Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Mayor's General

Keith McGee talks about rumors, retirement, and politics

Posted By on Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Keith McGee would like to set a few things straight about his retirement as chief administrative officer (CAO) for the city of Memphis.

He does not plan to manage Mayor Willie Herenton's campaign for the 9th congressional district seat in 2010.

He believes he "absolutely" got better at the job of CAO as he gained experience. He has been CAO for nearly six years. The job pays $151,900 a year. McGee, not yet 50, will be eligible for a pension in excess of $60,000 a year.

He started thinking about retiring last year and was not pushed out by Herenton, his boss, whom he calls "brilliant and very compassionate."

McGee succeeded Rick Masson, who had a background in public finance. McGee said he earned the CAO's job and is not a Herenton crony who was out of his depth. He was hired at the city of Memphis in 1993 by Westelle Florez to be her deputy director of human resources. Before that, he worked for Shelby County, starting out as a deputy jailer in the maximum security division in 1981. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Shular said he left as a manager of personnel training. McGee worked for four sheriffs during that time.

"I had reached the highest level on civil service and was already in senior management," he said.

He is not retiring because of a personal relationship with any other director or assistant director in city government under his supervision. Asked if he has such a relationship, he said "no," then drew the letters N O with his hand and repeated "no."

He is not retiring because of the controversy over the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center. McGee took the heat from the Memphis City Council two weeks ago while subordinates Ken Moody and Yolanda McFagdon declined to answer questions.

It was "divine intervention," McGee says, that his retirement was announced the day after the council finished working on the operating budget that set the tax rate at $3.19.

I interviewed McGee this week in his office in City Hall. We were joined briefly by finance director Roland McElrath and human resources director Lorene Essex. I had chided all of them in a column last week about not providing the number of city employees in a timely fashion. For the record, there are 8,227 regular and temporary city employees, 5,909 of whom are paid from the general fund operating budget that the council set last week.

When that business was done, Essex and McElrath left.

McGee was vague about what he will do next, saying only that it might involve "consulting." He has two children in high school. He has been pastor of a church in Tipton County for 17 years.

Asked if he would work on Herenton's campaign, he said, "I have not even talked with him about that."

I asked him if, as the mayor's CAO, he sees a side of Herenton in his daily contacts that outsiders are not aware of.

"He wakes up every day working hard," he said. "The less-than-positive vignettes are not reflective of the man, the working professional that I know."

His flattering view is no surprise to City Council members, who say McGee was above all a good soldier.

"He had the opportunity to be more effective than he was," said City Council chairman Myron Lowery. "He could have done a better job building relationships within city government. His style emulated that of his boss, the mayor. Keith was a good general following directions from his boss."

As an example, Lowery — who would become interim mayor if Herenton resigns before completing his term — said council members only learned about a church-based redevelopment plan for the Hickory Ridge Mall after a news story came out.

"He was behind on that issue," said Lowery. "As CAO, he should have known, and we should have been informed."

McGee worked with six council chairmen and says he tried to treat all of them and their colleagues with respect. Council fights, he noted, were not so bad, in the scheme of things. He brought out an old picture of himself as a 21-year-old jailer when he was breaking up fights in maximum security. Back then, his goal, he said, was to "leave work every day in safety and security."

At any rate, it's water under the bridge now. On July 4th, he's out of here.

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