Jack Sammons was approved by the Memphis City Council Tuesday to be the city’s new chief administrative officer [CAO] effective May 9 and he promised he would not work on the campaign trail.
The CAO is basically the second in command to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. George Little is the city’s current CAO. He will remain in the Wharton administration to focus on special projects, like redesigning the Memphis Police Department.
Sammons is CEO of Ampro Industries, a Memphis haircare products company. He’s also the current chairman of the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority. He said he will wind down his involvement with his business and the airport board to serve as CAO.
Wharton introduced the formal resolution to hire Sammons to the council Tuesday morning, noting first and foremost that “Mr. Sammons did not seek this out.”
“We were looking for someone to come onto the team…to work through some of the colossal challenges we face,” Wharton said, pointing specifically to economic development, and making changes in the city’s health care and pension policies. “We needed someone to come and show discipline in those fields. Mr. Sammons fit the bill. We asked him to serve and he has.”
In an interview after Tuesday morning’s meeting, Sammons said he won’t campaign for Wharton, or anyone.
“The mayor and I have an agreement that I’m not going to be involved in the campaign,” Sammons told reporters. “I’m not going to put up yard signs. I’m not going to raise money. I’m not going campaign meetings.
“I’m going to be 24/7 running the business of city government. I got a lot of friends in this race. I wish them all well. I work for Mayor Wharton and I expect him to win but it won’t be because I’m out there nailing up yards signs and doing radio ads for him.”
Wharton promised that no new money would be needed to hire Sammons, who will be paid $155,000 between now and the end of Wharton’s current term on December 31. Wharton said some positions in his office will go unfilled and some employees may get moved around.
This rankled council member and 2015 mayoral candidate Jim Strickland, who abstained from Tuesday's vote on Sammons.
"This move is clearly political and it is costing the taxpayers money by creating more six-figure jobs at city hall and more pension costs,” Strickland said. “Through this move he is creating a new $150,000 job for the current CAO (Little) and maybe others to follow.
“The mayor says this will have no budget impact because he won’t fill current vaccines. That raises the question: why were those jobs filled in the first place if they could be eliminated so easily? The reason is because the mayor’s budget is bloated.”
Sammons’ pension also came under scrutiny by some council members Tuesday morning. Sammons gets a pension now, of about $35,000 per year. After a year as CAO, that pension could double to more than $68,000.
“How do you look the citizens and employees in the face and say, ‘Mr. Sammons is here to help us’ but you are now increasing his pension that will likely be double to that of the first responders and the officer that got shot a few days ago,” said council member and 2015 mayoral candidate Harold Collins.
Wharton said he will follow the existing pension rules “to the word” and if the council changes those rules, “we will follow that.”
“My mom and daddy taught me to be…to play by the rules,” Sammons said. “There’s an ordinance out there that defines how employees are paid. Fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
“The benefit package is commensurate with that. I’m not about the ask for anything exceptional or something different. I intend to play by the rules. That’s the way I’ve always done. That’s what I intend to do.”
Collins also wanted Sammons to resign from the airport board before the council voted on his appointment as CAO. Sammons said he needed to know he had the job before he began to unwind some of his business interests.
“Financially, I’d like to have this nailed down before I start moving people around,” Sammons said.
Sammons said he has meetings scheduled with some airline executives and that he’d like to chair his final airport board meeting on Thursday, April 16. He said he’d give his resignation there on May 9 and start at city hall the next day.
“What I’ve got to do for awhile here is an art that someone lost in business and government today and that’s listen,” Sammons said. “There’s a lot of folks…I haven’t been in this building in a position of authority in five years. A lot’s changed.
“The world has changed and we have new players on the bench and on the court and I need to meet with them and listen to them and find out what direction we’re going now and get their suggestions in there.”
Wharton made his intention
to hire Sammons official at at the end of March.
Wharton promised “transformative changes” during his State of the City speech in January and said the Sammons hire is a part of that process.