CITY REPORTER 

Another week, another county lawsuit, and other news.

Another Week, Another County Lawsuit

Last October, Shelby County jail chief Marron Hopkins was accused of threatening his subordinate guards, instructing them not to talk to court-appointed jail monitors assigned to report on the jail's efforts to cut down violence and reduce overcrowding. Hopkins told jailers that the monitors were "not their friends" at a meeting he called just a week after federal judge Jon McCalla had taken a surprise tour, led by the chief, of the troubled downtown lockup.

All that would have gone unnoticed if jail commander Robert Ivory hadn't told jail monitor Curtis Shumpert of Hopkins' improprieties. As a result, inmates attorney Robert Hutton filed a complaint at the request of Judge Jon McCalla, who is overseeing the implementation of the four-year-old court order.

Ivory was terminated the same day that Shumpert told the judge about Hopkins' actions. Months before, Ivory had been following the court's mandate to cooperate with the monitors by answering Shumpert's questions, locating documents, and providing requested assistance to the monitor.

Ivory held four jobs at the jail since being hired in 1997 to be in charge of sanitation. He was fired despite having a clean personnel record. Though 201 Poplar is known for its unclean environment, Ivory's employee evaluations state that "he has been working very hard to meet deadlines in improving the overall sanitation condition of facility ... follows established policy, guidelines, and procedures ... and is competent and effective ... exceeds expectation."

This week, attorney Saul Belz filed a $2 million wrongful termination suit against Shelby County Sheriff A.C. Gilless and Hopkins. Belz says the situation is reminiscent of Sheriff's Deputy Harold Hayes' termination, which came after he spoke out about the Ray Mills and Stephen Toarmina badges-for-cash scam two years ago.

Ivory has been unable to get a job since being forced from his post in October.

"There's no reason why this man shouldn't be working," says Belz. -- Ashley Fantz

Music Commission Holds First Town Hall

Roughly three years after its formation and almost two years after hiring Jerry Schilling as its president, the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission will hold its first town hall meeting this week.

The event, which will take place at Strings & Things music store at 1555 Madison Avenue, is scheduled to run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and be moderated by WREG- TV's Alex Coleman. Schilling says that all of the commission's 20 members who will be in town that day are expected to attend, but that a select few members will be on the panel that takes audience questions.

Panelists, in addition to Schilling, will include Pat Mitchell of the Blues Foundation, Jon Hornyak of the Recording Academy, Kevin Kane of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, John Frye of Ardent Studios, and Onzie Horne of the House of Blues. Schilling anticipates that there may be some negative responses from the audience but says he relishes the opportunity to bring the commission closer to the community.

"I think that people who are going to take the time to come to something like this will either have really legitimate criticisms or some really great ideas that we could incorporate," he says.

To prepare themselves, last month the commission convened the first meeting of its Musician's Advisory Council, a commission offshoot designed to give contemporary working musicians more voice on the commission. Members of the still-forming council include Jim Dickinson, Reba Russell, and the Pawtuckets' and MADJACK Records' Mark McKinney.

"I want to get the city behind this event, not just the music community," says Schilling. "I want to get the Memphian there who might think, 'Why do we need a music commission?' I know down deep that Memphians are proud of our heritage, but I want them to also be proud of what's going on today."

But apparently not everyone is looking forward to the event. "There are a few commissioners that are a little afraid of this," Schilling admits, "but my feeling is that if there's something that we don't know, then damn it, we should know. If somebody can bring something up and we don't have the answer then we'll damn well look for it. We don't want to be sitting behind the desk, comfortable. We want to be on the firing line." -- Chris Herrington

"Gibson Experience" Put On Hold

The Gibson Guitar plant located downtown is slowly getting up to speed. According to plant manager Mickey Butler, Gibson is producing 71 guitars a day and employing 67 people. When Butler first arrived in Memphis from the Gibson plant in Nashville, the Memphis site was producing only four guitars a day. Butler says that he has plans to increase production to 100 guitars a day and hire up to 120 people by the summer.

However, the site is also supposed to house the "Gibson Experience," which would include a factory tour, Gibson museum, theme restaurant, and a live music venue. This has yet to materialize and, according to Gibson chairman and CEO Henry Juskiewicz, is going to take time.

