EDITORIAL: A Marshall Plan 

Though Memphians at large have not yet had an opportunity to peruse the contents of the so-called Marshall Report commissioned by City Council chairman Tom Marshall and other city-government officials at the onset of the still-raging MLGW scandal, the chairman promises that its details will shortly be posted on the council’s Web site for all to see.

Meanwhile, Marshall took advantage of a speaking opportunity downtown at a Rotary Club meeting on Tuesday to offer not only a sneak preview of that report (one bottom line: utility president Joseph Lee should be ousted for specific transgressions) but a prospectus for revising the way city government is organized. As Marshall made clear on Tuesday, city government is badly in need of some restructuring.

“I believe that morality is standing very low,” Marshall said, by way of assessing the moment. He cited some of the issues: incidences of corruption that have resulted, he says, in “ongoing investigation” by various organs of law enforcement; confusion as to the roles that various officials should be playing; a vague sense of ethical obligations in city government; and a need for redistributing authority.

“We have no authority for policing ourselves,” Marshall said, reminding his audience of a recent vote to suspend or expel two council members after their indictment on corruption charges. That effort was thwarted when the two council members themselves were allowed to vote on the issue — a glaring impropriety for which no legal prohibition seemed to exist.

What is needed, in any case, is an “authority beyond ourselves,” an ethics review board, to be composed of retired judges or some other such impeccable and disinterested group of arbiters.

There needs to be a new “master plan,” the chairman said, to oversee zoning issues. Marshall recalled that after the Gray’s Creek plan for suburban expansion in the greater Cordova area was adopted in the mid-’90s, it was promptly overruled in four consecutive majority votes in cases before the council. A reconstructed master plan should require a two-thirds majority to revise or rescind such a covenant, Marshall said.

Another need was for a redefinition of lines of authority. These, the chairman concluded, were embarrassingly vague as spelled out in the current charter. Marshall noted that when members of the new city Charter Commission asked for guidance in the matter, “we couldn’t even tell them what the current charter said.”

Another recommended change involved altering the “strong mayor” formula that now governs important city issues. In particular, Marshall reminded his listeners of contractual problems both with MLGW and with the “garage-gate” aspect of FedExForum’s construction. Marshall’s proposed remedy? Reassigning all contractual authority from the mayor’s office, where it currently resides, to the City Council.

These are not necessarily the only changes that should be considered by the currently sitting Charter Commission, but they belong on that body’s agenda as matters to be considered. Chairman Marshall is to be commended for having thought through some of these problems in so specific a manner.

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