[City Beat] Secession of the Successful 

Suburbs chip away at their ties to Memphis as Herenton inadvertently fuels fires.

The biggest problem facing Memphis over the next decade is the secession of the successful.

It's already happened to neighborhoods, parks, hospitals, churches, schools, and businesses. Now it's spread to public libraries and Memphis Light, Gas and Water.

The haves up and leave. Families move from Whitehaven and Hickory Hill to DeSoto County, or from Raleigh and North Memphis to Bolton and Covington. Baptist Hospital leaves downtown to Methodist University and The Med. The Mall of Memphis closes and the malls spread east and south.

In Memphis, public often means poor in health care, parks, schools, and transit.

The rich get richer. Enrollment swells at the best private and county public schools. DeSoto County collects more than $100 million in state sales taxes. Collierville can't build homes and offices fast enough.

The left-behind aren't just relics like Baptist Hospital downtown and the Mid-South Fairgrounds. They're the very places that were themselves refuges from the inner-city 20 years ago or less -- Raleigh, parts of Cordova, Hickory Hill, Kirby High School, the Mall of Memphis.

Collierville has broken away from the Memphis-based public library system, and other suburbs are looking at doing the same thing. Collierville, Bartlett, and other suburban municipalities are looking at breaking away from MLGW. They already have their own police and fire protection. The county school board is working on severing its financial ties to the city system, chipping away one school at a time. The main public service the suburban haves seem to want from Memphis and Shelby County is the road system to get to and from work, school, shopping, the airport, or sporting events.

Good roads make good neighbors. Have you hugged a road lately?

Shelby County mayor A C Wharton wants to overhaul suburban zoning regulations, but the schools, sewer, and roads are already in place. Parts of Shelby County look like a checkerboard of four- and six-lane roads built in the last 15 years.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton wants the MLGW board to tell President Joseph Lee to slow down and make no more personnel changes until board members can "take an assessment of the long-term objectives of MLG&W."

Herenton's spokeswoman, Gale Jones Carson, said he "just wanted to calm the fears of employees and the public" in the wake of alarms that may have been sounded by departing senior employees. "People leaving or who have left are accusing Joseph of planning to get rid of a lot of employees," she said.

In the last 30 days, three vice presidents have left the company or retired, but MLGW spokesman Mark Heuberger said a rumor was unfounded that one of them, Larry Thompson, was physically escorted from the building by Lee.

The talk of breakaway utility companies smacks of the aborted suburban secession movement eight years ago and comes from many of the same anti-Herenton sources. The mayor, however, set himself up for it by insisting that Lee get the job and then not only reining him in almost immediately but doing it via a letter to the board.

The result was another round of Herenton bashing and Memphis bashing, largely undeserved. The lights are on, the water is running, and the rates are competitive. Pensions and benefits for senior officers and a closed corporate culture are getting a healthy dose of scrutiny and fresh air. A board once dominated by ministers and consultants has been upgraded by people with financial expertise.

One year after the Herenton-MLGW flap began, MLGW is a more open and accountable public utility. In his typically unique way, Herenton accomplished what he set out to do. And again in his typically unique way, he managed to make some people mad at him and mad at Memphis.

Clarification: In a column two weeks ago, I suggested that term limits might be a good idea for mayors, county commissioners, and City Council members. But I said term limits should also apply to appointed boards and specifically named the Center City Commission (CCC), the Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), and the Agricenter. A top executive at one of those groups thought I was calling for his scalp. I was not.

What I should have said more clearly was that term limits should apply to mayoral appointees on these boards. Some board members have been at their posts since 1979. After 25 years, you're not a board member. You're an institution and a power-broker.

The same goes for mayoral appointees such as Tom Jones, who represented former Shelby County mayors Jim Rout and Bill Morris on numerous boards. Herenton and Rout might have avoided some of their current problems if they had handled board appointments more carefully. •

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