The Rock 'N' Soul Museum, operated as a division of the Smithsonian Institution, opened last year on the second floor of the Gibson factory.

"It's going slower than we're pleased with," says Juskiewicz. "I hesitate to give dates. The fact is that we're four and a half years behind."

Juskiewicz says the delays stem from "problems with construction. Things didn't get done." Those things include an installed kitchen for the restaurant. According to project manager Bryan Campbell of MCDR Incorporated, the construction firm that built the plant, his company was never contracted to install the kitchen. This matter is currently being contested in court.

Despite the roadblocks, Juskiewicz is confident about the success of the Memphis operation.

"We're pumped about Memphis," he says. "We're not happy about [the delay], but we're committed to Memphis and we will fill our obligations. We're going to make the community proud." -- Chris Przybyszewski

Velsicol Blast

Worries Residents

As the sky filled with thick black smoke after an explosion at the Velsicol Chemical Corporation's plant Thursday, the surrounding North Memphis neighborhoods were in "sheer panic" for about 45 minutes, says resident Reverend Balinda Moore.

Knowing the plant stores many dangerous chemicals, several residents fled in their cars, while others without transportation awaited a call from the automated hazardous materials phone service that never came. The sirens at the adjacent school and community center also didn't sound, Moore found out later from the fire department, because the accident didn't pose a health threat.

Moore says she tried to call Velsicol to find out what happened, but no one answered the phone. The community should be informed after an accident, she says, to calm fears or detail evacuation routes.

Though no one was injured in the blast, 75 firefighters and 22 pieces of equipment were dispatched to the scene when the top blew off a 50,000-gallon chemical storage tank, according to a fire department press release.

Working with the Concerned Citizens for Douglas Bungalow Crump, a neighborhood group focusing on environmental concerns, Moore has been fighting Velsicol to clean up its act. Though the company is working to remove toxic waste on its site , Moore blames them for causing cancer and asthma in her neighborhood. -- Andrew Wilkins

Applegate Era Ends At Channel 5

A tumultuous period for THE local TV news industry came to an end last month with the long-anticipated promotion of WMC-TV vice president and general manager Bill Applegate to the same positions at two stations in Cleveland, which were recently purchased by Raycom Media, WMC's parent company.

Applegate arrived at WMC, long the market's most powerful and respected news station, in April 1998, with a reputation as one of the most controversial executives in the industry. A cover story in this paper that ran shortly after his arrival characterized Applegate as a tough, abrasive administrator who would boost ratings and cut costs at the expense of product quality and staff morale.

It didn't take long for those predictions to come true. Less than a year after Applegate's arrival, local print media were taking note of the increasingly hysterical tone of the station's newscasts, especially the station's rather loose interpretation of the term "breaking news." The Commercial Appeal reported that half of the newsroom had left or been fired in the first year -- a figure confirmed by staffers who were there at the time.

Richard Enderwood, director of promotion and audience development at WMC from 1993 until November 1998, and who now works in a similar capacity at stations in Oklahoma City, echoes many former Channel 5 staffers in decrying the stylistic shift that Applegate introduced.

"I believe that many of the special stories that were written and produced for news sweeps were frivolous and lightweight and were done in an attempt to attract viewers without addressing issues that actually impact the lives of Memphians," Enderwood says. "I'm sure there are industry reasons for those changes too, but the kinds of frivolous newscasts that were going on around the country were not going on at WMC or in Memphis really until [Applegate's] arrival."

"They are less traditional than they were before he came, there's no doubt about that," says Dr. James Redmond, chair of the journalism department at the University of Memphis. "Whether that's good or bad is open to interpretation -- it depends on what kind of news you prefer."

The ratings at the station under Applegate's tenure partially bear out his approach, however. The first May sweeps under Applegate's watch, which occurred just before he brought in equally controversial news director Peggy Phillip, reflected trouble. The station had been knocked out of first place at 5 p.m. for the first time in five years, losing to WREC-TV Channel 3 by half a ratings point and finding themselves in a tie with Channel 3 at 6 p.m. The station held a two-point lead at 10 p.m.

