Tuesday, October 25, 2005

CITY BEAT: Time for Activism

Civic issues give activists new opportunities.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 25, 2005 at 4:00 AM

When politicians behave badly, activists of all kinds have an opportunity to make some serious changes in both the way public business gets done and who does it.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a handful of Midtowners and their attorneys took on federal highway officials, governors, and road builders and succeeded in stopping the completion of Interstate 40 through Overton Park and Midtown. In 1973, the Watergate scandal forced President Richard Nixon from office and helped install a host of Democrats in national, state, and local offices, including Tennessee governor Ray Blanton and U.S. representative Harold Ford. In 1982, lawyers Dan Norwood, Hayden Laite, and David Cocke thwarted a backroom deal to pick the next mayor of Memphis and forced an election instead, which was won in a runoff by a darkhorse candidate named Dick Hackett.

The year 2006 is shaping up as another tipping-point year for Memphis and Shelby County, with issues galore and new opportunities for influencing them via the Internet as well as the old media.

The “long ballot” for the 2006 election will include all Shelby County commissioners and elected officials as well as state judges (but not city officials). Term limits will remove five members of the Shelby County Commission.

Operation Tennessee Waltz has knocked out state senators John Ford and Kathryn Bowers and former Senator Roscoe Dixon along with Shelby County commissioner Michael Hooks. Calvin Williams, former chief administrator for the commission, has also been indicted. There could be more indictments of public officials, especially if some of those already indicted decide to cooperate with prosecutors.

A referendum on overhauling the city of Memphis charter could be held in 2006 in conjunction with the special election to fill the City Council seat being vacated by Janet Hooks. Accountant John Lunt gets credit for helping organize the petition drive that gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

Herenton isn’t on the ballot in 2006, but he’s out there raising money and support for another run in 2007, and anyone who entertains thoughts of challenging him had better get busy soon. For better or worse, Memphis Light Gas & Water is now his baby. The winter of 2005-2006 will be the most expensive ever for customers, with billing increases of at least 50 percent expected. Herenton’s hand-picked MLGW president, Joseph Lee, will have to explain the impact of fuel costs and administrative and wage expenses to a skeptical public. Some disgruntled former employees will be watching and sharing their thoughts with each other and reporters.

MLGW and The Pyramid are frequent targets of criticism, but nitty-gritty issues that got little or no attention from the media a decade ago are suddenly making headlines and drawing comments at public meetings.

Tax freezes for businesses, impact fees for homebuilders, pension benefits for public employees, and the process of choosing sites for new public schools are all getting more scrutiny from the media and elected officials. Bloggers and citizen activists like Joe Saino applied the pressure that helped make that happen.

The group Friends for Our Riverfront criticized the downtown land bridge for years before the Riverfront Development Corporation killed the idea this month. Friends now has its sights on the promenade plan.

The Rev. LaSimba Gray has made the Shelby County Board of Education more accountable to residents of southeastern Shelby County. Over an earlier 15-year period, nine county school sites were chosen by the board and the superintendent’s staff on the recommendation of a single developer, Waymon “Jackie” Welch.

Minority contractors organized to get a fair share of business from the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority during the construction of FedExForum.

Former Park Commission chairman John Malmo is on a mission to hold City Council members responsible for gutting the commission and to see that parks are not sold off for the sake of general city operating revenues.

As long as politicians live down to their public image, these and other activists, gadflies, bloggers, and grouches will have their day in 2006.

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