Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Twenty Questions: What's a Special Master?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2013 at 11:25 AM

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A lot of Tuesday night's three-hour school board meeting (a "cup of coffee" in school board time) was like a game of Twenty Questions, with school board attorney Valerie Speakman doing the "I'm thinking of a person" part and channeling federal judge Hardy Mays.

Had this been a party or a courtroom, Mays, of course, would have been there himself to answer the questions. But a school board meeting is neither of those, so Speakman did her best to recount details of a meeting Monday between Mays and attorneys in the schools case.

Is this person important? Oh, yes, special you might say. Is it a special master? Yes. Man? Not necessarily. Lawyer? Not necessarily. Do we know this person? Maybe. Would the master be our master? Possibly. Do we have to hire this master? Not necessarily. Would the master make the merger happen faster? You're getting warm. Including the superintendent selection? Warmer.

So it went for an hour or so, board members probing and Speakman trying to be both candid and careful. Attorneys thought the meeting was going to be routine until Mays brought up the prospect of a special master, a land mine he had buried in the wording of the consent decree in 2011. After weighing Speakman's answers and interim Memphis City Schools superintendent/attorney Dorsey Hopson's too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen warning, the board decided not to request appointment of a special master, which is no guarantee that it won't happen anyway.

Speakman said Mays is not pleased with the progress of the merger and "made it clear that he would not entertain any delay." He is especially unhappy with the superintendent selection process. The board's timetable has that happening in May. The Transition Planning Commission recommended that it be done last year.

"He specifically said May is way too late in the game," Speakman said, adding that Mays "likes" Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken. Whether the judge likes him in the Facebook sense or likes him for the job is not clear. "Why is the judge trippin' about another superintendent?" asked board member Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr.

Speakman estimated the merger is about 20 percent done, but the unified board is on the verge of making "monumental decisions" regarding jobs in the next 30-45 days. When attorneys asked Mays if it was prudent to merge the school systems when the suburbs might find a way out, Mays said that issue is not going to be resolved in 30 days, 90 days, or even longer and the board should "put the concerns about municipal school districts out of their minds" and carry on. Adding words to the effect that when you entered into the consent decree in 2011 you should have considered the consequences.

Mays told the attorneys that politics should have no role in the merger. But the context of that statement is not known. Mays, former chief of staff to ex-governor Don Sundquist, was once a political creature himself and knows that one person's policies is another person's politics. The 23-member school board represents a spectrum of views and loyalties. Jobs, schools, hundreds of millions of dollars, and neighborhoods are at stake. To expect politics to play no part in this is not realistic.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Memphis Invited to Bid for 2024 Olympics

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2013 at 12:57 PM

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The United States Olympic Committee has invited Memphis to make a pitch for the 2024 Olympics. Really.

A letter to Mayor A C Wharton, released by his office Wednesday, says "we are reaching out to cities that have previously expressed an interest in bidding as well as the cities in the largest 25 U.S. markets."

The 1996 Olympics was in Atlanta. The U.S. made bids, unsuccessfully, to host the 2012 Olympics in New York and the 2016 Olympics in Chicago.

"Both New York and Chicago had to participate in a domestic bid process that cost upwards of $10 million before they were designated by the USOC as an IOC Applicant City," the letter says.

As for the the games themselves, "The staging of the games is an extraordinary undertaking for any city, with operating budgets in excess of $3 billion, not including costs associated with venue construction and other infrastructure."

Among the requirements are 45,000 hotel rooms, an Olympic Village that sleeps 16,500 and has a 5,000-person dining hall, operations space for 15,000 media members, an international airport that can handle thousands of international passengers a day, and a workforce of up to 200,000.

"While the Games require a formidable commitment, they also provide an unparalleled opportunity for a city to evolve and grow," the letter says. "The games have had a transformative impact on a number of host cities, including Barcelona, Beijing, and London."

Well, now. Many thoughts come to mind. Here are a few. Feel free to add on.

