Thursday, December 5, 2002



Posted By on Thu, Dec 5, 2002 at 4:00 AM

THE SEASON OF MISTRUST Man, it looks like a cold winter. The Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission don’t trust the contractor, the Public Building Authority, or the PBA’s consultant on the Grizzlies arena. On a project that is already a virtual full-employment act for consultants, they want to hire another super-consultant accountable to them. The commission doesn’t trust the county auditors who are looking into county travel and credit card use so it hauls them into a meeting and puts them on the spot instead of the credit card abusers. The county attorney doesn’t trust his office’s objectivity in the current “sensitive political environment” so it farms out an investigation of county commission administrator Calvin Williams to a freelance investigator. The commission doesn’t trust the objectivity of the freelancer so it brings in an old hand to review his report. The Land Use Control Board doesn’t trust the Office of Planning and Development so it overrules its recommendation on the boundaries of a downtown sports and entertainment district. The city council doesn’t trust the Land Use Control Board so it overrules its recommendation and changes the boundaries back the way they were. The Memphis City Schools Board of Education doesn’t trust Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson on the moldy situation at East High School so it demands another investigation. The white members of the school board don’t trust the $14 million being spent to overhaul the air conditioning at two schools so the daily newspaper commissions an expert who says the job could be done for about half that much. The black members of the school board don’t trust the white members or the newspaper so they vote to spend the $14 million anyway. Is everyone in the holiday spirit yet? Conflict is par for the course in Memphis politics, but we’re breaking new ground, sailing into uncharted waters, taking it up a notch and all that. First, the arena. Once upon a time 15 years ago public officials thought that by creating a public building authority and putting some business heavyweights on it they could take politics out of a project. FedEx CEO Fred Smith took the job, The Pyramid got built, and there was a minimal amount of grumbling until Sidney Shlenker came to town to try and fail to develop its interior space at the top and bottom. The new arena that will sooner or later drive The Pyramid into extinction will cost $250 million, including millions spent on consultants making $250,000 to $450,000 to oversee everything from luxury suites to public relations to the hiring of minorities and union members. Last week David Bennett of the PBA presented the city council with a report listing expenditures to date. The project, he told the council, is on time and within budget. Councilman Myron Lowery and others were not impressed and voted to hire, what else, another consultant. Second, the school board. Relations between Watson and board members Sara Lewis and Hubon Sandridge have never been good but lately appear to be positively poisonous. East High School has been a career killer for principals and a festering sore for various complaints for more than a decade. It won’t be a surprise if Watson doesn’t last more than another year. The pending departure of board member Barbara Prescott, an informed and invariably calm voice, won’t help matters. Finally, county government. Mayor A C Wharton said this week he had never seen such an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion. While the investigation and long-overdue audit of the personal use of county credit cards in the previous administration continues, a new one is underway involving a couple of old political pros, Williams and Assessor Rita Clark. Shelby County Attorney Donnie Wilson took the unusual step of hiring an outside investigator, attorney Les Bowron, to look into Clark’s complaints about being pressured to hire employees from Williams’ staffing agency and then verbally abused by Williams when she wouldn’t go along. Bowron, an attorney since 1982 and a former member of the Wyoming Legislature, interviewed all of the main players and submitted a report to Wilson which was made public this week. The report is both interesting and troubling. Bowron didn’t have subpoena power and nobody has been charged with anything. Bowron insists he was merely an independent finder of fact. But in a way Williams has been charged with improper conduct in the report and in the media. As former county attorney Brian Kuhn told The Flyer this week, special investigators are usually used in low-profile sexual harassment complaints against the county. Clark vs. Williams is a heavyweight bout. Kuhn has, by mutual agreement of the commission and the county attorney, been assigned to take the report wherever it will go next. Bowron’s report and its attached exhibits read like a deposition, or, if you prefer, unedited reality television. When a reporter investigates a story, the public gets a two-minute or 1500-word story, not the raw notes and outtakes. In Bowron’s interview with Williams’ “managing partner” Valarie Richardson, to take just one example, you had a trained professional investigator with a law degree skillfully questioning a nervous 33-year-old woman having a hard time getting her answers straight about some very sensitive questions, and then giving the transcript to the county attorney who gave it to the press at their request. If I were her, I would have wanted a lawyer.

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