Big Man, Big Tent

Though he was involved -- tangentially, all too tangentially -- in the tsunami of the Iraqi visitors fiasco, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton got second billing to the City Council in that matter. And with scandal winds blowing up in the wake of ex-county aide Tom Jones' revised-pension try (see Cover Story and Politics), Herenton had to play second fiddle in the media for most of last week to his beleagured Shelby County counterpart, Mayor A C Wharton.

All this had to be telling on the patience of our city's three-term-going-on-life mayor, whose alpha-male propensities and determination to be unrivaled -- even, it would seem, in controversy -- may have led to his now notorious New Year's Day speech blistering the members of the City Council. The former city schools superintendent said to the Flyer apropos the mayor's break-in period at City Hall: "The biggest transition for me was coming into an organization and having to work with politicians on the City Council." That transition never has been completed. The resulting feud with the council has only just begun to abate, and it may kick up again after the mayor's latest action. That, of course, was the sacking of police director James Bolden, one of the few mayoral appointees to get by the council without a fight last January.

Bolden was ordered to resign after a still-mysterious incident in which the mayor reprimanded several officers at a drug-arrest scene for what Herenton later described as "horseplay." When Bolden defended the actions of his men (who asserted that Herenton had used profanity when speaking to them), the mayor professed himself "disappointed" -- a word which, in Herenton's lexicon, is equivalent to a pink slip.

Bolden is but the latest in a series of such dismissed officials. Not just police directors (four of whom had left, voluntarily or otherwise, previously) but a host of other mayoral appointees have been shown the door, one or two of them in the mayor's first week in office, back in 1992.

Even granting that those now departed must have possessed the usual ration of human flaws, there is something amiss here. Our mayor is occasionally mentioned as a prospect for high administrative office elsewhere. (Some speculate that the Bush administration may have a post in mind for him -- say, secretary of education to succeed Rod Paige.) But whether he moves on or remains in his current post until the spirit moves him to retire, it behooves Herenton to remember that his is still an elective position, paramount but not solitary or unchecked in the panoply of city officials.

It behooves the one major local official who has consistently stood for local governmental consolidation to demonstrate by example not just that he's the Big Man, but that he possesses the ability to work within a Big Tent.

It might be helpful to that end if the mayor tucked in his elbows a tad and gave his department heads and fellow governmental officials a little more room to operate without fear of reprisal. n


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