interest.”

Sign, date, and return by January 27th. Pretty simple, huh?

I hope that at least one elected official will sign in a heartbeat, with this condition: In the interest of interactive journalism, The Commercial Appeal, a monopoly daily newspaper which purports to protect the public interest along with the profit margins of the E.W. Scripps parent company, will disclose its net profit and profit margin for 2005 and how much of its earnings stayed in Memphis and how much went to Scripps headquarters in Cincinnati. Pretty simple, huh?

Not so simple in either case.

The Wendi pledge, with its eye-catching $25 cap, is somewhat similar to a December 8th action of the Nashville Metro Council in rewriting its standards of conduct and financial disclosure. The Nashville ordinance, however, is several pages long. It is full of definitions, clauses, and for-instances. It lists exceptions to the $25 cap and a separate $100 cap on meals, tickets, and travel expenses from people and organizations with council business.

My guess is that many council members and commissioners will decline to take the pledge for various reasons, even if it means getting flogged in the CA. Some of them will wonder if the next columnist, media outlet, or special-interest group will ask them to take an anti-abortion pledge, or anti-tax pledge, or anti-billboard pledge. Also, it may come as news to the CA, but both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission already have ethics codes. The commission’s was drafted in 2004, the council’s in 1999.

Both documents are six or seven pages long, which may strike some people and newspapers as unnecessarily legalistic. After all, why not simply pledge to “do the right thing”? The answer is that it is not always clear to reporters as well as politicians what that is. Does a fishing trip, tennis match, card game, or potluck supper with an important newsmaker, business leader, or lobbyist violate a code of ethics if no money changes hands? Codes of ethics, imperfect as they are, try to spell this out.

The Memphis City Council code says “that public office not be used for personal gain,” but it takes several paragraphs and pages to define “interests,” gifts, and campaign contributions and expenses that are acceptable or unacceptable. The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 — with exceptions.

The Shelby County Commission’s code of ethics is an august document that begins with a “preamble” which says commissioners should be “independent, impartial, and responsible to the people” and that public office “should not be used for personal gain.” The dollar limit for non-pecuniary gifts is $250 — with exceptions.

It is not surprising that the CA pays so much attention to $25 gifts and so little attention to financial disclosure. Scripps’ newspaper division made nearly $200 million last year, but the company doesn’t disclose financials for individual papers. So readers must take it on faith that times are tough and cuts must be made in staff and the CA’s news hole, which included room for 14 stories Sunday about pro and college basketball.

Good questions about lots of things sometimes don’t get good answers. Ask someone about their weight, salary, or feelings about their boss and the answer may well be “I’m not telling you.” Elected officials can play that game too.

Want to respond? Send us an email here.
 

Friday, January 13, 2006

Rewriting the Recall

City attorney says recall petitions require approximately 65,000 signatures.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 13, 2006 at 4:00 AM

The rules for recall elections in Memphis are about to be reinterpreted.

The bar will be raised from roughly 11,000 petition signatures to roughly 65,000 signatures. After researching the issue, city attorney Sara Hall has concluded that state law, which requires the higher number, trumps the city charter, the source of the lower number that has been widely reported. And whether you like Mayor Willie Herenton or hate him, that's a good thing. Here's why.

There are some 435,000 registered voters in the city of Memphis, not counting cemeteries. In the 2003 mayoral election, 103,226 people voted, which was 23 percent of the electorate at that time. Herenton got 72,043 votes, nearly three times as many as challenger John Willingham.

Home Rule Amendment 27 to the Memphis City Charter, approved in 1966, says a mayor can be recalled if petitions are signed by a number of qualified voters equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last mayoral election. That means 10,323 certified signatures puts this question on the ballot at the next general election: "Shall the Mayor be Recalled?" If a majority of voters favor a recall, "the office shall be vacated when the Election Commission shall declare the results, and shall immediately be occupied by the person so designated to succeed the mayor in case of his death, inability for any reason to serve, or resignation."

A recall petition cannot be filed until after the first two years of a mayor's four-year term. But a case can be made that the more popular the mayor, the easier it is to get a recall question on the ballot. Herenton's closest call was in 1991, when he was the challenger and got 122,596 votes to incumbent Dick Hackett's 122,454 votes. Including perennial candidate Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges, a total of 247,973 votes were cast -- a 65 percent turnout. A recall petition in 1994 would have required 24,797 signatures.

Herenton has been reelected easily three times since then. Lower turnouts and less formidable candidates may indicate voter apathy or voter satisfaction. Either way, the charter gives the losers, the 338,000 people who didn't vote in the 2003 election, and political hired guns a second bite at the apple.

Hall, a Herenton appointee, began researching the recall provision in December. She stated her position in an interview and letter to the Flyer in response to our inquiries.

