Thursday, June 27, 2019

Q&A: Brandon Webber's Friends Never Saw Him As A Criminal

Posted By on Thu, Jun 27, 2019 at 12:34 PM

Tamara Smith (left) and Ceyara Smith (right) were friends with Brandon Webber. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Tamara Smith (left) and Ceyara Smith (right) were friends with Brandon Webber.

As Brandon Webber’s name fades from headlines, two of his friends say they still want answers and painted a portrait of the man this week as a uniter, a comforting friend, and an advocate against racism.

Webber was shot and killed by U.S. Marshals during an attempted arrest more than two weeks ago in Frayser. Marshals were acting on a warrant from an incident in Hernando, Mississippi, earlier this month, in which Webber allegedly shot a man five times and stole his car. Officials said they fired on Webber as he produced a weapon.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is currently reviewing the shooting.

Since that shooting, Webber was humanized in online memorials and statements from those who knew him. Those memorials showed Webber as a good student, a father, an artist, and more. Many of those memorials, though, have faded, too.

But those memorials were a shift in the now-familiar rhythm of the aftermath of officer-involved shootings. Rather than villainize the alleged perpetrator, efforts were quickly made to paint a more-complete picture of the accused.

  • Twitter

Ceyara Smith called the Flyer office late last week. She said she wasn’t sure exactly what she could do but she wanted to do something, to get her side of Webber’s story out there. Earlier this week, she brought her sister, Tamara Smith, to our offices for a conversation that delved deeper into Webber’s life.

The Smith sisters said they’d known Webber since middle school, hung out at events after school, and would often dream together about their lives in adulthood.

They said if he did shoot someone and was a criminal, they want to know. It’ll be easier, they said, to mourn his life that way. More than anything, they said, they want those answers.

Memphis Flyer: I guess we can start back at the beginning. How did y'all know Brandon?

Ceyara Smith: Well, we actually met Brandon in a middle school, actually as we were enrolling into Snowden (School). We just kind of automatically linked and we've been friends ever since, even as we transitioned into high school. He had a personal, kind-of-close relationship with my best friend. So, we started creating memories outside of school and we were just very, very close.

MF: What kind of guy was he?

CS: Brandon was a type of guy, he was always honest. He was always happy and he just always kept everyone happy around him. He was always the type of person who wanted to help wherever he could.

He always wants to change as well, which is why, like I said, Brandon and I were in [Facing History and Ourselves] together. We wanted change.

Concept art of the Facing History and Ourselves building on South Main. - FACING HISTORY AND OURSELVES
  • Facing History and Ourselves
  • Concept art of the Facing History and Ourselves building on South Main.

What kind of change?

Tamara Smith: Brandon was always trying to persuade the other guys to come to tutoring, or “let's come to basketball practice, and sign up for track.”

Brandon was also very nurturing. If he saw that you needed to be informed about something or he saw that you were slacking on something, Brandon would always come and tell you, “Next time just, you know, just watch what you say and do it a little better.”
Brandon was so honest. He was always very helpful to everybody. He was always there for everybody. He wanted everybody to do good. He wanted you to know that anytime you ever needed anything, you could go to Brandon.

CS: He was very comforting.

MF: Did y’all stay close in high school?

CS: Yes, definitely. Even even after we made the transition to high school, and it was a bigger school, and we were around more people, we always still made plans to at least get together after school. We were always at events together.

TS: We were seeing each other outside of school still the same amount like in our [middle school] days.

MF: What were y’all doing when you were hanging out?

CS: We attended all the basketball games together and football games. Brandon and I, we went on a lot of field trips with Facing History. So, we did a lot of that together.

We also just talked about how we wanted our adulthood to be and what did we want to do when we got out of high school and stuff like that.

  • Twitter

I remember during our senior year, when we started talking about college, Brandon and I both wanted to go to [the University of Tennessee - Knoxville]. I remember when it came time for us to start taking the ACT, we were both, like, “oh my god, we don't know how we're going to do this.”

Then, Brandon did an awesome job. He made a 25 on the ACT, and they actually put his [score] on the wall. They put his picture and his name on the wall along with all the other kids who made good grades.

They also had another wall where they had Brandon and all those other really smart kids listed with all of the scholarships, the offers, and all of the schools they were reaching out to. Yes, Brandon was really smart.
MF: But people saw another side of Brandon, too, the one from the Facebook video he made that day where it looked like he was smoking cannabis and saying about police, “You’re going to have to catch me, homie.” Was there that side of him, too?

MS: If I'm being honest, that side of Brandon always kind of surprised me. I just never saw him as that type of person.

But, nevertheless, Brandon was always an honorable young man. He always was smart. He always knew what he had to do to take care of himself and his family because he did have three kids.

I don't see him as a bad person. I don't see him as a drug dealer or anything like that because Brandon was always so smart. You know, he always did what he needed to do. He was always helpful, always courageous, always on the scene. He was always where he needed to be.

The school — Central High School or Snowden— never had to search for Brandon. He never was skipping. Brandon never smelled like marijuana. He never drank a day in his life.

Tamara Smith (left) and Ceyara Smith (right) were friends with Brandon Webber. - TOBY SELLS
  • Toby Sells
  • Tamara Smith (left) and Ceyara Smith (right) were friends with Brandon Webber.

