Off His Game 

Rejection of settlement is latest setback for Herenton.

The Grizzlies were 2-10 in April, Mike Miller couldn't buy a basket in the first playoff game, and Pau Gasol couldn't defend the pick-and-roll. Sometimes even pros mess up.

So do political pros. Four months into his fourth term as mayor, Willie Herenton is acting like a political novice instead of the most experienced and popular political leader in recent Memphis history.

For at least the sixth time this year, Herenton, who is tall enough to slam dunk, drove to the basket and got rejected instead. The Shelby County Commission said no to a proposed $17.8 million settlement of a lawsuit against the city of Memphis and the Memphis Cook Convention Center Commission. County commissioners made it clear they were unhappy about both the generous terms of the settlement and the fact that they had to take the heat instead of Herenton and the Memphis City Council.

How badly is Herenton off his game? Let's review.

He started off the year with a New Year's Day speech that insulted City Council members on a day that should have been dedicated to good will and new beginnings.

He followed that up with a list of nominees for city director jobs that was met with an unprecedented four rejections and two close calls.

He nominated finance director Joseph Lee to lead Memphis Light, Gas & Water, then was persuaded to withdraw the nomination. Then Herenton allowed Lee to again put his name in the hat for consideration by the MLGW search committee. After making the final cut, Lee withdrew once again -- his third change of heart in two months.

In the midst of this mess, Herenton turned his attention to The Pyramid. First he said that in order to keep the University of Memphis Tigers at The Pyramid, the city would spring for $4.5 million worth of improvements to the building. Say what? replied City Council members. Scratch that.

Shifting directions, the mayor next proposed to subsidize the Tigers' move to the FedExForum. He organized a news conference in the lobby of City Hall to announce that the Grizzlies and the university had come to an agreement. But the announcement was premature, and the participants -- who did not include the county mayor or council and commission chairmen -- were clearly uncomfortable. One of them, University of Memphis president Shirley Raines, has publicly stated that she would not have called a news conference at that time if it had been up to her. The subsidy was rejected.

Last week, the Flyer reported that Herenton spoke three times with former U.S. senator Jim Sasser about a settlement of the Clark Construction Group's federal lawsuit against the city and convention center board. But board members had been under the impression that they were going to fight the lawsuit in court, with the blessing of the city and county mayors. When they learned of the surprise settlement proposal, some of them rebelled, led by the late Morris Fair.

To make matters worse, the county commission got stuck with the duty of making a tough public vote on the settlement even though Clark's lawsuit names the city of Memphis. (The convention center is one of a number of jointly funded operations.) Only three members -- Cleo Kirk, Michael Hooks, and Deidre Malone -- voted for it. After several substitute motions failed, effectively blocking all avenues of retreat, commissioners Tom Moss and Linda Rendtorff said the city should have been on the hot seat. Moss said commissioners were being made to "look like idiots," and Rendtorff suggested in vain that the city (which accounts for about 70 percent of the population of Shelby County) pay 70 percent of the cost of any settlement.

Uncharacteristically, Herenton declined to answer questions about his strategy because, according to his spokeswoman, "it's in litigation."

The mayor needs to get back on his game because there is major unfinished business on the table. He says there won't be a property tax increase this year, but City Council members say that promise is premature when negotiations are still under way with police, firefighters, and other unions. After 12 budgets, Herenton knows that perfectly well, indicating the real purpose of his promise and his adversarial relationship with the council.

Five months after announcing that Herman Morris would not be reappointed as MLGW president, the job is still being filled on an interim basis by James Netters, a minister. The search committee has narrowed the field to four candidates. One of them, MLGW vice president of operations Larry Thompson, is from the very corporate culture the mayor blasted last year. Another, Gary Morsches, was fired two years ago from his job with Mirant Corp., an Atlanta-based energy supplier rocked by a financial crisis.

The Grizzlies need key players but their leadership is solid. The city can't say that.

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