"Under the Tennessee constitution, any law of general application trumps our charter," she said. She said Memphis could pass a home rule ordinance requiring a greater number of signatures than required by state law but not a lower number.

The Tennessee Code says recall petitions "shall be signed by at least 15 percent of those registered to vote in the municipality or county." In Memphis, that comes out to 64,500 signatures -- an appropriately big number for a big question.

In a press conference last week, Herenton characterized one recall organizer as "a societal misfit" who should not be taken seriously. But it doesn't matter if the organizers are misfits, pillars of the community, or -- as is perfectly legal -- residents of Germantown. If the charter provision applied, the will of 72,043 people who voted could be undone and a new election called by 10,323 people who voted for someone else or didn't vote at all.

If a recall is approved, the charter provision promptly heaves out the mayor and hands the job to someone else. If you think "the person so designated to succeed the mayor" is clear language, then you are not familiar with lawyers, local history, or the Memphis City Council. This is an invitation to a brawl. In the California recall election of 2003 in which Governor Gray Davis was ousted and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ballot had two parts: a recall question and a list of candidates to replace him.

Memphis is bigger than Willie Herenton or any other politician. If someone has evidence that Herenton has broken the law, let them give it to the FBI or the district attorney for investigation. If someone wants to replace Herenton, let them run against him in 2007, persuade someone else to run against him, or vote for his next opponent.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

CITY BEAT: Rewriting the Recall

City attorney says recall petitions require approximately 65,000 signatures.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 11, 2006 at 4:00 AM

New Page 1

The rules for recall elections in Memphis are about to be reinterpreted.

 

The bar will be raised from roughly 11,000 petition signatures to roughly 65,000 signatures. After researching the issue, city attorney Sara Hall has concluded that state law, which requires the higher number, trumps the city charter, the source of the lower number that has been widely reported. And whether you like Mayor Willie Herenton or hate him, that’s a good thing. Here’s why.

 

There are some 435,000 registered voters in the city of Memphis, not counting cemeteries. In the 2003 mayoral election, 103,226 people voted, which was 23 percent of the electorate at that time. Herenton got 72,043 votes, nearly three times as many as challenger John Willingham.

 

Home Rule Amendment 27 to the Memphis City Charter, approved in 1966, says a mayor can be recalled if petitions are signed by a number of qualified voters equal to 10 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last mayoral election. That means 10,323 certified signatures puts this question on the ballot at the next general election: “Shall the Mayor be Recalled?” If a majority of voters favor a recall, “the office shall be vacated when the Election Commission shall declare the results, and shall immediately be occupied by the person so designated to succeed the mayor in case of his death, inability for any reason to serve, or resignation.”

 

A recall petition cannot be filed until after the first two years of a mayor’s four-year term. But a case can be made that the more popular the mayor, the easier it is to get a recall question on the ballot. Herenton’s closest call was in 1991, when he was the challenger and got 122,596 votes to incumbent Dick Hackett’s 122,454 votes. Including perennial candidate Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges, a total of 247,973 votes were cast — a 65 percent turnout. A recall petition in 1994 would have required 24,797 signatures.

 

Herenton has been reelected easily three times since then. Lower turnouts and less formidable candidates may indicate voter apathy or voter satisfaction. Either way, the charter gives the losers, the 338,000 people who didn’t vote in the 2003 election, and political hired guns a second bite at the apple.

 

Hall, a Herenton appointee, began researching the recall provision in December. She stated her position in an interview and letter to the Flyer in response to our inquiries. 

 

“Under the Tennessee constitution, any law of general application trumps our charter,” she said. She said Memphis could pass a home rule ordinance requiring a greater number of signatures than required by state law but not a lower number.

 

The Tennessee Code says recall petitions “shall be signed by at least 15 percent of those registered to vote in the municipality or county.” In Memphis, that comes out to 64,500 signatures — an appropriately big number for a big question.

 

In a press conference last week, Herenton characterized one recall organizer as “a societal misfit” who should not be taken seriously. But it doesn’t matter if the organizers are misfits, pillars of the community, or — as is perfectly legal — residents of Germantown. If the charter provision applied, the will of 72,043 people who voted could be undone and a new election called by 10,323 people who voted for someone else or didn’t vote at all.

 

If a recall is approved, the charter provision promptly heaves out the mayor and hands the job to someone else. If you think “the person so designated to succeed the mayor” is clear language, then you are not familiar with lawyers, local history, or the Memphis City Council. This is an invitation to a brawl. In the California recall election of 2003 in which Governor Gray Davis was ousted and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ballot had two parts: a recall question and a list of candidates to replace him. 

 

Memphis is bigger than Willie Herenton or any other politician. If someone has evidence that Herenton has broken the law, let them give it to the FBI or the district attorney for investigation. If someone wants to replace Herenton, let them run against him in 2007, persuade someone else to run against him, or vote for his next opponent. 

                   

       

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