1. Only if Germantown and Lakeland will join in.
2. $3 billion? If only they had only called a week ago!
3. Got the airport and a skate park.
4. Game Changer.
5. Wonder how many of these letters went out.
6. Only if wrestling is back in.
7. And squash gets in.
8. Does a hotel room in Little Rock, Nashville, or Knoxville count?
9. Reply "tell us more" and see what happens.
10. Spam

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Reactions to Cohen's Revelation Generally Mild

Posted By on Fri, Feb 15, 2013 at 6:14 PM

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While the public waits to see if more details of Steve Cohen's fatherhood come out, reaction so far to the surprise announcement ranges from bored to bemused, more like the frothy musical “Mama Mia” about a bride and three prospective fathers-of-the-bride than the snarky "baby daddy" jabs at professional athletes and other politicians.

Most notably, there is little of the over-the-top outrage that greeted another unmarried man, former mayor Willie Herenton, when he made a surprise announcement of fathering a child in 2005 with an unmarried woman. It is not known yet whether Cohen's lady friend of 24 years ago, Cynthia White Sinatra, was married or not at the time or who helped raise the child. Ms. Sinatra has apparently been divorced more than once, and she and Cohen were reportedly out of contact for some 20 years.

On Cohen and his daughter Victoria Brink and her mother:

The Memphis Flyer: “There is more to tell about this tale, and we’ll tell it when it becomes possible. Meanwhile, we congratulate the proud papa (who intends to spend some joyous and out-in-the-open time with his daughter), and we say “shame on you” to those who, for political reasons, tried to escalate this story, an inspirational one if it’s anything at all, into a scandal. ….. Could there have been a better Valentine's Day story than this?”

Wendi Thomas of The Commercial Appeal: “There is but one thing that troubles me about the news that U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a confirmed bachelor, has a 24-year-old daughter. He doesn't know how to tweet. Cohen, 63, was forced Thursday to tell the world that three years ago, he learned he is a parent — which is really no one's business — only because he sent a message into the Twitterverse that he intended only for his daughter.”

Cohen spokesman Michael Pagan, the day before the announcement made this statement inoperative: "She is the daughter of a longtime friend and they're pretty much like family. He's known her pretty much her whole life. He has a longtime girlfriend in Memphis."

Van Turner, Chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, to WMC-TV: "It's surprising. I think it's wonderful news, parenthood changes you. I'm here with my daughter, so I think you look at issues a little differently. It really makes you a well rounded elected public servant.”

Compare this to Commercial Appeal investigative reporter Marc Perrusquia's look-back on Herenton and Claudine Marsh in 2009, the year before Herenton challenged Cohen in a congressional race. In January 2005, when his son Michael was 4 months old, Herenton called a press conference to announce that he had fathered the child, whom he has supported financially.

“Even as years of controversy roiled into a near operatic drama, few of the developments affecting fourth-term Mayor Willie Wilbert Herenton resonated like that of the birth of his son, Michael . . . In the birth of his out-of-wedlock son, Herenton’s critics found a trifecta of flaws: poor judgment, recklessness and a brazen penchant for secrecy.”

Like Cohen, Herenton asked the media and public to respect his privacy.

“I respectfully request that the media respect the privacy of all of the individuals involved. This matter has nothing to do with my public duty as the mayor.”

The CA was having none of it, even in 2009.

“Yet as Herenton tried to douse yet another fire, questions flowed. Could the mayor, with his record for controversy, realistically expect the media to leave this matter alone? Did his private life really not affect his public duties? And what kind of example was he setting for the city’s youth?”

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Saturday, February 9, 2013

Memphis Shareholders Object to Dell Buyout Proposal

Posted By on Sat, Feb 9, 2013 at 12:25 PM

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  • Mason Hawkins
If you own stock in Dell or the Memphis based Southeastern Asset family of mutual funds including Longleaf Partners Fund, then you might be interested in this story.

Thanks in no small part to FedEx and its delivery system, Dell was THE hot custom personal computer company and one of the hottest stocks of the 1990s, but it has been one of the biggest losers in recent years. And Southeastern Asset, run by Staley Cates and Mason Hawkins, is Dell's biggest investor after founder Michael Dell. The firm owns 147 million shares of Dell, or about 8.5 percent of the shares outstanding.

On Friday, Southeastern posted a letter on its website. It objects to the proposed buyout price of $13.65 per share, and says the true value of the company that shareholders should receive is more like $24 a share. Dell traded above $30 in 2007 and above $40 in 2006. It hit $10 last year but came back a bit on speculation of a buyout. If you bought the stock late last year or in 2009, when it previously dropped below $10, you would make money on the buyout. But Longleaf and many other mutual funds bought shares when Dell was a much higher price in expectation that it would go higher.