During the November 2000 sweeps, the last under Applegate's watch, WMC was back on top by a full point at 5 p.m., had pulled ahead considerably at 6 p.m., and was maintaining a similar lead at 10 p.m.

But many lament what has been lost in the ratings wars.

"To look at the organization as a whole in the community, I don't think they're as involved as they used to be. I think they pick their spots," says Harold Graeter, associate executive director of the AXA Liberty Bowl, whose position of sports director was eliminated by WMC in the fall of 1998.

Some former staffers and media watchers have expressed hope that Applegate's successor, Howard Meagle, who served for several years at a Raycom station in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, will return some of the station's community service focus.

But many question whether Applegate's approach has even been a success at WMC. Media watchers point out that his record has largely been one of improving ratings in the short term but leaving stations worse off than when he arrived. His real impact at WMC may be more accurately reflected in the next few sweeps periods.

"Sometimes you trip over dollars to pick up nickels, and sometimes you make changes that'll make the ratings spike a little bit but in the long term will actually contribute to a further decline," says Redmond. "How that all shakes out [at Channel 5] remains to be seen."

"I don't think he had a dramatic impact on the ratings, and I certainly think he affected morale in a negative way," says Graeter, in an opinion echoed by many other former WMC staffers. "But as long as you have that core group of Joe [Birch], Dave [Brown], and Jarvis [Greer], that station will maintain its position in the market, because it's about personalities." -- Chris Herrington

More Dirt On Downtown School Construction Costs

Shortly after approving a plan to borrow $50 million through the city government, the Memphis City Schools board voted to allocate $2 million in additional funding for the new downtown elementary school.

The money -- more than 20 percent of the school's accepted bid price of $9.4 million from Jameson-Gibson Construction -- was requested to replace a four-foot layer of unsuitable soil.

"An engineer determines what needs to be done to support the building," says Melva Williams-Argaw, coordinator of Memphis City Schools Office of Facility Planning. "You have to take out the rubble, old concrete foundations, and soil that does not have characteristics conducive to supporting a building." According to Williams-Argaw, both soil and rocks will be brought in to fill the hole and carry the weight of the 85,000-square-foot school building.

Williams-Argaw could not say how much of the money was for excavation, how much for stone and soil, and how much for transportation of the material to the site because the official change order for the project has not yet been issued. The $2 million is essentially an estimate by the staff based upon recommendations from the project's architects and engineers.

According to several local grading companies, however, removing a cubic yard of bad soil generally costs $5 to $10. Replacing it costs about the same amount, depending on what type of fill you're using, how far you have to move it, what type of area you're working in, and whether or not the site retains water.

But even if the entire seven-acre site needed an extra four feet of excavation, at $10 a cubic yard for removal and $10 for fill, the construction should cost about $900,000 -- about half the amount approved by the board.

According to Williams-Argaw, the staff took the estimated $2 million to the board in order to keep the project moving.

"We had to make sure we had the money," she says. "If we slowed down the process, by the time the construction company is ready to do the work, then we'd have to wait on the board to approve the funds. Because of the time factor, we're asking to proceed with the work while we work out the price."

Each school has an amount for construction contingency -- money to be used for additional, unexpected costs. But in this case, the project's size dictated the staff go to the board with a funding request.

"This change order would wipe out the contingency," says Williams-Argaw. "We're at the very beginning of this project. We're just coming out of the ground, so we're bypassing that pot."

The original specifications for the school, scheduled to open in August 2002, included excavating and replacing eight feet. Although standard testing was done to determine how much soil needed to be replaced, it was recently determined that a total of 12 feet needed to replaced.

"We have a differential of four feet. It's based on a test, but we're still dealing with a margin of error," says Williams-Argaw.

If the soil replacement does not cost all of the $2 million, the money will go back to the capital improvement fund. If it goes over, the staff will have to use the contingency money or go back to the board.

Originally part of a 15-school package proposed by Inman-Beers Construction, the downtown school was slated to cost$12.4 million. After school officials announced last year that there wasn't enough money to build all the schools, the board decided to award a smaller nine-school package bid. The downtown school and five others were re-bid individually. Jameson-Gibson Construction eventually won the contract with a bid of $9.4 million.

Managers at Jameson-Gibson declined to be interviewed.

-- Mary Cashiola

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