What do y'all think when your friend, Brandon, is now kind of part of this citywide — almost nationwide — conversation about [police shootings] and you’re hearing some of the stuff that people are saying?

MS: I’m going to be honest, sir. It hurts so bad. When someone close to you is being made an example, in a society that we live in, there is nothing you can do about it. You just live day by day.

CS: I would rather for him to, you know, die doing something positive. I hate the way that he died. I hate that it all happened, because I feel like there's nothing that he could have said or done to cause [law enforcement officials] to shoot him 16 to 20 times and to break his neck.
MS: And to cause such a chaotic scene. I don’t feel like it was that crucial.

CS: Yes, I feel like it was uncalled for. It was very unnecessary. We all know that one bullet can disable someone. So, why did y'all have to shoot him that many times? And, like I said, I don't care what he did. I just don't feel like any of that was called for.

I want the truth. If that’s what he did, tell us. It'll be easier for us to mourn him and rest knowing the truth, whether he did it or not. I want the truth.

MF: That process could take about a year. What do you think about that timeline?

CS: That's fine with me. I’ll do whatever I have to do. I'm ready. I'm up for it.

Brandon Webber - FACEBOOK
  • Facebook
  • Brandon Webber

Me, too, because deep down inside, I know the type of person Brandon was. I’m a tough person. It kind of hurts, but I'm strong enough to stand and believe in Brandon myself to not let that diminish my perspective.

MF: Maybe we can get back to what y'all said earlier. You said he wanted change. Maybe you can tell me more about what kind of change he was looking for.

CS: Like I said, Brandon and I were in Facing History together. Brandon and I always hated the differences between the races. That was the first thing, starting with Martin Luther King, you know, I have a dream. Brandon and I used to always talk about that changing.
MS: You have two types of men in the world. You have men who will pick up a gun first and the men who will try to persuade you to put the gun down. Brandon was the type of man that was trying to bring all of us together to love each other.

CS: He would have put the gun down, pretty much. Brandon, he was he was that type of person. He was.

MF: I think we kind of covered everything that we talked about. Is there anything else out there that we didn't get to? Did we leave anything out or is there anything else you want to say?

MS: I just have one thing to say: I love you so much, Brandon. And it really does hurt. But we will get justice, and there will be peace. Your kids will be taken care of. We just love you and that’s it.

CS: Just rest in peace Brandon. We got it from here.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Supreme Court Strikes Down Tennessee Liquor Law

Posted By on Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 10:15 AM

The Ketchums outside Kimbrough Towers Fine Wine - INSTITUTE FOR JUSTICE
  • Institute for Justice
  • The Ketchums outside Kimbrough Towers Fine Wine

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down Tennessee's two-year residency requirement to get a liquor store license Wednesday morning.

Doug and Mary Ketchum, owners of Kimbrough Wine and Spirits, brought the suit late last year. They bought the store in 2017 but the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Association threatened to sue the state Alcohol Beverage Commission if the Ketchums were approved for a license, citing residency requirements in state law. (See our full story here.)

Supreme Court Justices issued their opinion Wednesday morning in a 7-2 decision. Justice Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas cast the dissenting votes.

"The provision expressly discriminates against nonresidents and has at best a highly attenuated relationship to public health or safety,” reads the prevailing opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito.

Read the entire opinion here.

The case was filed by the Ketchums and Total Wine, a national liquor retailer. Their case was handled by the Institute for Justice.

Here's what Michael Bindas, one of the Institue's attorneys on the case, had to say:

"Today’s ruling makes plain that all Americans have a right to earn an honest living and that government cannot deny someone that right simply because of where they live or used to live. No state may discriminate against out-of-staters or newcomers to protect established, in-state interests from competition.

“As the Court recognized, the 21st Amendment is not a blank check, and the states’ power to regulate alcohol is not unlimited. Although states can impose reasonable regulations on alcohol to protect public health and safety, they cannot discriminate in order to protect favored economic interests.”

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Hearing Could Expedite Instant Runoff Voting Decision

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2019 at 2:54 PM

Proponents of Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) want the voting system in place for the upcoming October elections but they say a September hearing set on the matter will not allow for it.

In 2008 and in 2018, Memphis voters approved IRV. The system prevents runoff elections among top candidates that are held after typical, city-wide voting days. This, proponents say, allows elections here to be won by a sliver of Memphis voters and disenfranchises voters who may find it hard to get themselves to the polls.

Tennessee Election Coordinator Mark Goins said after the 2018 elections here that IRV does not comply with state law and that IRV could not be implemented here this year. That opinion is being contested in a separate case.

City council hopefuls Erika Sugarmon, John Marek, and Sam Goff filed a lawsuit in May to ensure the method was in place for the October 3rd elections here, in which every Memphis City Council seat is open.

However, the case is contested and the next hearing on the matter is set for September 10th, according to court papers. Those proponents say that timeline will not allow IRV to be ready for the October elections.
  • Davidson County Chancery Court
  • Chancellor Lyle

Last week, Sugarmon, Marek, and Goff pushed for an expedited hearing. So, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle set a hearing on the matter in her courtroom for Wednesday, June 26th. That hearing may yield a decision that will govern IRV implementation for the October 3rd election.

