CITY REPORTER 

Judge McCalla miffed over jail-improvement delays, and other news.

Jail Hearings Rile Judge, Prosecutor, and Pols

The rumble over jail conditions among the county mayor, the sheriff, the district attorney general, and a federal judge looks like it will easily outlast the XFL.

U.S. District Court Judge Jon McCalla last week set a hearing for April 20th for county officials to get their act together and at least prove they are making progress on jail problems. Last Friday's hearing was more civil than previous ones but was still marked by sniping between the players.

McCalla called it "amazing" that District Attorney General Bill Gibbons did not appear personally but instead sent a letter. In the letter, addressed to county CAO Jim Kelly, Gibbons said his office would not speed up the pace of indictments or "make prosecutorial decisions or case decisions based upon jail population or jail conditions." Gibbons added that he is "confused as to what in the world this has to do with the current lawsuit in federal court" over jail conditions.

McCalla, who said he was reading the letter for the first time at the hearing, was miffed.

"Apparently he doesn't think much of us over here," he said. "This is not very diplomatic."

McCalla said the court hearings are aimed at finding the problems in a system that he says "can only move as fast as the slowest cog."

The overcrowded jail includes prisoners who have been held more than 400 days without being indicted, or "hanging charges," as they are called. The county mayor's office proposes to speed up the process by adding the "paper-intensive" attorney general's office into the existing Criminal Justice Center computer systems. Gibbons says the Criminal Court clerk's office, not his office, is responsible for the court records.

At different hearings, McCalla has expressed his unhappiness with what he sees as unresponsiveness by county mayor Jim Rout, Sheriff A.C. Gilless, and now Gibbons, whose wife is McCalla's colleague, U.S. District Court Judge Julia Gibbons. But McCalla stopped short of adopting jail inmates' attorney Robert Hutton's suggestion of slapping the sheriff's department with a $25,000-per-day fine for noncompliance.

"Before we start swinging the hatchet, let's see what they're trying to build," said McCalla. "I could not agree with you more that they're in contempt."

While the hearing continued on the ninth floor of the federal building, deputy jailers wearing sandwich-boards picketed outside the Criminal Justice Center. A three-man team of jail monitors is supposed to file its report on the county's plan on March 26th. Meanwhile, attorneys for Gilless announced that he has hired Kim Hackney as jail population management analyst, to begin work March 16th. -- John Branston and Ashley Fantz

Memphis Parent Wins Top Publishing Awards

Memphis Parent, a monthly parenting magazine published since January 1999 by Contemporary Media, Inc., walked off with top honors at the Parenting Publications of America (PPA) Annual Convention, held March 1-3 in Huntington Beach, California.

Memphis Parent received four gold medals, for General Editorial Excellence, Best Overall Design, Spot News Feature, and Calendar Design.

The PPA's Editorial and Design Awards recognize excellence in journalism, photography, and design achieved by member publications. Faculty members at the University of Missouri School of Journalism judge the competition.

"This was an extraordinary coup for a very talented team," says Kenneth Neill, publisher and CEO of Contemporary Media, which also publishes The Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine. "They've worked hard to make changes in the magazine's look and editorial content, so this is proof positive that we're moving in the right direction."

PPA members compete for gold and silver honors in 17 design categories, 16 editorial categories, and three general excellence categories (Most Improved, Rookie of the Year, and General Excellence). In all, 178 editorial and design awards were conferred.

PPA is a national trade association of regional parenting publications that represents more than 150 magazines and newspapers in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. The organization was established in 1988.

Watson Wants KIPP in Memphis

If everything goes his way, Memphis City Schools superintendent Johnnie B. Watson may be overseeing a Memphis KIPP Academy as soon as 2002.

At the Memphis City Schools board meeting Monday night, Watson presented his letter of intent to contract with the KIPP Academy.

At KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, students go to school for more than 9 hours every weekday, attend half-days on Saturdays, and are required to learn a musical instrument.

