Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cleaning Up

Herenton's $132,000 "vacation pay" bonus may be the last one.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 4:00 AM

It's becoming clearer every week that by his fourth term as mayor of Memphis, Willie Herenton was in it for the money.

In May 2004, five months into his fourth term and embattled on many fronts, Herenton asked finance director Joseph Lee to process his request for a payment of $72,000 for 108 "carryover vacation days not taken during the last term due to the nature of my responsibilities as mayor for the city of Memphis."

If you're scoring, that's 27 days of unused vacation a year for a mayor who boasted of being on the job every day and never taking vacations, although many Memphians would have loved to have sent him on an extended one.

Herenton made similar requests each year for the next five years to be paid amounts ranging from $7,333 to $14,291 for unused vacation. In all, he collected $132,000 in extra pay on top of his salary.

All of this and more came to light and to saturation television coverage Tuesday at the Memphis City Council, including copies of the former mayor's W-2 Wage and Tax Statements to the Internal Revenue Service. It's a new day at City Hall for public disclosure, and the trend is likely to continue no matter who wins the special election this month. The lights are on, and the cat is out of the bag.

Herenton's W-2 forms show that he earned $139,148 in 2003. In 2004, he bumped that to $230,853; in 2005 to $165,428; in 2006 to $169,672; in 2007 to $171,019; and in 2008 to $184,143. It is not clear why the amounts vary beyond the sum of the mayor's salary and payments for unused vacation or what the other sources of income were.

Herenton's fourth term was a turning point for the worse. He kicked off the year with an angry speech at a New Year's breakfast. He denounced members of the City Council. He openly worried about an FBI investigation of an MLGW bond deal. The Commercial Appeal and Jack Sammons, then a council member and now chief administrative officer for interim mayor Myron Lowery, called for a Watergate-style investigation. In June 2004, Herenton succeeded on his second try in replacing Herman Morris with Lee, only weeks after Lee, as finance director, signed off on Herenton's vacation-days bonus.

And the mayor, who had trounced John Willingham three to one in the low-turnout 2003 election, apparently thought he was underpaid. The burr under his saddle was Morris. Herenton appointed Morris in 1997 and recommended that his salary be increased to more than $200,000. It was set slightly below that. Former councilman Rickey Peete proposed raising the mayor's salary to $200,000, but the council, including Lowery, balked.

In 2003, Morris and Herenton fell out and the mayor declined to reappoint him. In the aftermath, Herenton disclosed the details of what he called the "vulgar" severance package Morris proposed for himself, saying it was more appropriate for a corporate CEO than a public employee.

What the public and the City Council did not know until this week was that while Herenton was pointing his finger at Morris, he was secretly padding his own bank account with vacation pay. The payments to the mayor and CAO Keith McGee were known only to the finance director and a few others but did not come before the council for approval.

"I'm sure this is not the case, but if you wanted to hide it from scrutiny you could not have done a better job," Councilman Jim Strickland told personnel director Lorene Essex and finance director Roland McElrath, who were not in those jobs in 2004 when the payments began but did sign off on the later ones.

Herenton was not the first mayor to sweeten his paycheck, although he is apparently the first to seek it retroactively while he was in office and only for himself and his CAO. Former mayor Dick Hackett got paid for unused vacation days after he left office in 1991. Hackett collected $50,000 for vacation days plus $1,269 in "bonus day" pay and $20,623 for unused sick leave. His division directors and chief administrative officer got smaller payments. Shelby County government adopted a policy of paying the mayor a salary and nothing else beginning with Bill Morris some 30 years ago.

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