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Fairgrounds Redevelopment Project Moves Forward

Posted By on Tue, Jun 25, 2019 at 9:34 AM

A rendering of the proposed youth sports complex that will front Southern Avenue. - CITY OF MEMPHIS
  • City of Memphis
  • A rendering of the proposed youth sports complex that will front Southern Avenue.

City leaders formally named the private development team that will lead the Fairgrounds redevelopment project Tuesday morning.

City leaders cleared a major hurdle to advance the plan in November with a positive vote on the project from the State Building Commission. At that time, though, commission leaders said they wanted another review of the plan. They wanted to ensure Memphis leaders could secure $61 million in private funds before they’d allow the city to issue $90 million in bonds for the city’s portion.

“If the money and the numbers do not work out, we will not move forward with the project,” Paul Young, the city’s director of Housing and Community Development, told the commission in November.

It was not immediately known Tuesday morning whether or not the city won that second approval from state officials. We’ll update this story with more information later today.

A concept image of a new Fairgrounds. - CITY OF MEMPHIS
  • City of Memphis
  • A concept image of a new Fairgrounds.

However, a news release from Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s office said Tuesday his team had picked M&M Enterprises and Belpointe REIT to lead the redevelopment project.

“We’ve been working on this project for a while now, and I’m so pleased to have local talent stepping up and helping the city to transform this important piece of property,” Strickland said in a statement. “The underutilized Fairgrounds will be reimagined into a unique sports and entertainment destination for both Memphians and visitors.”

The project team will be led by local developer James Maclin, of M&M Enterprises. Maybe Maclin’s highest-profile project to date is the Broad Avenue mixed-use project he’s working on with Loeb Properties. Maclin is also involved in the redevelopment of the Racquet Club.

Belpoint is a real estate investment trust (REIT). These types of companies own many different types of real estate. Belpoint is based in Greenwich, Connecticut. A statement says the company is the first Opportunity Zone REIT registered with the securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

“An Opportunity Zone is an economically-distressed community where new investments, under certain conditions, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment,” according to the Internal Revenue Service.

The Fairgrounds is part of the University District Opportunity Zone.

A pre-design rendering of the Fairgrounds redevelopment project. - CITY OF MEMPHIS
  • City of Memphis
  • A pre-design rendering of the Fairgrounds redevelopment project.

In November, Young said the project would move through three phases. Phase one is complete, with Tiger Lane, improvements to Liberty Bowl stadium, and site work for phase two. The second part of the project would include the construction of the youth sport complex, which would front Southern on the south end of the Fairgrounds.

”The complex will be located on the southern end of the Fairgrounds, on the site of the former Libertyland Amusement Park,” reads the city’s statement Tuesday. “It will focus on indoor sports, including basketball, volleyball, cheer, gymnastics, wrestling, and indoor track and field; it is projected to open in the first half of 2021.”

Phase three of the project would begin within five years of the completion of phase two. Phase three cold cost up to $30 million and include "iconic" entrances and exits, improvements to the Pipkin building, expanded parking, and more.

  • Justin Fox Burks

As of November, the Mid-South Coliseum would remain mothballed under the plan. But Young told committee members in November that private funding to revive the building would emerge if the area around it were reactivated.

The plan also aims to redevelop the north end of the Fairgrounds fronting Central with a mixed-use development. That development would include 30,000 square feet of retail space and 80 hotel rooms.

“The mixed-use development will be privately funded, although the city will provide infrastructure improvements,” reads the statement. “The private development will generate sales tax revenues for the Fairgrounds Tourism Development Zone (“TDZ”) which will be the primary source of funding for the new Sports & Events Complex.

“Using the TDZ will allow the city to redevelop the Fairgrounds using sales tax revenues that would normally go to the state and without having to rely on general operating funds which are used for things like police and firefighter salaries or on the capital improvement program which is used for things like street repaving.”

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Monday, June 24, 2019

FedExForum Could Get City’s First Pod For Nursing Mothers

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 12:41 PM

A lactation pod like this could soon be at the FedExForum - MAMAVA
  • Mamava
  • A lactation pod like this could soon be at the FedExForum

Memphis’ first lactation pod for nursing mothers could be coming to the FedExForum later this year.

The Shelby County Commission will vote later Monday on a resolution to purchase the pod from Mamava, a company that sells free standing lactation pods for mothers to pump or nurse in public.

Mamava strives to “transform the culture of breastfeeding, “making it more optimistic, realistic, accommodating, and inviting for all mamas.”

The approximate $25,000 pod that the county is considering purchasing will provide a safe, secure, non-bathroom location for mothers to pump or nurse.

The pod at the FedExForum would be the first in West Tennessee.

There are more than 450 Mamava pods around the county, including three in Tennessee. There are currently two in Nashville and one in Chattanooga.

  • Mamava

According to Mamava, Tennessee is a breastfeeding-positive state, meaning there is legislation that protects nursing mothers in the workplace and in other public places.

Employers are required to provide reasonable unpaid break time for mothers to pump each day under the law. Employers are also required to make reasonable efforts to provide a space, other than a toilet stall, for mothers to pump in private.