"We are writing to express our extreme disappointment regarding the proposed go private transaction, which we believe grossly undervalues the company," the letter says. It was included in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Southeastern "will not vote in favor of the proposed transaction as currently structured," adding: "We retain and intend to avail ourselves of all options at our disposal to oppose the proposed transaction, including but not limited to a proxy fight, litigation claims and any available Delaware statutory appraisal rights."

Southeastern called the proposed deal "an effort to acquire Dell at a substantial discount to intrinsic value at the expense of public shareholders."

The buyout group includes Michael Dell, Silver Lake Partners, and Microsoft.

Southeastern's investment philosophy holds that "Mr. Market" undervalues stocks sometimes and creates opportunities for funds such as Longleaf Partners to buy them and hold them until they reach their true value.

This is the second time in less than a year that Southeastern has taken on the head of one of the companies in its portfolio. Last year it was Chesapeake Energy and CEO Aubrey McLendon that was their target. McLendon eventually stepped down.

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Friday, February 8, 2013

A Short History of the Jefferson Davis Statue in Confederate Park

Posted By on Fri, Feb 8, 2013 at 1:34 PM

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The statue of Jefferson Davis was erected in Confederate Park in downtown Memphis in 1964, more than half a century after the more famous equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest on Union Avenue. How and why? I wondered in light of the ongoing controversy over Confederate-named parks. What's in a name?

Honorary names are something of a Memphis specialty. I drove from my house to "Frances Crain" (N. Avalon) to "Sally Wallace Hook Parkway" better known as East Parkway to the McWherter Library (a nod to former governor Ned) at University of Memphis and the Special Collections department on the fourth floor, where curator Ed Frank kindly pulled the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper clippings on Jefferson Davis and his statue.

The statue story is an interesting little yarn. Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy, lived in Memphis from 1875 to 1878. The drive to honor the "forgotten man" with "a magnificent bronze statue" began in 1956, although the concept was approved by political boss E. H. Crump before he died in 1954. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, later assisted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, were the driving force. The first donation was $26. City officials blessed the project in 1962, when only $1,138 had been raised, but they changed the location from Jefferson Davis Park on Riverside Drive to Confederate Park on the bluff. It took eight years to raise the $17,473 needed for the eight-foot statue and 11-foot pedestal. These were not the days when wealthy benefactors simply wrote a check as they do today.

"This is a matter of pride for Memphis," said Mrs. Harry Allen (as the newspaper referred to women), leader of the fund drive. "Memphis is the only major city in the South that does not have a statue of this great man."

The Press-Scimitar dutifully reported the progress of the fund drive from 1956-1964. The unveiling seems not to have been tied to any Civil War centennial observation, and if it drew any public protest it was not noted by the afternoon newspaper which, of course, was produced and written by white men. (The Commercial Appeal's archives are not part of the UM collection).

This was probably because Memphians, black and white, had bigger things to worry about than statues and symbolism. City schools were desegregated in 1961. Martin Luther King Jr. was speaking to tens of thousands in Washington D.C. and millions on television. The temper of the times can be felt by reading the front pages of The Commercial Appeal, gathered in a fine collection and coffee table book in 1991 on its 150th birthday. From 1962: "Two Men Are Dead in Campus Rioting After Meredith Is Escorted to Dormitory; Soldiers Try to Restore Order at Ole Miss." From 1963: "Sniper Assassinates Kennedy in Dallas." From 1964: "Three Bodies Found by FBI Believed Rights Workers."

In 1968, the Press-Scimitar reported that "Negro" Aaron Henry of Clarksdale, Mississippi, the state NAACP president, protested the closing of state offices on the anniversary of Davis's birth. Henry said Davis's "only claim to infamy was based on his philosophy of human enslavement of black people by white people." In 1970, the paper reported that Memphis Sesquicentennial Inc. planned to honor both Davis and Robert R. Church Sr., "South's First Negro Millionaire." The Davis statue was lighted. Church got a plaque and a park named for him at Beale and Fourth. The "one of you one of us" process continues to this day.

