City Reporter 

City Reporter

Storm Team

MLGW assesses its handling of July 22nd windstorm.

By Mary Cashiola

You can't simply walk onto a storm-assessment team. Just ask the Memphis Light, Gas and Water employees who didn't make the cut.

MLGW announced the final lineup of its Summer Storm 2003 Assessment Team last week. The elite 27 members -- including city councilman John Vergos, health department director Yvonne Matlock, and eight MLGW employees -- will review the utility's performance after July's devastating storm.

"We want them to give us their perspectives -- their perception of how we handled things and what we could have done better," said Mark Heuberger, MLGW director of corporate communications.

But if you wonder how MLGW employees can assess their own performance, Heuberger says the utility picked people who were at least one layer removed from the action.

"The MLGW employees we picked were involved to some degree, but they were not so close to the restoration effort that they could not step back and be objective," said Heuberger. "We had others originally on [the team] who were right in the middle of the restoration effort, but [MLGW president Herman Morris] decided not to do that. He wasn't sure they could be involved and keep an open mind."

The utility also chose team members with seemingly little interaction with MLGW, including the president of Senior Services, the Collierville town administrator, and the dean of Communication and Fine Arts at the University of Memphis.

"We wanted to get a cross-section of perspectives," said Heuberger. "We wanted to try and get somebody from health care, somebody from the union, somebody from big business, and somebody with the TVA perspective."

They wanted someone who would be able to tell them how corporations got their computer systems back online, as well as what it was like for the outlying suburban areas that MLGW also serves. The audit will be led by MLGW's general auditor and will include a written report on MLGW's emergency-response plan, the execution of the plan, and suggested improvements to the system. Committee members receive no compensation.

The team is currently trying to schedule its first meeting. The report, which is expected before the end of the year, could have potential implications for Morris, who was up for reappointment in August. Gale Jones Carson, spokesperson for city Mayor Willie Herenton, said she believed the mayor was waiting until after the election to make all appointments, including reappointing city division directors.

Taking Pride

Local church celebrates 140-year past, looks to future.

By Janel Davis

The members of Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church will tell you that in the 140 years of the church's existence not much has changed. Although the buildings may have grown bigger and better and membership has increased, everyone is still welcomed with a big smile and hearty hug.

On Sunday, September 21st, members will celebrate a milestone in the church's history with a look back at its roots and plans for its future. The church, located on Highway 64 in the Wolfchase area, will host two services led by its 17th pastor, Donald Johnson.

Oak Grove, which began in 1863 in a brush arbor, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 for its beginnings as a church built on a former plantation by -- and for -- freed slaves. The present church building, built in 1937, is the fifth one constructed on the original site.

The church's legacy includes a former one-room schoolhouse operated by the county for black children at the beginning of the 20th century. Members of the church's congregation taught and attended the school. Oak Grove has since converted the building into a fellowship hall.

"We are really proud to be holding this service at this location ... but the church has really grown beyond the space in [this building]," said administrative assistant Vernell Harris. "When I came here in 1972, almost all of the membership was from four or five large families in the church. Now 60 percent of our members are from other areas and have no affiliation with the founding families."

Two years ago, the members broke ground for a larger facility on adjacent property. The new building, expected to open in July, will increase the sanctuary's capacity from 550 to 1,200.

Celebration services will be held at 9:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on September 21st. City and county mayors and other officials have been invited to the afternoon ceremony.

Workman Update

Governor delays execution four months.

By Mary Cashiola

In an unexpected development, Governor Phil Bredesen issued a four-month temporary reprieve Monday for death-row inmate Philip Workman, citing an ongoing criminal investigation.

Though he did not give specifics, Bredesen said he wanted to postpone the execution until the "investigation is completed and we can assess its relevance to the case."

Workman was scheduled to die for the 1981 killing of Memphis police Lt. Ronald Oliver during the robbery of a local fast-food restaurant.

Kelly Henry, a member of Workman's legal team, said they were very surprised by the governor's announcement. "We heard that the federal criminal investigation did not directly affect the Workman case but could have an impact on it. The governor couldn't allow the execution to go through, and we feel that's an honorable decision on his part."

Speculation about the criminal investigation has centered on the brutal attack on county medical examiner O.C. Smith last year. No one has ever been arrested, and the health department now refuses to release any photographs of Smith.

Henry, along with lawyers Paul Bottei and Christopher Minton, had also appeared before federal judge Bernice Donald on Monday to petition for a stay of Workman's scheduled September 24th execution.

Detailed Discussion

Council plans special meeting on downtown development.

By Mary Cashiola

The Memphis City Council's planning and zoning committee heard a presentation two weeks ago on a redevelopment plan for the Central Business Improvement District (CBID) and decided to schedule a special two-hour meeting on the topic on September 23rd.

Although the plan includes the Beale Street Landing, a downtown harbor, and public garages on Main and Court Square, the most controversial part is the creation of a tax increment financing (TIF) trust fund that will generate $189 million over the next 30 years. When properties with payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) return to the city tax rolls -- after having their property taxes frozen for 15 years -- the additional tax monies will then go to the TIF. The city won't lose any money under the plan, but it won't gain any under it, either. The money will then be used for public projects within the CBID.

Councilman John Vergos said he had a problem delegating a chunk of tax-dollar revenue to a nonelected body even if the council had approving authority over public projects. "What happens if we didn't like anything? The money would just sit there," he said.

He was also concerned that the city might be giving away money it needs for unforeseen, higher-priority issues that may occur in the future. Other council members were upset that, under the plan, schools did not share in the growth.

"Some of the council members feel we've done enough for downtown," said Rickey Peete, planning and zoning committee chairman. "We need to do a lot of other areas: North Memphis, South Memphis, Hickory Hill." He said the city needs to find a balance between what other areas get and how to maintain and strengthen the epicenter of the city.

"It's a substantial amount of money. The question is now: How is that going to be allocated?" said Peete.

The City Council will hear the full plan in October.

The People's Plan

EMA seeks public input on disaster prevention.

By Bianca Phillips

When it comes to reworking the current Disaster Prevention Plan, the Memphis-Shelby County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) is going to need a little outside assistance.

With new federal guidelines requiring more public involvement, the EMA is calling on the citizens of Shelby County to give their input in a public forum scheduled for September 22nd at Central High School. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wants all counties in the state to rework their plans, and they've handed out grants to get the job done.

"We're looking at things like tornadoes, flooding, and earthquakes, the kind of things that are going to come in and take us out as a community," said Joe Lowry, EMA's emergency planning officer. "What we're looking for is legitimate input. We don't want people that are unhappy with something and just want to come and whine to us."

According to Lowry, the EMA has a significant amount of data that needs to be added to the new plan. He said that hazardous-waste sites should be worked into the plan according to their proximity to earthquakes zones, and they've completed a baseline radiation study in the county.

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