The term "public servant" is often ironically applied to this or that politician, but it certainly describes the late Morris Fair, the former Shelby County commissioner who died last week after a determined battle against cancer. Though he was visibly ill and no doubt often in agony during his last months, Fair refused to be debilitated, continuing to provide valuable service as a member of the new state Lottery Board and other public bodies.
It was only last month that Fair, attached to an apparatus supplying him with oxygen, made an appearance before two committees of the Shelby County Commission to make a well-prepared and systematic case against a proposed financial award to Clark Construction Company, primary contractors of the new Convention Center, for $17 million in cost overruns the company wants to recover.
We do not propose to judge the merits of the case here, but we cannot but be in awe of Fair's powers of reasoning, his conscientiousness, and his doggedness in setting forth his argument -- replete with an awareness of the nuances of architecture and construction, as well as with the kind of fiscal detail which Fair, an innovator in the securities field and an acknowledged expert in financial matters, was famous for.
What was most impressive about Fair's effort was the fact that, though he must have known that his own days were seriously numbered, he couched his argument entirely in terms of the ongoing needs of Memphis and Shelby County and local taxpayers. It was a reminder of that old parable of an aged man planting an oak tree that he himself would never get to see -- though, even in his 70s, even wracked by disease, Morris Fair was never exactly "aged." An inveterate booster of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks teams, among other enthusiasms, Fair owned one of the great smiles, and it stayed with him until the end.
Though many a local eminence has died and had a well-attended funeral, no one in our memory out-pulled Commissioner Fair, who had turnaway crowds at both the Memorial Park Funeral Home, where he lay in state on Friday, and at his funeral at St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral on Saturday. As Commissioner John Willingham, who bested Fair in his last reelection campaign in 2002, acknowledged, "If I had known Morris as well then as I do now, I would never have run against him. He will be sorely missed. He was a good friend and a good soldier." Indeed.
The withdrawal this week by city finance director Joseph Lee of his on-again/off-again candidacy to be director of Memphis Light, Gas & Water removes at least one potential bone of contention from the process of selecting a director. Lee, a trusted confidante of Mayor Willie Herenton, had been one of five finalists, but he was the only one who had already been a focus of controversy.
During the stormy period earlier this year when Herenton and the City Council clashed over a variety of issues, notably that of the council's role in approving mayoral appointments, several nominations were rejected outright and that of Lee to become MLGW director was put on hold.
After the smoke cleared somewhat, there were arguments both for and against Lee. It is a tribute to Lee, under the circumstances, that, after an all-points search produced a large field of applicants, he was among the handful still under active consideration by the council.
Unanswered questions remain after Lee's latest withdrawal from consideration, but it may well serve to facilitate a final selection.