Davis, stripped of his rights after the Civil War, died in 1889. He was gone but not forgotten. His birthday, July 3rd, was a legal holiday in Mississippi and ten other states and known as the Confederate Memorial Day. The exact name, number, and dates of such observances today is a morass into which I do not plan fall. Suffice it to say that Davis' rights were officially restored in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, a Southerner.

"Our nation needs to clear away the guilts and emnities and recriminations of the past, to finally set at rest the divisions that threatened to destroy our nation," Carter said.

This week the City Council, provoked by state lawmakers in Nashville, voted to rename Confederate Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park with placeholder names until a committee can come up with permanent ones.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Confederate Parks: "It's Done" but It's Not Over

Posted By on Wed, Feb 6, 2013 at 11:15 AM

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  • Forrest
Could there be a more fiendishly designed story than Confederate parks and General Nathan Bedford Forrest to insure that Memphis forever trips over its own feet (well, maybe the Ford family saga)?

As City Councilman Lee Harris said, "It's done" as far as renaming the parks. But it's not over. This story has legs, as we say in the news biz. It also has horses, troops, and a cavalry. There are editorial revisions yet to come for the generic placeholder names, assuming a panel can be assembled that will agree on anything. But the real secret to the longevity of this story is no secret at all. It embraces the themes of race that Memphis loves so well.

If Forrest were alive today he would be coaching football at the University of Alabama. He would have figured out a way to beat Texas A&M, and he would be the darling of ESPN and the bane of reporters if he could not have them all flogged. As my colleague Chris Herrington says, a lot of people ignore the cause and confuse "war hero" with "great general". Forrest is a war hero to unreconstructed white southerners like the ones writer Tony Horwitz described in his book "Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War." He is an annoyance or worse to black Memphians for his ties to Fort Pillow and the Ku Klux Klan.

Shelby Foote, the great Memphis Civil War historian and author, wrote a lot about Forrest in Part Three of his trilogy. Forrest, who was in overall command at Fort Pillow, "was widely accused of having committed the atrocity of the war. 'The Fort Pillow Massacre,' it was called, then and thereafter, in the North." Foote wrote that, in fact, Forrest "had done and was doing all he could to end it, having ordered the firing stopped as soon as he saw his troopers swarm into the fort, even though its flag was still flying and a good part of the garrison was still trying to get away."

Foote died in 2005, shortly before the last (as in last one before this one) Forrest fight was staged. He opposed renaming Forrest Park as well as Confederate Park and Jefferson Davis Park. The statue of Jefferson Davis in Confederate Park (yes) was placed there in 1964 during the heat of the civil rights era and desegregation, the year after Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington and the year three civil rights workers were murdered in Neshoba County, Mississippi. It is impossible to imagine that its backers were not aware of the context. The Davis statue is more a political statement of those times than a monument to the Civil War. Davis could be in greater danger than Forrest.

If Nathan Bedford Forrest Park was on a less prominent street than Union Avenue, or if the general's grave had not been moved in 1905 from Elmwood Cemetery where he was originally buried, the general would not get so much attention. But the park, with its equestrian statue of Forrest, is in the heart of the downtown medical center shared by the University of Tennessee and Baptist and Methodist hospitals that is finally showing renewed signs of life and investment. The Forrest grave site is a perfect spot for his admirers, whatever their motives, to put a thumb in the eye of the general's critics, especially if they happen to be black.

Moving the monument and the graves of Forrest and his wife back to Elmwood, as some have suggested, would be one of the great media events of our time. Reenactors in full uniform would line the streets every foot of the way. Counter-demonstrators would turn out in equal or greater numbers. And every national news report would herald "Memphis Relives The Civil War."

The City Council will revisit the issue soon. Councilman Myron Lowery has suggested adding a statue of Ida B. Wells to the park, a sort of one-of-ours-and-one-of-yours compromise. The problem with that is that some Memphians may not wish to identify with either one. If you are white, was Forrest "ours"? He belongs to history. His monument and grave have been there for 108 years. Moving them would make the annual Shiloh reenactment in April look like a church picnic. Union Avenue between Manassas and Cleveland is prime real estate that, hopefully, will one day look more like a medical center on the order of Nashville or Jackson, Mississippi. It's complicated, fiendishly complicated. And not over by a long shot.

