Building Anew

Shelby County mayor A C Wharton suggests in this week's Flyer cover story that there be a moratorium on big building projects. He also proposes creating a permanent public building authority -- not an ad hoc one like the current PBA but an institutional one along the lines of the one maintained by the state of Tennessee.

Wharton inherited the county debt mountain, the FedExForum, and the Cook Convention Center cost overruns. It's understandable that he sees some appeal in a permanent building authority, which may well be a worthwhile idea.

But the mayor has been involved in Memphis politics for decades and probably knows as well as anyone that there is no way to remove politics and controversy from public construction. Both The Pyramid and the FedExForum were approved and built under the guidance of a building authority with private-sector representation.

The Pyramid started as a $39.5 million project. After a couple of years, inflation, earthquake protection, and upgrades of the sound system and siding, the final cost was in the neighborhood of $70 million -- still something of a bargain if you overlook the crowded seats, unbuilt inclinator, and unexpected obsolescence.

The FedExForum is coming in on time and within budget, but the budget is $250 million. The lesson: Aim high. Once an authority of any kind -- arena, transit, riverfront -- is created in Memphis, the name of the game becomes political representation of the city mayor, county mayor, City Council, County Commission, state legislature, whites, minorities, women, and unions. The politicians want their voices heard, arguing that they are the elected representatives of the people and proper custodians of public money.

Would such an authority have prevented a fiasco such as the convention center cost overruns? Maybe, maybe not. But it's telling that when push came to shove on the overruns, both mayors opted for the "deal" that would stick taxpayers for $17.8 million instead of fighting for them in court.

Politicians have to make tough choices. A building authority can become a "solution" that simply shifts the choices to somebody else.

Compromised Out

Few public figures in our time have commanded the widespread respect accorded to current Secretary of State Colin Powell, who acquitted himself well in prior incarnations, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, as a ranking military commander, cabinet member, and diplomat.

Like most military men who have experienced real combat, Powell has been known as a voice of reason and a brake upon brash expeditions. Evidence from a variety of sources -- most recently, Bob Woodward's latest tell-all, Plan of Attack -- is that Powell's inclinations were to oppose President Bush's war in Iraq, at least in the essentially unilateral form which it ultimately took. Yet he evidently held his nose and soldiered up on the occasion of his presentation in 2002 of the case for war to a session of the United Nations. Though Powell must have doubted the accuracy of some of the intelligence he presented, even he must have been surprised at subsequent revelations that have debunked almost all of it -- notably Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and now-deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's alleged ties to al-Qaeda.

But his eyes must surely now be open. His recent claims of continued allegiance to the president's policy and the necessity of his rebuttal to Woodward's assertion that he was not in the initial loop about the onset of war constitute an embarrassment for so distinguished an American. Powell should have resigned long ago. He has no more room for compromise, either voluntary or involuntary.

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