With support for MLGW President Joseph Lee all but nonexistent and his own reelection five months away, Mayor Willie Herenton had little choice but to accept Lee's resignation, as he did Thursday.
In a news conference at City Hall, Herenton said Lee and MLGW general counsel Odell Horton Jr. are out at the end of this week and the new interim president will be MLGW board member and former Herenton administration CAO Rick Masson.
The moves keep Masson in Herenton's camp, at least for a while, and give the mayor time to let the storm blow over before the October election. Masson had publicly stated that Lee had lost the confidence of the board and public and should go. Board member Nick Clark, who attended the press conference, added fuel to the fire this week when he said that Lee had tried to blackmail him this week in a private conversation at a hotel grand-opening.
Herenton said "this issue has a little to do with Joseph Lee but the big picture is Willie Herenton." He called Lee "one of the finest human beings I have ever met" but said his departure was best for the city and the morale of utility company employees.
One of the candidates running against Herenton for mayor is former MLGW President Herman Morris, the man Lee replaced. But Herenton insisted "I dont make political decisions" when he was asked if he would do this in a non-election year.
Herenton wouldnt comment on Clark's blackmail charge, which Clark turned over to the FBI and state and federal prosecutors.
"I have no response to those allegations," he said.
The mayor said Lee's legal fees of $61,000 in connection with City Councilman Edmund Ford's criminal case and overdue bills were "not handled appropriately." Robert Spence, who is Lee's attorney and was formerly the city attorney, did the billing and either he or Lee submitted the bills to MLGW for payment.
Clark said Herenton took "the appropriate action." He and Herenton did not speak to each other or acknowledge one another at the news conference. Clark said he intends to fulfill the remainder of his board term, which ends in November.
After nearly two years, Herenton finally acknowledged that Lee was simply not going to ever gain the confidence of the public, the board, or MLGW employees. He said the media have been unrelenting in criticism of Lee and that played into his decision that Lee was an insurmountable public relations problem if nothing else.
The MLGW issue will continue to dog Herenton for the next five months and it will not be easy to find a replacement who is acceptable to the City Council because it is in the personal interests of some members mayoral candidate Carol Chumney, Ford, and potential candidates such as Tom Marshall to keep the fire burning a while. But with Masson safely on board and Lee gone, Herenton should be able to regain the upper hand by mid-summer and go on to the next crisis.