"Are You Following Me?" 

Mayor Herenton vows to strike a different tone in 2005.

One of Mayor Willie Herenton's personal quirks when talking to someone is to periodically interrupt himself to ask his listener(s), "Are you following me?"

In 2004, the answer was a resounding "No." Herenton had a bad year. Not an ordinary bad year, like anyone might have once in a while during 25 years in public office. But a really bad year, like Martha Stewart, Scott Peterson, the National Hockey League, Merck, and Democrats in the red states.

About the only people following the mayor were television reporters checking to see if he was coming to work or where he went after- hours. The Herenton of rumor was on drugs, in rehab, close to resigning, paranoid about the police, involved in more corrupt deals than Enron and Kenneth Lay, and living the social life of a rock star. When he met with the City Council, he brought out everyone's inner Mr. Cranky. There were serious doubts that he would answer the bell for his 14th year as mayor.

"We hit rock bottom on New Year's Day of 2004," said city councilman Jack Sammons, recalling Herenton's speech at the mayor's first annual prayer breakfast. "Now everyone has at least laid their guns on the table."

Or as his council colleague and 2005 chairman Edmund Ford said, "It's time for us to look good," taking potshots at the not-so-good media and some of his colleagues in the process.

In 2005, the mayor promises to be more diplomatic and open to dealing with the City Council and business groups such as Memphis Tomorrow.

"I'll set a tone," he said in an office interview in December. "It will be a different tone. My whole demeanor will be different. I am not facing the sources of irritation I had a year ago. It's been my toughest year as mayor. All my security guys say to me it looks as if we have had two years in six months."

An ongoing federal investigation of the MLGW bond deal with TVA hangs over the upcoming year and could derail Herenton's plans.

"I heard through a source I consider reliable that a grand jury is in session on the bond deal and a prosecutor has been assigned to it," he said. "I find all of this ridiculous and a waste of money and time over nothing. If there is something there, it involves someone else besides the mayor's involvement. I don't lose any sleep about it."

The mayor and council are resolved to work together if only because they are weary of scrapping and facing a common threat of deficits in the city budget.

In their final meeting of the year, four days before Christmas, Herenton proposed four alternatives ranging from a $495 million budget with a property tax increase to a $441 million budget with across-the-board cuts and no tax increase.

Will the coming year be Rocky 2005 or Requiem for a Heavyweight for this former Golden Gloves boxer? Here's an overview of what's in store.

The MLGW bond deal investigation. At the bottom of the controversial bond deal is a familiar issue. The mayor says he intervened to make sure that Memphis financial firms and minority firms and individuals in particular got a bigger share of the underwriting, legal work, and commissions.

A newspaper editorial headlined "Aid To Minorities" hit the nail on the head: "The affirmative action program that Willie Herenton has proposed to increase contracts with minority businesses could have a significant impact on Memphis by raising the level of minority incomes and expanding the city's overall economic base."

As the editorial went on to point out, "TVA's contracts with minorities total less than 1 percent of all TVA purchasing (about $16 million out of $2 billion)."

The Commercial Appeal editorial from which these quotes were taken was written in 1980, when Herenton was in his second year as school superintendent. Add the word "superintendent" in front of Willie Herenton and "school" in front of contracts and the quotations are accurate, word for word.

The mayor -- a big collector of clippings and editorial cartoons, according to his aides -- showed this to a reporter to support his belief that the attacks on him in 2004 were politically motivated attempts to make a big deal out of a longstanding practice.

As for allegations that he got campaign contributions from Little Rock attorney Richard Mays and friends in exchange for bond business, Herenton said that is not unusual either, citing many prominent Memphis developers and home builders who host political fund-raisers for him and receive public contracts.

Those connections, however, are publicly disclosed and do not involve members of Herenton's family. But Mays and the mayor and his son Rodney Herenton, who works for a Memphis financial firm, have not done that. Reporters and council members have had to badger them for specific information. Mays told the City Council by letter in December that his firm had not billed for services yet, although the bond deal was completed over a year ago and he has been copied on all correspondence as "special counsel" to the city.

The mayor and Rodney Herenton did not disclose Rodney's dealings with a city development board, as corporations routinely disclose potential conflicts of interest with family members and officers in their proxy statements. Experienced as they both are with the disclosure rules of the corporate world, the Herentons were not convincing when they said they were either unaware of the deals or did not consider them public business.

There is no indication whether the MLGW investigation will result in indictments or end any time soon. A federal investigation of political corruption in Atlanta took five years before former Atlanta mayor William Campbell was indicted in 2004.

Resignation rumors. Herenton, who is 64, expects to finish the nearly three years remaining in his current term and possibly run for another one.

"My detractors made a strategic mistake by coming after me," he said. "I don't know who all is behind this and driving the investigation and slanted media coverage I get quite often, but it has motivated me to get my second wind. I am more determined now to serve as mayor, and on January 1st you will see some indication of what I plan to do in the future."

He said he considered resigning in 2004 to grab opportunities in the real estate business but "now I am back, focused."

Herenton keeps his personal life private, but he doesn't show any overt signs of abusing his body. Challenged by television reporters, he produced personnel records last fall showing he had not missed more than three days in a row at work.

