HERENTON IS JUST BEING HERENTON Willie Herenton once told this newspaper to go to hell. You have to like that kind of style. Herenton is the most popular mayor in the history of Memphis. That is a matter of fact. He has been elected to an unprecedented four consecutive terms. In the last three elections he got two to three times as many votes as his closest rival. But if you read only the articles and letters in the daily newspaper, you might think Herenton is the Memphis equivalent of former California Gov. Gray Davis and on the verge of being recalled. The latest “outrage” is his decision not to reappoint Herman Morris as president of Memphis Light Gas & Water. But why should there be a pity party for Morris? He makes $34,000 a year more than the mayor. He has held his job for six years, the same length of time as his three predecessors, despite having no previous experience as head of a large public or private organization. There is no evidence that Morris was treated unfairly. Herenton was forthright in his criticisms of MLGW. There were no leaks, no anonymous slurs. In a public meeting that included Morris, MLGW board members, elected officials, and reporters, Herenton made several specific criticisms about the utility company. So far none of them has been refuted. For his part, Morris was gracious in accepting Herenton’s decision. So why the fuss? Why is it front-page news if a reporter can find a single public official, Judge D’Army Bailey, to criticize the Morris firing and buttress the charge by dredging up the dismissals of a city attorney and a police chief several years ago? And why is Herenton bashed almost daily in the letters to the daily paper? The reason is that Herenton’s style does not fit the standard notion of acceptable behavior by politicians. He is much too blunt. He says what he thinks, which is that after 12 years he has lost patience with two-headed government, the city school board, and MLGW. A diehard group of Herenton haters, many of whom live outside of Memphis, bombards the daily paper with letters trashing city crime, city schools, and city taxes. Usually they end with a vow to leave if they haven’t done so already. Curiously, many of them praise MLGW despite its upcoming rate increase and frustrating customer service. The guess here is that this may well be an organized letter-writing campaign by MLGW employees, but I can’t prove it. The whining is both tiresome and unfair. In New York, Detroit, Washington D.C., and other big cities, mayors are doing the same things Herenton is trying to do. Police chiefs and school superintendents and elected board members come and go all the time. The turnover in Memphis city government is no greater than the turnover at local corporations, sports teams, or a certain daily newspaper. When Herenton is curt it usually doesn’t last. The man who once told us to go to hell is the same man who unfailingly answers questions from us and other news outfits and never goes off the record. Like it or not, it is clear what he stands for, which is more than can be said for politicians who hide behind public relations agents, platitudes, and a sickeningly sweet attempt to be all things to all people. In a few days Herenton will make his annual state of the city speech. Here’s hoping he offends somebody.


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