The commissioners -- minus Lora Jobe, Hubon Sandridge, and Sara Lewis -- took a day trip Friday to visit the school in New York City. The trip was funded by the Hyde Foundation.

"As board members, we'll be better prepared to vote on it," said board president Barbara Prescott of the trip.

Commissioner Wanda Halbert said she had concerns about the number of programs the school system is currently still implementing. The commissioners are waiting for a study, due in mid-April, rating the success of the 18 reform models.

"As superintendent, I have a responsibility to identify and implement programs to help accomplish our goals. One of those goals is student achievement," said Watson. "If this is a way to accomplish that, I feel I must pursue it." -- Mary Cashiola

Brooks Accepts Entries, Theater Adds Shows

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is accepting entries for a show that will feature only artists from the Mid-South. The submissions deadline is March 23rd.

"Brooks Perspectives" is a juried invitation-only exhibition for the region, and artists who reside and work within a 250-mile radius of Memphis are encouraged to submit work for consideration. The pieces will be chosen by curator Sam Gappmayer, director of the Contemporary Art Center of Atlanta. Installations and electronic media are encouraged.

Artists may submit up to 10 slides along with their resume and artist's statement to Mary Tinkler, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 1934 Poplar Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, 38104-2765.

In addition to its current production of Far East, Theatre Memphis is offering performances of Beauty Queen of Leenane on Sunday, March 11th, and Monday, March 12th. Beauty Queen won top honors at the Tennessee Theatre Convention last October and moves on to regionals in Jacksonville, Florida, on March 14th, where it will compete for a shot at the nationals in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in June.

-- Chris Davis

Stubby and Cal Sell Tickets, Dawgs Don't

Ticket sales to local sporting events have vacillated for the past 12 months.

On top of the list is the record-shattering year for the Memphis Redbirds and the brand-new AutoZone Park, which drew 12,110 people per game -- up from 5,596 per game in the Redbirds' first and only season in McCarver Stadium. That places the Memphis team second in AAA baseball behind the Sacramento Rivercats, also playing in a new stadium.

In addition, the University of Memphis' basketball team has ridden the success of newly installed Coach John Calipari to renewed interest in the team, bringing in an average of 17,434 through the season's 15 home games. This is up from an average of 11,974 tickets sold per game through the 1999-2000 season.

By comparison, the University of Memphis football team took a hit for the 2000 season, collecting only 26,093 tickets per game over the six home games. In 1999, the Tigers drew in 30,841 tickets per game.

More modest are the numbers for Memphis' professional sports teams. While the RiverKings have seen a slight increase in this year's ticket sales, bringing 3,571 tickets per game through 27 games in the newly constructed DeSoto County Civic Center, that is only a slight increase over last year's number of 3,120 tickets per game at the Mid-South Coliseum, the RiverKings' former residence.

In addition, the newly created Memphis Houn'Dawgs, also in the DeSoto County Civic Center, have attracted just 1,124 people per game, drawing threats of relocation in a recent open letter written by American Basketball Association 2000 co-founder Joe Newman.

In the first game of the XFL Memphis Maniax, attendance was 30,117. For the game the following week, attendance dropped to 17,063 and then declined further for the team's third home game to 16,176.

-- Chris Przybyszewski

School Board Reviews Tough Cell Phone Policy

A Memphis City Schools student who calls in a bomb threat or assaults another student gets a mandatory board suspension. He or she will also get the same punishment for bringing a cellular phone to class.

That was what the parents of a White Station High School student were protesting at Monday night's school board meeting.

The student, a National Honor Society member, had put her dad's cell phone in her backpack when she went to a study group Sunday night. On Monday, the phone was forgotten -- until it rang during her calculus class.

"We both assumed the principal would look at her irreproachable conduct and exemplary record, but the principal said she had no discretion in the matter," said Dixie McLendon, the student's mother. The student was suspended for three days.

