EDITORIAL 

Keeping It Public

Several recent circumstances remind us that the line between public and private interests is a thin one that can be transgressed in either direction.

Last week, for example, Mayor Willie Herenton convened a joint meeting of the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission at The Pyramid, in order to present a comprehensive plan for consolidating city and county schools. The plan envisioned five equal and commonly funded school districts throughout Shelby County, each with a de facto regional autonomy, though a chancellor and a nine-member Board of Education would provide an umbrella administration.

Though there were several outstanding questions about the economics of the plan (not to mention the politics!), Herenton's proposal was a serious prologue to a long overdue dialogue. Granted, the mayor had made a point of snubbing both the city and county school boards in his invitation, but his plan, after all, proposes to do away with both. Many officials who were there later said they regarded the Herenton initiative as serious enough to merit "further study."

Almost immediately, though, extraneous factors slipped into the proceedings. Instead of the verbal give-and-take about the plan's mechanics that might have ensued, two council members and the mayor got into a to-do that had less to do with the public agenda than with their respective private ones. First, council member Carol Chumney launched into a self-congratulatory monologue about her 2002 campaign for county mayor. After a few moments of this, Herenton interrupted her with an impolite expletive. Then, council member Brent Taylor, who has feuded with the mayor, stalked out in a gesture of defiance that may have played better on camera than it did in the room.

All that was lacking was another confrontation between the mayor and local ABC News anchor Cameron Harper. The two had gotten into a well-publicized tangle last month over Harper's persistence in asking whether Herenton would consider resigning in order to further the cause of consolidation. Surprise! The mayor belatedly answered the question at last week's meeting, saying he would. And that was, we suppose, a contribution to the dialogue.

But none of the sideshows that occurred last Wednesday in The Pyramid held a candle to the one that was featured on WREG-TV, News Channel 3, later in the week. Reporter Andy Wise interviewed Claudine Marsh, who was recently revealed to be the mother of Herenton's 4-month-old son. In that dialogue, Marsh succeeded in making two statements -- the visual one, whereby a no-doubt curious viewing audience got to see what she looked like; and a rhetorical one, which was more or less to the effect that the mayor hadn't altogether been a gentleman, leaving her to have a baby all by herself. (For the record, Herenton has acknowledged paternity and promised to provide appropriate supports.)

Beyond that, Marsh and Wise indulged each other in mutual claims to be people of faith, along with the rather striking further contention by Wise that God somehow ordained the interview. Anyone persuaded of that might also conclude that the Almighty had also required Marsh to be interviewed for the next morning's issue of The Commercial Appeal, which maintains a news partnership of sorts with Channel 3.

The long and short of it all is that the public still has business to be concluded. We all like our fun and games, but it's time to get back to it -- God willing.

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