Taking stock of the old (and the new) chair

It’s not that some of us don’t like Barbara Swearengen Holt. It’s just that she scares us when she acts alone. It all started with the $800 phone that Holt had installed last spring in the council office bathroom. But it didn’t stop there. In October, Holt suggested and approved an increased per diem meal allowance for traveling council members. Saying that members “could not eat at McDonald’s” on the previous $45 a day allowance (the amount which applies to all city employees). Holt upped it to as much as $75 a day. Incidentally, Holt alone approves all council members’ requests for travel, including her own. Throughout her tenure she has approved not only the bathroom phone, but also two policies designed to limit public (particularly media) access to council affairs. The first of these stipulated that any requests for council information must be approved by Holt before being filled. This, understandably, led to a bottleneck in the availability of information to the public and an increase in the workload of city council staff members. To decrease the number of requests and offset the costs of filling them, Holt introduced a proposal she designed with city council attorney Allan Wade. Her proposal applied a $10 research fee for each hour a council staff member spent on a request and a $1.50 per page for each copy made. The proposal drew scathing criticism from not only the city news agencies but from First Amendment experts and journalism academics nationwide. In mid-Decemeber Holt acted alone again, this time announcing that she would reward selected city council staff members with year-end bonus’, though such bonuses are not given to other city employees, they did in fact go out, but only to the employees Holt felt were deserving. Holt’s tenure as Chairwoman of the Memphis City Council will expire at the end of this year. The chairman for 2001 will be Councilman E.C. Jones who has already said that one of his first official acts will be to remove the bathroom phone. Though Jones seems well-intentioned, this year’s problems cannot be blamed entirely on Holt, rather they are the fault of a system that allows a chairman to unilaterally introduce and approve costly proposals. As an act of good faith, Jones or any of the other council members, should introduce a proposal to amend the city charter removing from the chairman the ability to act alone on matters of fiscal or budgetary importance.


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