Under state law, women have the right to breastfeed in any location, public or private, where the mother and child are otherwise authorized to be present.” Mothers are also exempt from indecent exposure laws while breastfeeding.

If the commission passes the resolution, the pod will be installed before the start of the Grizzlies’ season this fall, serving as a pilot project.

The commission’s effort is a part of Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris’ healthyShelby 19 campaign focusing on dietary, mental, and physical fitness.

The commission cites in the resolution that breastfeeding is a key first step to childhood obesity prevention. The idea is to support Shelby County mothers in breastfeeding in order to benefit the baby’s health and reduce overall healthcare costs.

The resolution is sponsored by Commissioners Tami Sawyer, Reginald Milton, and Brandon Morrison.

“It is exciting to be able to support mothers and babies at FedExForum, one of our busiest attractions.” Morrison said. “Research shows that breastfeeding is not only the healthiest option for infants, but actually saves on future health-related costs for both mother and baby.”

The Shelby County Health Department could also look to install additional pods on other county assets in the future.

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

Local Leader Questions Legitimacy of Trump’s Mass Deportation Threat

Posted By on Thu, Jun 20, 2019 at 12:35 PM

Latino Memphis members distribute immigration information - LATINO MEMPHIS
  • Latino Memphis
  • Latino Memphis members distribute immigration information

The leader of a local organization that advocates for the Latino community here called President Donald Trump’s recent threats to remove “millions of illegal aliens” an “explosive” and “divisive" comment, and questioned the verity of the claims. 

On Monday, the president tweeted that Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agents would begin removing undocumented immigrants from the country next week.

“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted. “They will be removed as fast as they come in. Mexico, using their strong immigration laws, is doing a very good job of stopping people long before they get to our Southern Border. Guatemala is getting ready to sign a Safe-Third Agreement.

“The only ones who won’t do anything are the Democrats in Congress. They must vote to get rid of loopholes, and fix asylum. If so, the Border Crisis will end quickly.”

Executive director of Latino Memphis, Mauricio Calvo said Trump’s statement is “another explosive, non-deliverable, and divisive comment from the president.”

“It doesn't make any sense logistically, economically, politically, and most importantly, it doesn't recognize that we are talking about people,” Calvo said. “However, deportations and separation of families are very real and a daily tragedy in our city.

"Thousands of Memphians who are among our neighbors, employees, and friends of our children are vulnerable to this reality.”

Calvo said one way to prepare for this reality is to become informed, citing the national immigration defense campaign, We Have Rights. The campaign’s website gives undocumented immigrants instructions on how to protect themselves when encountering ICE officers or when detained.

For example, the website explains that ICE agents are not allowed to enter or search a home without a warrant signed by a judge. Undocumented immigrants have the right to ask the agents to leave if they do not have a signed warrant.

We Have Rights advises those who have been arrested not to sign any paperwork, to remain silent, and to ask to speak to a lawyer even if they don’t have one. See the video at the bottom for more detail. Anyone who is arrested can be located via this site.

Calvo also encourages people to get involved in the issue by voting for legislators who support immigration reform.

When asked about the president’s tweet and whether or not ICE would execute raids in Shelby County, ICE’s office of public affairs shed little light on next week’s plans.

ICE officials offered this response in an email to the Flyer:

"The border crisis doesn't start and stop at the border, which is why ICE will continue to conduct interior enforcement without exemption for those who are in violation of federal immigration law," the statement reads. "This includes routine targeted enforcement operations, criminals, individuals subject to removal orders, and worksite enforcement.

"This is about addressing the Border crisis by upholding the rule of law and maintaining the integrity of the immigration system, as created by Congress."

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Memphis Pets of the Week (June 20-26)

Posted By on Thu, Jun 20, 2019 at 11:47 AM

Each week, the Flyer will feature adoptable dogs and cats from Memphis Animal Services. All photos are credited to Memphis Pets Alive. More pictures can be found on the Memphis Pets Alive Facebook page.


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Debt Relief On the Way for Some ITT Tech Students

Posted By on Thu, Jun 20, 2019 at 11:29 AM

A 2016 photo from ITT Tech's Cordvoa campus. - ITT TECH/FACEBOOK
  • ITT Tech/Facebook
  • A 2016 photo from ITT Tech's Cordvoa campus.

Did you borrow money to attend ITT Tech, the failed, for-profit college? Debt relief may be on the way.

ITT filed bankruptcy in 2016 after investigations by state attorneys general and the U.S. Department of Education. That investigation restricted ITT’s access to federal student aid.
  • ITT Tech/Facebook

Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery said Wednesday a settlement deal will bring $6 million in debt relief for 699 former ITT Tech students in Tennessee.

That settlement is part of a national deal with 42 states and the District of Columbia totaling more than $168 million for more than 18,000 former ITT students.

The settlement is between the states and a company called Student CU Connect CUSO (CUSO). It offered about $189 million in loans to finance students’ tuition at ITT Tech between 2009 and 2011.

