For the second time in less than a month, intruders — in this case, members of the local news media — were given free rein of sorts in the formerly off-limits area of the 7th floor at City Hall. For those uninitiated in the arcana of Memphis city government, the 7th floor was, and is, the home base of the city's mayor. It became so early in the 17 1/2-year tenure of Willie Herenton, who moved his offices from a lower floor. For the last several of those years, it was strictly off-limits to anyone not expressly invited to enter what the incumbent clearly regarded as a sanctuary.
On Friday before last, in the course of an open house for the whole of City Hall, newly installed mayor pro tem Myron Lowery allowed members of the public at large to tour the mayoral office suite. On Tuesday, selected media managers were asked up to the 7th floor, where they were fed sandwiches, chips, and cookies and were chatted up by Lowery and several of his ranking staff people.
What did we learn at school? Well, press secretary Donna Davis, CAO Jack Sammons, and Lowery himself all promised not only an open-door policy but what Sammons — a former longtime councilman hired, as he put it, to "run the business" — likened to the customer-friendly efforts of WalMart and FedEx. For example, requests for information would be processed the same-day, shipped out immediately or, if unusually complex, overnight.
Lowery repeated his well-known credo that all press questions deserve on-the-record answers. That doesn't guarantee perfect results, as those with direct experience of the longtime city councilman and recent council chairman can testify.
Asked if he had made a mistake in trying to fire city attorney Elbert Jefferson within minutes of becoming mayor, for example, Lowery, who had just promised to admit all mistakes, said, no, he hadn't. "I've done it, and I'm not going to look back," he said, expressing sentiments, if not the exact lingo, that his predecessor might have used.
But Lowery was forthcoming in dishing out background and promising updates on the "big three" issues he'd promised to expedite during his two months or so in office: Fairgrounds development, Bass Pro's intent regarding the Pyramid, and the status of the city's Beale Street litigation with Performa Entertainment CEO John Elkington. On the latter score, while Lowery repeated his desire for a "settlement" of the complex financial issues involved, Sammons the diplomat preferred to use the more ambiguous term "exit strategy."
All kinds of good dish about the prior regime was doled out by the mayoral team — accounts of paperwork left incomplete since April, of consultants consulting on other consultants, of a "two-member law firm" on a $50,000 monthly retainer.
Underlying the conversation was everybody's knowledge that, in the brief time remaining before the October 15th date for the special mayoral election, habits of candor and dispatch will have minimal time to implant themselves in City Hall.
But it's interesting that Lowery and his team intend to make the effort, and we'll gladly join the rest of the media in holding them to their promise.