While we have no choice but to move ahead and give Joseph Lee a chance, since his appointment as head of Memphis Light, Gas & Water is now irreversible, it is also important to take a look at what has happened in this process with an eye toward how our government will be run in the future.
Although a very short turnaround time was given for candidates to apply, a national search did produce candidates who had entire careers in the specialized utility industry coupled with significant management experience in the same field. Instead of selecting one of these applicants, the mayor again nominated Lee, who had received unanimous approval by City Council members earlier in the year for reappointment as city finance director.
While Lee does have management experience in supervising fewer than 100 employees in the city finance department, he oversees 2,700 employees at the largest three-service public utility in the nation. Comparing these credentials to that of Marvin Runyan, who in 1988 went from serving as the CEO of Nissan's North American operations to the chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, is a far stretch, especially in light of the fact that the other finalists for the MLGW presidency all had greater management experience and worked in the utility field.
However, the real issue is not even Lee, who now finds himself in the difficult position of managing people with years of experience in a specialized field where he has none. The mayor's convenient playing of the race card in his remarks to the City Council in an effort to justify his choice of Lee was itself disingenuous. All key government positions in Memphis and Shelby County are now held by African Americans. Both our county and city mayors, U.S. congressman, superintendent of city schools, and police director are African-American. The pool of applicants for the MLGW presidency included an African American in management at MLGW.
The former MLGW president, Herman Morris, who did have utility experience, was also African-American. We all know that Mayor Herenton did not reappoint Morris, who has stated that he questioned the mayor's request to use certain law firms as bond counsel on the TVA/MLGW bond deal. (One of these was an Arkansas law firm that gave a fund-raiser for the mayor during the power outage last summer.)
The real issue is a matter of principled leadership and equal justice. There has been a long history in Memphis of the abuse of power by those in control, dating back to the days of Boss Crump. At 4:30 a.m., after the council vote on Lee, I received an anonymous threatening voicemail that used a racial slur. And it made me wonder whether the old system is still alive today, with only the faces changed.
Will politicians continue to use divisive tactics to manipulate the public and justify their actions, actions which do not otherwise hold up under legitimate scrutiny? Or will we all evolve to the point where race and gender cease to be an issue and instead focus on what's best for Memphis?
To me, the only future worth fighting for is one where the principles of truth and equal justice apply. To reach this truth, our politicians, community leaders, and the media must all look beyond personal agendas and work together for what's best for Memphis.
I wish Joseph Lee the best and hope he will do a good job under these difficult circumstances. More importantly, let's hope that in the future divisive tactics which only harm our community will be avoided.
Carol Chumney is a City Council member representing District 5.