The Council and the Mayor 

More conflict in 2015?

When I heard it, I thought, "This is the quote of the year."

Thomas Malone, the ever outspoken president of the Memphis Firefighters Association, railed in frustration, "The city administration is like an addict on crack. They will buy, steal, and do anything they can from anybody, to get what they want!" So, Tommy, tell us how you really feel, huh?

click to enlarge les_smith_mugshot.jpg

Based on the events of 2014, there are a lot of Memphians bewitched, bothered, and bewildered by the actions of the administration of Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis City Council. Malone's bitter assessment came just days after the council rammed through a surprising vote on the long-debated city employees' pension plan.

After nearly a year of discussion, with the Wharton administration at first presenting a proposal with Draconian cuts to appease a warning from the state comptroller on addressing a more than $500 million pension deficit, the council decided on a 9-to-4 vote to go with Councilwoman Wanda Halbert's plan to only apply the benefit cuts to city employees with seven-and-a-half or fewer years of service. It also happens to neatly include council members, as elected officials. Halbert's plan was a complete reversal of her previously staunch support of city employees seeking no cuts to benefits. Her apparent flip-flop will be the fodder for much discussion as she reportedly will seek to unseat incumbent Thomas Long for the city clerk's office in 2015.

But, after nearly a year of debate, why was Halbert's proposal fast-tracked for a vote? As Malone told me, he asked for time for actuaries to run the numbers again on all the plans presented. His request was rejected. It certainly makes you wonder.

Certainly the communication gap between the mayor's office and the council has never been more obvious than with the proposed settlement agreement Wharton and Shelby County School (SCS) Superintendent Dorsey Hopson privately reached. The facts are that two courts have ruled against the city's counterclaim that they are owed the interest on $100 million given to legacy Memphis City Schools for buildings. They alleged their claim trumps the $57 million both courts ruled the city owes the school system, dating back to 2008. Councilman Myron Lowery told me last week the majority of his colleagues feel their counterclaim will win out as both sides continue mediation efforts. Two glaring discrepancies come to mind as the battle lines are drawn for the upcoming showdown over whether the council will approve funding for the school settlement in early January.

It doesn't surprise me that Wharton, Hopson, and the SCS board members are happy with this deal that essentially amounts to $43 million in cash and other amenities, such as $2.6 million in police protection for schools and a balloon payment of $6 million in February. What bothers me is how Wharton decided to communicate this agreement to the council in a terse, written memorandum delivered just as the pension vote was about to be made. He apparently hadn't even told those council members on the mediation team he'd reached a deal. It's an example of Wharton's confounding "lawyers know best" mentality. He comes from the world of plea bargains and deals in criminal justice. But, as the city's chief executive, he has to be more open and candid about his dealings, especially when the final approval for funding lies with the council.

And speaking of the council: Back in 2008, tired of the "maintenance of effort" in voluntarily funding city schools for years, they went rogue. That proved to be a costly mistake for all concerned. It can be reasonably argued that their failure to pay the $57 million led to the collapse of the legacy Memphis City Schools two years later. Their decision to divest themselves of that obligation led to millions of taxpayer dollars being wasted on the protracted litigation between the city and the county that followed.

Now the ball is in their court again. A second chance to begin to right the foolish mistake the city council committed six years ago. If council-members decide to reject this settlement because of bruised egos or personal agendas, then they should be made to pay the price at the ballot box in 2015. It will be a fitting answer for those we elect who once in office suffer from the "addiction" of power. If we as voters don't respond? Maybe we're on crack.

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