“Hundreds of Tennessee students who were simply trying to further their education at ITT Tech were harmed by CUSO,” Slatery said. “This settlement holds CUSO accountable for its abusive lending practices and provides relief to those who attended ITT Tech and incurred debts for a questionable education that they could not repay nor discharge.”
The Attorneys General alleged that ITT, with CUSO’s knowledge, offered students temporary credit when they enrolled to cover the gap in tuition between federal student aid and the full cost of the education. That credit was to be repaid before the student’s next academic year, “although ITT and CUSO knew or should have known that most students would not be able to repay the [temporary credit] when it became due,” reads a statement.
Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery
  • Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery
Students complained that they thought the temporary credit was like a federal loan and would not be due until six months after they graduated. When it became due, though, ITT ”pressured and coerced students into accepting loans” from CUSO, which for many students had high interest rates, far above rates for federal loans.

“Pressure tactics used by ITT included pulling students out of class and threatening to expel them if they did not accept the loan terms,” reads a statement. “Because students were left with the choice of dropping out and losing any benefit of the credits they had earned – ITT’s credits would not transfer to most other schools – most students enrolled in the CUSO loans.”

Neither ITT nor CUSO told students what the true cost of repayment for the temporary credit would be until after it was converted to a loan. The default rate on the CUSO loans was “extremely high,” about 90 percent, “due to both the high cost of the loans as well as the lack of success ITT graduates had getting jobs that earned enough to make repayment feasible. The defaulted loans continue to affect students’ credit ratings and are usually not dischargeable in bankruptcy.”

CUSO won’t try to collect on the outstanding loans anymore. It will, instead, send notices to borrowers that the debt is cancelled and so are the automatic payments. The company will also update borrower information with credit reporting agencies.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Memphis Could Outright Ban Plastic Bags

Posted By on Wed, Jun 19, 2019 at 12:01 PM


Plastic bags at retail stores could soon be a thing of the past here, as the Memphis City Council is looking to ban retail stores’ distribution of plastic bags to customers at checkouts.

The ban would prohibit the distribution of single-use plastic bags at checkouts in retail establishments with 2,000 square feet or more. Back in November, councilman Berlin Boyd first proposed a seven-cent fee on plastic bags that shoppers take from retail stores. He then reduced the proposed fee to five cents earlier this year.

Votes on the ordinance were held several times after a new Tennessee law was signed by Gov. Bill Lee in April. The law bans local governments from regulating the “use, disposition, or sale of an auxiliary container.”

Now, the council is waiting for a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office on whether or not Memphis’ amended ordinance would violate the law.

The council will return to the issue at its July 2nd meeting.

If passed, each violation of the ordinance would result in a $50 fine.

According to the draft of the ordinance, sponsored by Boyd and Chairman Kemp Conrad, plastic bags place a cost burden on municipal trash and recycling operations, citing that only 1 percent of plastic bags are recycled.

The ordinance also states that the measure is meant to ensure “sustainable stewardship of the city’s environmental treasures, and a responsibility to prevent plastic bags from polluting and clogging our waterways and endangering wildlife and the broader ecosystem.”

If the council passes the measure, exceptions to the ban would include newspaper bags, dry cleaning and garment bags, bags provided by pharmacists, and take-out bags from restaurants.

The ban would also not include bags used to package loose items such as produce or candy.

If approved, the ban would take effect in January 2021.

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Memphis Goodwill Fined by Feds on Contract Claims About Disabled Workers

Posted By on Wed, Jun 19, 2019 at 11:21 AM

  • Memphis Goodwill/Facebook

Memphis Goodwill Industries, Inc. will pay $150,000 to the federal government to resolve allegations that it falsely claimed compliance with a federal contract standard for employing disabled workers.

Memphis Goodwill won contracts with the federal Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the General Services Administration, through the government’s AbilityOne Program. Through that program, agencies must employ disabled workers for 75 percent of the direct labor hours on those contracts. 
  • Memphis Goodwill/Facebook

According to Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney, Memphis Goodwill said they complied with the regulation (and said so in certifications to the government) “when, in fact, the direct labor hours actually worked by disabled individuals were much lower.”

“Fraud on the AbilityOne program harms inclusion of workers in the program as well as law-abiding AbilityOne contractors,” said Thomas Lehrich, Inspector General of the U.S. AbilityOne Commission.

Dunavant said, “Protection of the United States Treasury against fraud, waste, and abuse is a top priority of this office and the Department of Justice.”

False claims that defraud federal government agencies compromise and harm their respective abilities to employ disabled individuals in our communities, and must be exposed,”he said in a statement. “We are pleased to recover these funds for the fraud perpetrated against the United States, and hope that this settlement amount will send a significant deterrent message to other dishonest contractors.”

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Ordination Event Works Around Tennessee 'Internet Married' Law

Posted By on Wed, Jun 19, 2019 at 10:57 AM

  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook

On July 1, ”internet married” is over in Tennessee.

State lawmakers this year passed a bill that prevents online-ordained ministers from marrying couples. The new rule (Public Chapter No. 415) gives that power to a broader array of government officials. But demands more from “ministers” of any stripe.

