Say what you will about Joe Saino, aka the "Memphis Watchdog," who is to politics-as-usual in Memphis and Shelby County what the Visigoths were to Rome, or Genghis Khan was to the trembling peoples of medieval Europe, or the Moors were to Spain: This self-appointed scourge of the established order has a sense of humor.
It was very much on display several days after a City Council vote on September 15th, that doomed his hopes (and those of Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, who had nominated him ) to join the city of Memphis pension board. I sat with the 76-year-old Saino in the roomy second-floor study of his East Memphis residence, listening to the former industrialist talk about what had become, in his retirement years, a full-time career as a kind of citizen ombudsman.
Saino laughed — actually, howled — when I told him of the war cry that used to reverberate around the Central High locker room (back in the day, shall we say) before the football Warriors' encounters with arch-rival CBC, his alma mater. (For a long time, the school now known as Christian Brothers High School went by the same moniker as the adjoining institution of higher learning, Christian Brothers College.)
The war cry? "Never let a Dago by!"
Clearly not one for political correctness, even when he's on the receiving end of something manifestly incorrect, Saino, whose ancestry is Italian, was unfeignedly delighted. Hearing that vintage piece of jock-talk led him to reminiscence, briefly, about some of the great athletic names of both schools (one of whom, a Saino classmate and longtime man-to-see for Mayor Willie Herenton, was Pete Aviotti, a star infielder who would go on to play several years in the St. Louis Cardinals chain.)
In the old country, Saino's last name would have been pronounced Sah-EE-no. When he appeared before the council for his fateful confirmation hearing, council chair Harold Collins kept referring to him as "See-AH-no."
Other council members, better acquainted with the heresiarch, set Collins straight and gave him the right pronunciation, which Collins delightedly repeated. "Say-No," he said experimentally and then again for emphasis: "Say NO! No pun intended. Correct?"
Whether the chairman actually meant to designate the likelihood of Saino's being rejected or his reputation in certain circles as a negativist or even nothing at all, that little bit of wordplay somewhat symbolizes not only the encounter but Saino's whole presence in the public eye.
Surprisingly, perhaps, the vote on the council turned out to be a close-run thing. Saino, the self-appointed scourge of the establishment, came within a single vote last week of earning a seat in local government.
Problem was, said council attorney Allan Wade, the 6-5 outcome in Saino's favor wasn't good enough. The city charter, he said, called for an absolute majority of the 13-member council — or seven votes. So Saino was rejected. The fact is, there were — there are — seven members of the council in favor of his joining the pension board. But one of them was Lowery, the man who nominated Saino, and who, as the city's mayor pro tem, was ineligible to vote.
Recalling this week his reasons for trying to appoint Saino, the proprietor of memphiswatchdog.org and shelbycountywatchdog.blogspot.com, two sites that turn an unceasingly critical eye on the conduct of public business, Lowery put it this way: "Joe Saino asks the tough questions of government. He's been doing that for some time now. Many people are afraid of his questions. We should not be. His questions deserve to be answered. I felt he would make a strong addition to the pension board, because for too long the pension board has been lax with its rules. They've been very secretive."
A case in point? That mysterious settlement with ex-mayor Willie Herenton, whereby the retired Herenton, instead of receiving his pension at regular calendar intervals, got it all — some half a million dollars worth — in one lump sum. Cynics conjectured that the former mayor wanted all his earned bounty in hand, fearing that it might be interrupted and frozen as the result of some oft-rumored federal prosecution.
Or it might have been merely that Herenton, a near-septuagenarian, wanted to enjoy his pension while he had a chance. Whatever the case, said Lowery, the thing was much too hush-hush.
"For example, the minutes of the pension board never recorded that the mayor asked for and received his lump-sum pension," Lowery said. "I have changed that policy with a new regulation that says that any time a lump-sum pension is grated, it must be approved by the full board to see what effect that would have on the pension system. That's number one.
"Number two: It must be recorded in the minutes," Lowery continued. "The minutes of the meeting where the mayor received the lump sum did not have any mention that he did that. I think that's wrong. Mr. Saino wants to bring everything into the public. He believes in transparency, just like I do. ... I want him there, to serve as a watchdog for this entire community. I want my retirement to remain strong, just like every other city employee."
Testifying before the council on his own behalf at last week's council meeting, Saino declared that, while he had ideas as to how the city's pension system could be transformed, he could not, as one member of the pension board, restructure the pension process. Mainly what he would seek, as the one proposed public (i.e., non-employee) member, was "transparency in government," especially the publication on the Internet of the details of civic transactions.
Saino promised, "I will go by the pension law and the pension system, exactly as written."
All that was greeted skeptically by Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware, who moved to separate Saino's name from those of the others being appointed or reappointed to various boards and commissions. As several others would, Ware noted that on his websites Saino had disparaged the fact that the other members of the pension board were all city employees, a fact he had publicly termed "incestuous."
"It just does not send a good signal when you have a person with a reputation of being anti-government. All I have ever heard of Mr. Saino is what he's against," Ware said. Employees in the system would be "scared stiff" if Saino were allowed on the pension board. "It chills me to think. It's good to have watchdogs, but a watchdog needs to watch from the outside," she continued. "I appreciate the watchdog, but you're no longer a watchdog if you get in close enough to bite me, and I'm afraid of dogs."
And there was Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, who saw Saino as a potential "dictator" determined to have "either your way or no way" and to "overhaul the pension system all by yourself. And I love dogs, but I think sometimes a watchdog needs a dog to watch over him."