Herenton and former Memphis mayor Wyeth Chandler became closer in 2004 before Chandler's death. Chandler, who resigned as mayor in mid-term to take a judgeship, and former Councilman Lewis Donelson invited Herenton to lunch at the University Club to suggest ways to patch things up with the council, and Herenton was one of the speakers at Chandler's memorial service. Ironically, although Chandler was known for openly carousing while he was mayor, his fitness for office was not questioned. If Herenton goes night-clubbing, his enemies have him in rehab.

The Mayor-City Council relationship. Never as good or as bad as it seems to be, this is a tough one to gauge. The scars from the War of 2004 will probably never heal for council members such as Carol Chumney and Brent Taylor. And others who put on a good face are, well, good at putting on a good face. Herenton has extended an olive branch to Sammons, a veteran council member who a year ago called for a "Watergate-style" investigation of the mayor, and it has been accepted.

"There are those who find excuses and those who find a way," Sammons said of the challenges before them.

Other council members were split on whether the relationship is significantly better than it was a year ago.

"It depends on the issue and how it is presented," said Janet Hooks.

Rickey Peete used a War of the Worlds analogy, suggesting that the mayor and council will unite to fight "the common enemy" of budget deficits.

Herenton, who needs only seven votes on the 13-member council, is willing to bury the hatchet with most members.

"The relationship can be repaired," he said. "The majority of council members are basically good people and they don't have any animosity toward Willie Herenton. There are a few that are not such good people and they have hidden agendas and are not friends with Willie Herenton. But the vast majority I don't think have any real deep problems with me."

Balancing the budget. The main feature in two of the four options Herenton presented is full or partial elimination of the city's contribution to the city schools, which was $86 million this year. Shelby County has the responsibility for school funding in the city and county systems.

As a former superintendent, Herenton is sensitive about being portrayed -- inaccurately in his view -- as harsh on schools. He says he and the council could "force the issue" with Shelby County by eliminating all $86 million and using the money to lower property taxes, replenish reserves, and support early-childhood development. For three years he has been predicting financial doomsday in 2005-2006 unless the funding formula for schools is changed and Memphis closes some underused schools. In his view, the time has now come.

"If the mayor had seven proxy votes [on the council]," he said, "then I don't have a budget problem next year. The county has one."

But Councilman E.C. Jones scoffs that early-childhood education is not the city's responsibility. And Peete wonders what would happen if the city played hardball and then the county wouldn't replace the $86 million. Only one of Herenton's four options includes the full $86 million cut, suggesting there is, at the least, room for negotiation if this is not merely a bluff.

In January the City Council and County Commission will hold a rare joint session to discuss government funding, including schools.

The other big question mark is a city property tax increase. Herenton told the council he is certain that members will pass some kind of tax increase in 2005, even if it is less than the 48 cents he proposed. Seven council members informally polled by the Flyer all said a tax increase was likely, although Hooks, Chumney, and Jones said they personally would not vote for it.

Fresh ideas for savings or new revenue. In the small-potatoes category, Herenton suggested that a storm-water fee on homeowners of $3 or $4 a month on average is one option. And he held out the promise of big future savings if MLGW is reorganized as a division of city government instead of an independent organization. He also said the library system is top-heavy with management and unnecessary expenses.

Curiously, the mayor said nothing about two other city agencies and departments that seem ripe for fresh thinking. The Memphis Area Transit Authority is plugging away at a light-rail extension of the trolley line to Memphis International Airport that would cost at least $400 million, including $100 million in city funds. But MATA wasn't mentioned in the mayor's critique. And the Memphis Park Commission has seen a chunk of its turf taken over by the Riverfront Development Corporation, which has some private funding sources, without any offsetting budget cut. Nor has there been much discussion of how private foundations, whose assets have grown thanks to the stock market rise, might take over more public responsibilities.

Four indicators to watch. One, if Wolfchase Galleria is successful in getting its appraisal lowered from the current $131 million, it will be a bell cow for other commercial properties. Assessor Rita Clark, whose staff originally appraised the mall at $150 million, thinks Wolfchase's tax lawyers are shooting for a $70 million appraisal. A hearing is scheduled for January. On top of that, malls want to get tax breaks from the Industrial Development Board. If they do, Clark expects big-box stores like Kohl's, Costco, Best Buy, and others to follow suit, shifting more of the tax burden to homeowners and putting more pressure on the mayor and City Council to come up with alternatives.

Two, will anyone be brave enough to question the Memphis Police Department's $183 million allocation in the proposed 2005 budget? Police and fire services account for roughly 58 percent of the budget in all four Herenton options. The police property-room scandal, overtime abuse, and Herenton's explicit criticism of former police director James Bolden have not translated into suggestions that there might be some fat in the police budget.

Three, a meeting is only a meeting, but if the city-county get-together in January produces any significant agreements about school funding it will be a positive step. In the view of Sammons, the mere fact that the two legislative bodies are coming together is significant.

Four, Herenton always has something interesting to say in his New Year's Day speech. Predictions this year have ranged from a bombshell to a mild surprise. Last year Herenton ripped his fellow politicians and claimed what some took to be divine selection for himself. The 9 a.m. speech should be well worth getting out of bed for, even the night after a New Year's Eve party. •

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