”Under present law, in order to solemnize the rite of matrimony, a minister, preacher, pastor, priest, rabbi, or other spiritual leader must be ordained or otherwise designated in conformity with the customs of a church, temple, or other religious group or organization and such customs must provide for such ordination or designation by a considered, deliberate, and responsible act,” reads the bill summary.
  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook

But American Marriage Ministries (AMM) will be in Memphis Monday for a free and easy (and legal, they say) workaround. The group, an official, nonprofit church, will provide in-person ordinations for anyone hoping to “internet marry” a couple. 
“With thousands of ministers stranded by the discriminatory Public Chapter No. 415, our ministers and the communities they serve are entitled to wedding ceremonies that reflect their values and beliefs, despite what the Tennessee legislature says!” reads a statement from AMM. “Without such ordinations, Tennessee couples will be forced into weddings officiated by religious leaders with differing values, or impersonal government weddings. Tennesseans deserve the choice, which online-ordination used to offer before the legislature revoked the rights of such ministers.”

The group will be at Shelby Farms Park Monday (6093 Great View Drive, #7 Chickasaw Pavillion), though the location is subject to change.
  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook
AMM’s executive director Lewis King said, “our position is that the couple is best equipped to vet their wedding officiant, not lawmakers.”

Memphis Flyer: Why are you doing this?

Lewis King: We’re here because Public Chapter No. 415 discriminates against non-traditional Tennessee ministers, preventing thousands of our ministers from exercising their freedom of religion by officiating wedding ceremonies. While we are doing everything we can to get this discriminatory law repealed, it is important that we do right by our ministers. By providing in-person ordination and training, AMM is giving our ministers a way to remain in compliance with Tennessees’ marriage law and meet their obligations to couples across the state.

Our position is that the couple is best equipped to vet their wedding officiant, not lawmakers. The notion that the state can decide which religious officials are allowed to perform this spiritual ceremony is not only profoundly unconstitutional, it’s also patently misguided — getting ordained is a spiritual act, not something that can be regulated like a drivers license.
Solemnizing marriage is an important spiritual service of love, that requires getting ordained, spending hours working on a ceremony, practicing it, and then delivering it on the wedding day. The disregard that Public Chapter No. 415 displays is not only offensive, it’s also an indication of how out of touch Tennessee's legislature is with the way that Tennesseans practice their faith!

MF: How does it work?

LK: Spiritual practice is a personal choice. If someone is called to serve their community as a minister that officiates weddings, our role is to empower them to do so in a professional and meaningful way. We do that by ordaining folks as ministers, which gives them the legal standing to solemnize marriage and sign wedding certificates.

  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook

As a nationally recognized church, we are able to ordain ministers, which gives them the legal standing to conduct certain ceremonies such as the solemnization of weddings. It's the same process, more or less, that all other churches use. Ours just happens to be much more user friendly, and less caught up in dogmatism because we want folks to be able to get ordained and get active in their communities on their own terms. That's why we've made it free and easy.

Getting ordained is only the first step towards becoming a marriage officiant. We also provide training and inspiration for our ministers, both online and with books that we publish. We guide our ministers through important steps like meeting with the couple and talking about what sort of ceremony they want, writing the script, practicing the ceremony and finally, how to lead the wedding ceremony when the big day comes.

  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook
MF: Does it satisfy Tennessee law?

LK: We've carefully reviewed the latest version of Tennessee's marriage law, including consulting internal, and external legal counsel to make sure that our ordinations meet the letter and spirit of the law — and they do! The new law “prohibits persons receiving online ordinations from solemnizing the rite of matrimony.” AMM is registered in Tennessee as a foreign nonprofit corporation, and we are providing in-person ordinations and training to our ministers like every other state-sanctioned institution does.

MF: How is it free?

LK: It's free because prior to the passage of Public Chapter No. 415, we were a resource-lite organization. That's the beauty of the internet! We're a 501c3 non-profit, which means we aren't trying to get rich here, and as long as we can keep the lights on in our office, we're happy. We fund our organization through our online store, where we sell books, information packets, and commemorative certificates that folks can use to remember their big day.
  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook
MF: Has this worked in other cities and states?

LK: Online ordination works, and we've got the numbers to prove it. Almost fifty percent of weddings in the U.S. last year were officiated by friends, family, and neighbors — ie. non-traditional ministers. Society has embraced this expression of spirituality. It's time for Tennessee's lawmakers to catch up. Most states welcome online-ordained officiants, and they have successfully officiated millions of weddings over the years. That's because other states respect the separation of church and state, and realize it's not their role to adjudicate how religious institutions conduct their internal affairs such as ordination.
We've never seen anything quite like Public Chapter No. 415, and we hope that Tennessee realizes how destructive this new law is and repeals it soon because if you aren't affiliated with a mainstream church, you're relegated to a government official as your officiant. The last thing a couple wants is for their wedding to feel like a trip to the DMV.

MF: Tell me, briefly, about AMM and how does this ordination event fit into its mission?

LK: We are a non-profit, interfaith and non-denominational constitutional church that is federally recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)3 Public Charitable Organization. Drawing on the freedom of religion clause in the United States Constitution, AMM provides free ordination, advocacy, and training for our ministers to ensure that all people have the right to get married and to perform marriage.
  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook
We maintain that spirituality is an intensely personal path, and for many Americans, their wedding is an opportunity to express their values and beliefs. That's only possible if there's a minister that shares that worldview, and by offering free ordination, we ensure that the couple can call on those that are best suited to the task.