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Monday, February 4, 2013

Southwest/Air Tran Adding Four Flights from Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Feb 4, 2013 at 11:18 AM

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Southwest Airlines, through its Air Tran subsidiary, is adding four flights out of Memphis starting in August, the Memphis Shelby County Airport Authority announced Monday.

The news is certainly welcome in the sense that it reverses the trend of declining passenger service at Memphis International Airport. Jack Sammons, the new chairman of the Airport Authority, called it "a home run." But when you do a little comparative pricing, it looks more like a single. More on that follows, but first the basics of the announcement:

In a national release by Southwest, the company detailed four new Memphis flights to three new AirTran routes; twice a day between Memphis and Chicago Midway, and once daily service between Memphis and Orlando, and Memphis and Baltimore/Washington. The new flights will begin service on August 11, 2013, and are in addition to the current five daily non-stops on AirTran between Memphis and Atlanta. The new service is available for booking immediately for flights on or after August 11.

“We are very excited that Southwest has decided to add three new city pairs for Memphis to fly under its AirTran subsidiary. Many years of relationship building with Southwest are paying off,” said Larry Cox, President and CEO of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority. “This service addition reinforces the message given to Memphians last September by Southwest Executive Vice President Ron Ricks when he stated ‘We're here. We're here to stay ... You've got to be patient with us, and things will not happen overnight.’”

“We are excited and grateful that Southwest Airlines has decided to include MEM in their network. This news is a home run for travelers in our region hungry for affordable flight options,” added recently elected Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority Chairman Jack Sammons. “Southwest management has informed me that they will add additional flights this year based on how well these initial flights perform. As one Southwest executive remarked in our meeting last week, ‘The more flights we take, the more we get.’ It’s a new era in aviation in America and certainly a new era for our airport. Your Airport Authority will continue to be relentless in our efforts to make Memphis the airport of choice for the traveling public.”

Now for a little number crunching. I could book a flight to Chicago Midway on August 15th, a Thursday, with a return to Memphis on August 18th, a Sunday, for as low as $253 on Air Tran. But there is only one non-stop flight on each of those days. Otherwise, you go through Atlanta, and the trip takes approximately four to six hours each way and the fare goes to $276 or $316. Still not a bad deal if you have the time, but you are dealing with one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world — Atlanta — and a secondary Chicago airport on the east side of the city which makes it more or less convenient depending on your destination. The business fare on Air Tran is $823 round trip.

For travel on the same dates, Delta has several nonstops for a round-trip price of $253. The first-class/business fare is $1,181. For travel in March — five months before the new Air Tran service begins — you can book a weekend Thursday-Sunday trip to Chicago O'Hare on either Delta or United non-stop for $396 today.

As always, when and how you travel — short notice, business or pleasure, flexibility — makes a huge difference in the cost, duration, and convenience of air travel in the age of booking through Kayak, which makes everyone a travel agent. Again, this looks like a small piece of good news but it's only a home run if you are playing in a Little League park with a 200-foot fence.

UPDATE: After doing a little more checking, I see there are two, not one, daily non-stops in the service to Chicago that begins in August. My bad. But one of them, be warned, leaves Memphis at 5:35 a.m. As for the new flights to Orlando, Memphis to central and southwest Florida is already well served. There is service to Orlando, Tampa, Sarasota, and Fort Myers for under $350 round trip in February and March, most of it through Atlanta. And if money is more important than time to you, Amtrak offers a $99 fare (each way) from Memphis to Chicago that puts you in the heart of the Windy City.

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Friday, February 1, 2013

The Curious Case of Clarence Mumford

Posted By on Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 5:42 PM

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Is Clarence Mumford a criminal mastermind and Public Enemy Number One in education? Or is he this year's version of Logan Young, the late Memphis football booster who was hauled into federal court and convicted in 2005 for paying a football coach to influence a recruiting prospect?

The United States Department of Justice and federal prosecutors in Memphis seem to think the former. Mumford was in court Friday to change his plea to guilty to charges that he organized a scheme to get stand-ins to take certification tests for teachers in Memphis, Arkansas, and Mississippi. Mumford made money on the deals, probably quite a lot of it. He charged his customers $1,000 to $6,000 for multiple tests, according to a presentation of the case Friday. He started arranging bogus tests in 1995, and wasn't sniffed out until 2010 when a phony test taker wore the same pink cap to two sessions in one day and caught the attention of a monitor.

Continue reading »

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