Add to that the stated misgivings of representatives of the city's police and firefighter unions, who expressed fears that a pension board containing Saino might endanger their charges' pensions.
Having heard all this and more, a sympathetic Councilman Bill Boyd, who represents Saino's own East Memphis terrain, quipped, "I just wondered how much of a devil you were, hearing all this rhetoric up here." To which Saino, displaying a trademark shucksy grin that is part self-deprecation and part satirical smirk, said, "I'd like to go home and beat my wife."
He wore that grin down the aisle upon hearing he'd won the 6-5 vote, and, after he'd been called back and told that, woops, he actually needed a seventh vote to be approved, he wore it again on his way out of the council auditorium and out of the building.
"I didn't see a seventh vote," Saino would recall in our conversation days later. He knew he'd chafed too many sensibilities. How could he not have, as the proprietor of websites that have used provocative terms like "a robbery in progress" to describe much of what goes on in local politics and that have pictorialized local government as a pig emblazoned with a dollar sign and feeding from a trough?
Recent articles on memphiswatchdog.org bear headlines "The Great Property Assessment Scam," "A Bloated City Government," and, most recently, "Only the Tip of the Iceberg," which contains the screaming all-caps indictment, "IS THIS A GREAT COUNTRY OR WHAT? LOCALS FLIP JUST ONE PROPERTY THREE TIMES AND MAKE OFF WITH $684,000."
Other, less provocative titles in the "2009 News" section of the site provide an idea of Saino's range, however, and give some idea of why he's outgrown the reputation of a crank and developed something of a following, enough of one to have recommended him to the likes of Lowery and the six council members who, after all, wanted to approve him for a serious oversight capacity.
"The Recent Town Hall Meeting in Memphis," which discusses — critically, but, given Saino's acknowledged bias against President Obama's ideas for reforming health care, fairly — 9th District congressman Steve Cohen's recent public meeting on the subject;
"It's All About Jobs; Education Is Secondary," which lays out Saino's view, seconded by many in the community, that Memphis City Schools are administrator-heavy and curriculum-poor;
"What Is Going On With the Shelby County Clerk's Office?," which appeared in April, just as indictments by district attorney general Bill Gibbons were revealing the disparity between favors extended to well-placed individuals (including Councilwoman Ware) and the indignities suffered by ordinary citizens having to wait out an onerous renewal process for their automobile licenses;
"The Upcoming 10th Season of the Grizzlies," which looks into next year, not from the prospect of what Allen Iverson, an arguably over-the-hill star might bring in the way of on-court fortunes for Memphis' National Basketball Association franchise but from the standpoint of the one-sided binding agreement between local government (and, by proxy, the taxpayers) and the Grizzlies' ownership.
And one title says it all: "Transparency Is the Key to Good Government."
Saino is far from infallible. His conjectures can border on the unreasonable, and sometimes, in his website articles and his barrage of e-mails to a growing local network, he may occasionally get a fact or two wrong. His bias would seem to be in the direction of libertarianism, though he professes loyalty to no particular party.
Asked which politicians he approves of, he named as examples Lowery, city councilman Jim Strickland, and Governor Phil Bredesen — the first of these for his emphasis on the principle of transparency and the latter two, apparently, for their efforts on behalf of governmental economy.
(Strickland's brief mayoral boom in late spring stemmed largely from his argument, in a Flyer op-ed piece and later before the council, on behalf of reductions in the administrative staff of city government.)
Saino's family history in Memphis dates from 1856, when his grandfather founded a local company to manufacture industrial doors. The several generations of Sainos since were pioneers of that industry before selling the company, at a handsome profit, to a group in Cincinnati in 1989. Saino was uneasy in retirement, however.
"When my wife started suggesting I should go to the grocery store with her, I knew I needed to do something else," he recalls.
The "something else" turned out to be a resolve, along with John Lund and advertising man John Malmo, Saino's next-door neighbor, to revise an outmoded city charter. Their efforts would eventually result in a successful public referendum, the election of a city Charter Commission, and the passage of several reforms in last year's general election.
From that endeavor Saino found himself launched on his present course of looking behind doors and under rugs, finding out what he can about the doings of local government, and filing scores of freedom-of-information requests and numerous lawsuits in the process.
His concern about public pensions — not just of the city but of Shelby County government and MLGW, as well — is longstanding. (Indeed, Saino once served on MLGW's pension board, as well as the utility's board of directors.)
In essence, he fears that the pension system may become unstable, especially during the current hard times, and advocates a conversion from the traditional standard of guaranteed benefits, in which the taxpayer stands as principal guarantor, to one of guaranteed contributions, something like the proliferating 401(k) systems that depend in large part on deductions from an employee's own salary, matched to some degree by the employer.
And Saino worries especially about something he calls OPEB (Other Post-Employment Benefits), which add up, he fears, to massive unfunded liabilities accruing to such employee benefits as health insurance and life insurance.
When by hook and crook and the implied threat of litigation, Saino finally got his hands on the most recent figures for city, county, and MLGW pension funds this week, he discovered — somewhat to his surprise — that the systems were reasonably solvent and performing in a manner that compares favorably to such funds elsewhere in the nation.
Whereupon he promptly said so. As Saino boasted in his encounter with the City Council on September 15th, "Anybody who knows me knows I'm totally honest."
Which doesn't mean he doesn't intend to keep on snooping and looking — and, mayhap, biting. That's what watchdogs are supposed to do.