Our three tenets are:

1. All people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have the right to marry.
2. It is the right of every couple to choose who will solemnize their marriage.
3. All people have the right to solemnize marriage.
  • American Marriage Ministries/Facebook

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

MLGW: No Rate Increases Slowing Lead Pipe Replacements

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2019 at 2:47 PM

  • MLGW

Officials with Memphis Light, Gas, and Water (MLGW) said the fact that there have been no rate increases this year has slowed down the utility’s replacement of lead pipes.

Giving a Memphis City Council committee an update on MLGW’s lead line replacement progress, Rhonda Morgan, MLGW’s manager of water, construction, and maintenance, said the utility had to cut the budget for this service after no rate increases were approved for MLGW by the council earlier this year.

The line item that includes funding for replacing lead lines was cut by 80 percent, dropping from $7.4 million to $1.5 million, Morgan said.

Since 2012, MLGW has replaced 3,417 lead service lines, Morgan said. So far this year, the utility has replaced 224 lines.

The goal was to have all the lead lines replaced by 2022, but Morgan said she doesn’t think that is “feasible” with MLGW’s current staffing. The utility can replace between 1,200 to 1,500 lines a year with its current personnel, Morgan said.

Morgan said the utility is responsible for only the street service line which runs from the curb stop to the main water line. MLGW replaces these pipes if they are lead.


Beyond the curb, it becomes the responsibility of the homeowner to have the lines inspected by a plumber and replaced if necessary.

Councilwoman Cheyenne Johnson questioned if the utility provides assistance to those who can’t afford to have their end of the line replaced.

MLGW president and CEO, J.T. Young said the utility is trying to find ways to help customers in those situations and similar ones. However, he said to date, the utility hasn’t been able to secure any grants or other funding sources for those efforts, but that MLGW is “continuing to pursue” those options.

There is a map on MLGW’s website that will tell you if MLGW has found lead in your water pipes. Morgan said homeowners are notified of the replacement before and after the service is completed.

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Monday, June 17, 2019

Lemoyne-Owen Professor's Brandon Webber Comments Draw Ire

Posted By on Mon, Jun 17, 2019 at 12:57 PM

Tom Graves - FACEBOOK
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  • Tom Graves

A Memphis author and tenured professor at Lemoyne-Owen College is receiving backlash for comments about last week’s officer-involved shooting in Frayser.

Tom Graves teaches English at Lemoyne-Owen College, a historically-black college. In a Facebook post, he called Brandon Webber, the 21-year-old black man who was shot and killed by U.S. Marshal officers here last week, a “fucking idiot.”

“So let me get this straight,” Graves wrote. “A wanted felon who shot a guy five times was found in Frayser by U.S. Marshals. So, the fucking idiot tries to run over the Marshals with his vehicle then exits the car with a gun. So, the war he starts with a whole gang of U.S. Marshals, everyone an expert shooter ends with him dead as Dillinger.”

Graves then discusses the community uprising that ensued after the shooting, saying what happened next “makes me seethe.”

“A riotous crowd gathers and begins to harass and intimidate law enforcement on the scene,” Graves said. “Mayhem ensues. People get arrested. Asshole thugs in the crowd fire their weapons. Tear gas. Batons. Shields.”

Graves continues, criticizing activists and leaders like Tami Sawyer, who Graves said defended Webber.

“Others relate what a wonderful student he was,” Graves wrote of Webber. “His Facebook posts attest to thuggery, with him holding up fistfuls of cash, as if he were the king daddy pimp. Defending this man is wrong. He should be condemned for what he was and represented and did.”

See Graves' full post at the bottom of the page.

Many people took issue with Graves’s post. Some even called for his dismissal at the college:


In a comment on another one of his Facebook posts, Graves explained that his original post was only meant for his friends, but that it was screen-capped and shared around social media. Graves adds that he doesn’t “discuss this stuff with my students.”

“I don't discuss this stuff with my students — I teach them writing,” Graves said. “And I love and respect my students. I did not want all this to get so out of hand. Lots of folks black and white agree with my take on the Frayser incident.”

Terrell Lamont Strayhorn, vice president of academic and student affairs at LOC said via Facebook that the college is aware of the incident and is working to resolve it.

“Please know that posts made by individuals do NOT reflect the collective values and commitments of LeMoyne-Owen College,” Strayhorn said.

The LOC Student Government Associated sent a letter to Graves in response to his comments, calling them “appalling.” The students said they would like to “express our discontentment at the insincerity with which you commented on the Brandon Webber case.”

“While we agree that we do not have the facts of the case, we are in unanimous disagreement with your verbiage and disregard for the impact which your words would have on the community you serve,” the letter reads. “As a professor at a historically black college, you are keenly aware of the challenges unique to the black/African-American community.

Given the experiences of the students you teach, your implicit justification of the unfortunate events which happened have not been taken lightly.”

The students are calling for a public apology to the students and administration of the college and its stakeholders.