Citing the same punishment for sexual harassment, indecent exposure, and belonging to a gang, McLendon said she realized cell phones can be a distraction, but said she thought the automatic board suspension gives principals too little discretion in the matter.

Board members seemed to agree.

Commissioner Lee Brown said he had heard of several similar cases and that the zero-tolerance policy for cell phones might be a bit out of date.

"Before, having a cell phone or a beeper meant you were involved in illegal activities," said Brown. "In 2001, babies have a phone in the crib."

The district's zero-tolerance policy is currently being reviewed by a parent/staff committee, but the commissioners urged expediency in the matter.

"It looks like this is one that needs to be revised," said Commissioner Michael Hooks Jr. -- Mary Cashiola

PlanetRx Not Closing, Just Restructuring

A March 1st article that appeared in Medical Industry Today announced the impending death of two-year-old PlanetRx.com.

PlanetRx was started in San Francisco by Mike Bruner to serve as an online pharmacy where clients could research and fill prescription drugs and other health-care products. Though the company posted losses its first year, it continued to borrow heavily and in the summer of 2000 opened a high-tech distribution center, customer-care organization, and pharmacy in Memphis.

According to Medical Industry Today, the company suffered for never aligning itself with a "bricks and mortar" pharmacy such as Walgreens or Rite Aid. The result is that PlanetRx will effectively hand over its estimated 1.4 million customers to a top competitor, drugstore.com. This news comes via a message on the PlanetRx.com Web site, which announced, "We are also closing our store on March 12, 2001," and redirected its customers to drugstore.com.

Denise Bovo, vice president of marketing for PlanetRx, said news of the closing is only partially true. "Our Web site will remain open," Bovo says, adding that PlanetRx will now focus on providing pharmaceutical distribution toward "more serious disease states," such as cancer and HIV, instead of over-the-counter medicines as it did before.

This change of focus has included a major company overhaul. "The executives in the company have left the company," says Bovo, with the exception of CEO Michael Biendorff. However, "There's still a core group in Memphis." Bovo says of the rapid growth and decline of the company, "So be it with the whole world of dot-com."

In addition to refocusing its sales efforts, PlanetRx has begun to sell its highly sought-after satellite sites such as Diabetes.com, Nursing.com, and Depression.com. The sale of these sites, says Bovo, has provided new revenue for the restructuring.

-- Chris Przybyszewski

XFL Scores With TV Ratings -- In Memphis, Anyway

While the rest of the country stifles a yawn, Memphis continues to prove that the XFL knew what it was doing when it chose the Bluff City as one of eight charter teams in the new pro football league. Sunday night's game between the Maniax and Orlando at the Liberty Bowl drew a 6.25 rating on WLMT-TV (UPN-30) and reached nearly 40,000 households, or approximately 100,000 viewers in the Memphis area.

The Memphis-Orlando game was the highest-rated sporting event on TV in the Memphis market for the entire weekend, beating a NASCAR Winston Cup race (6.0), the Duke-North Carolina basketball game (5.18), the Knicks-Raptors NBA game (4.85), and even the telecast of the University of Memphis vs. Louisville basketball game on Saturday afternoon (4.9).

With the strong rating Sunday night, Memphis solidified its spot as the top-rated UPN market in the nation for XFL telecasts. WLMT-TV's season rating stands at 6.1. Memphis also ranks among the top five markets for XFL telecasts on NBC and TNN.

Nationally, it is another story altogether for the fledgling football league. Last weekend's XFL TV rating declined for the fourth straight week. NBC, which co-owns the league with the World Wrestling Federation, got a 2.7 overnight rating and a 5 share for Saturday night's game between Los Angeles and New York/New Jersey. The league debuted in February with an overnight rating of 10.3. The ratings have dropped each week since.

Steve Ehrhart, general manager of the Maniax, said this week that NBC executives have reiterated their two-year commitment to the league.

-- Dennis Freeland

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