Thursday, November 9, 2006

Individual Retirement Plan

Herenton throws a retirement party for his friend Sara Lewis.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 9, 2006 at 4:00 AM

So you think retirement means a gold watch, fond farewells, penny-pinching, and spending time with the grandchildren? Not if you're a public official in Memphis.

Mayor Willie Herenton, who will step into the boxing ring with Joe Frazier this month, gave a city job to the school board bully, Sara Lewis, on the eve of her retirement.

It was Lewis, remember, who prompted former superintendent Johnnie B. Watson, the most gentlemanly of public officials, to file a harassment complaint against her in 2002. And it was Lewis who pitched a memorable televised fit at a board meeting last year that caused Superintendent Carol Johnson to suggest that maybe the board should hire another superintendent. Her new job is "special assistant to the mayor responsible for the office of Youth Services and Community Affairs." In a prepared statement Monday, Herenton said, "We will seek to use the city's 28 community centers for various after-school programs. Also, this office will be a major part of the crime abatement strategy in the areas of prevention and partnership building."

The sudden need for these revolutionary programs comes as the mayor completes his 15th year in office and prepares for a 2007 reelection campaign. Lewis, who is 70, will earn a salary of $75,000. It is not clear what impact the appointed job, which does not require City Council approval, will have on her pension benefits. Herenton spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson said the position is not new but has been vacant for a couple of years.

Lewis was elected to the school board in 1991. She is a former Memphis teacher and school principal who was promoted to assistant superintendent for curriculum in 1983 when Herenton was school superintendent. From 1990 to 1998, she ran the Shelby County Free the Children program, and from 1998 to 2000, she was director of Shelby County Head Start. She resigned following a critical federal audit.

As a school board member, Lewis has been a champion of rebuilding Manassas High School, her alma mater. With 391 students, Manassas is the smallest high school in Memphis. Herenton has said several times that underused schools should be closed, as several of them were when he was superintendent.

Pensions and padding the city payroll with appointed jobs are a hot issue with City Council members and watchdog groups. They were the impetus for the Memphis Charter Commission, although the main proponent of rewriting the rules, John Malmo, was not elected to the panel, which is just now gearing up.

In his fourth term, Herenton has warned many times that the city has to closely watch its pension obligations and employment numbers to insure a balanced budget and strong bond rating. He was critical of MLGW's severance agreement with former president Herman Morris, whom Herenton replaced with Joseph Lee.

Herenton himself "retired" from the Memphis City Schools under controversial circumstances in 1990-1991. As Flyer reporter Jackson Baker, who broke the story, wrote back in 1992, Herenton's retirement package stretched his 28 years of service to 30 years, a milestone for higher benefits for public employees who retire before age 55. Herenton was 51 at the time. In addition to a payout package worth $227,000, Herenton remained on the school system payroll as an active employee for six months while he was mayor.

Cronyism, of course, is business as usual. One of the beauties of city-county government is the political arms race between the two mayors. Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton hired his buddy and campaign manager Roscoe Dixon before the former state senator was indicted. Wharton also hired Shelby County Commissioner Linda Rendtorff as director of community services. Herenton hired City Council member Janet Hooks last year as manager of the office of multicultural and religious affairs.

Key city and county officials who "leave" government typically don't retire or stray very far. Former city mayor Dick Hackett is the new head of the Children's Museum of Memphis, former county mayor Jim Rout heads the Mid-South Fair, and former police director Walter Crews was Wharton's choice to fix the Homeland Security office. With several City Council and school board members facing reelection this year and next, Lewis may not be the last beneficiary of a public retirement party.

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