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Friday, June 14, 2019

Belvedere's 13th "Relatively New Music" Festival: Still Accessible, Still Free

Posted By on Fri, Jun 14, 2019 at 3:39 PM

Mark Volker, guitar and John McMurtery, flute, will perform at the 13th annual Belvedere Chamber Music Festival from June 19-22 at Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church.
  • Mark Volker, guitar and John McMurtery, flute, will perform at the 13th annual Belvedere Chamber Music Festival from June 19-22 at Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

One of the terrific cultural treasures in Memphis is happening again starting next week. The Belvedere Chamber Music Festival begins its 13th annual celebration of contemporary music next Wednesday, June 19th, offering six hour-long concerts over four days. And all are free.

“We’ve found a combination of programming that’s attractive to a lot of different people because it's not your typical new music festival in an academic setting,” says Patricia Gray, president of Luna Nova Music, the presenting organization.

And the format since the beginning has proved successful. There’s an opening reception Wednesday and then concerts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, plus 3:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. “The concerts last an hour and there's no intermission,” Gray says. “So, people are not sitting through five hours of Faust anymore, like it was 1880. I've never had anybody say, ‘I wish this lasted two and a half hours and there was a 20-minute intermission.’” And for all 13 years of the festival, the host has been Grace-St. Luke's Episcopal Church at 1720 Peabody.

The festival has donors and angels to contribute funding to pay the musicians and cover some travel. “I’d rather spend money on musicians than anything,” Gray says. “I would so much rather have 100 people free than 10 people there who spent $20 a ticket.”

With that kind of attitude, Luna Nova can concentrate on the programming which, she says, she prefers to call “relatively new” music. “I think of it as 100-120 years back, something like that.” Gray is drawn to works between the wars and the early twentieth century, but close to half of the pieces are twenty-first century. But always, without fail, the festival opens with a single work by Johann Sebastian Bach. “I always think,” she says, “Bach is the mind of God, and it is the measure that everything else is matched against, so let's just remember who we are and think about Bach.”

What follows that Bach appetizer is well thought through. Often there are regional themes — it’s Latin American music this year — and most importantly, Gray hopes the works will connect with the listeners. “I like to have feedback from the audience that says, ‘I heard this, and it spoke to me some way.’” She wants pieces that have an emotional impact. “When I get in the car, is that still going through my mind? Do I want to go out and buy that track? You have to feel like you're listening to music that means something beyond that moment.”

Robert Patterson, who is married to Gray, has been with Luna Nova and the Belvedere festival since the beginning. He is a composer and performer (still playing French horn with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra) whose 2011 piece “Way of the River” will be presented Friday evening.

The six-part work — each based on a literary work — came about with the encouragement of bass clarinetist Nobuko Igarashi, a frequent performer at the festival, who wanted him to write something for her instrument and voice. Sara Teasdale’s poem “The River” got his attention: “I have to do something around this.”

As he was pulling together other texts and working on the composition, he was facing the illness of his mother and then the death of his father. “During that time is when I was working on this last one of these songs, the finale,” Patterson says, “and so it just got infused with all this parental loss, passing over the river to the next life. It's a very emotional piece for me for that reason. It started out just as a sort of a favor for a friend, but became this eulogy for my parents.”

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Facing History: People 'Loved' Working With Brandon Webber

Posted By on Fri, Jun 14, 2019 at 11:17 AM

  • Twitter

Facing History and Ourselves, a Memphis non-profit focused on education about racism, prejudice, and antisemitism, said Friday that Brandon Webber was involved with the group as a Central High School student.

Webber was shot and killed Wednesday evening by U.S. Marshals attempting to arrest him on warrants for a shooting incident in Hernando, Mississippi earlier this month.

Since the shooting, Webber has been hailed as a good student, loving father, and gifted artist by friends and family in online memorials. Law enforcement officials in Mississippi called him violent and "cold-blooded."

  • Twitter

In a message to its members on Friday, Facing History and Ourselves gave a long list of Webber's involvement with the group. They said people "loved working with him" and that his personality was contagious."

Here's the message in full:

"When Brandon was involved with Facing History as a student at Central High School from 2015-2017, we were impressed by his leadership qualities and found him to be a passionate young man about the issues facing his community.

Brandon first got involved in Facing History and Ourselves his freshman year at Central High; he took Mary McIntosh’s freshman history class.
In his sophomore year, he joined the Student Leadership Group (SLG). He was a facilitator for the SLG/ Warriors Unite group at Central. This group of 120 students facilitated the advisory sessions.

  • Facing History and Ourselves/Facebook
He also facilitated at our community teach-in's, where he met students from other schools.

His co-facilitators always loved working with him. His personality was contagious and he made the participants feel at ease while talking about difficult topics. Brandon was passionate about breaking down stereotypes in his school.

His senior year he spoke on a panel and shared his life story at our symposium. Brandon said, 'The Facing History course helps you find out who you are as a person, and who the people beside you are. It helps you break down stereotypes.'"

Later, Facing History issued a formal statement about Webber's death.

Here it is:

"The Facing History and Ourselves community grieves the death of Brandon Webber and the subsequent violence that occurred in the Frayser neighborhood of Memphis.

Brandon was a member of our Student Leadership Group and respected by his peers; he was passionate about breaking down stereotypes in his school and community. We offer our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.

We have no information on the details of these incidents to provide, only our condolences.

As an organization dedicated to lifting up young people using education we are particularly saddened by this tragedy."

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