Aug 05 2009

Just Another Day in Paradise…

Yesterday, in the Commercial Appeal’s Eye on Memphis blog former City Council member and possible Mayoral candidate Edmund Ford Sr. was quoted saying,“People are very tired in this city.”…”You know why?” he said. “Everything that’s happening, people think that people are asleep right now but they’re watching. Hey, they’re sitting and watching everything.”

I think Ford’s right, people are tired, but they’re watching with a weary eye toward both the Mayor Pro Tem’s office and the City Council.

It’s not because either has necessarily done anything specific to warrant this feeling, but the cumulative effect of a contentious few months, including a transition at the executive level for the first time in 18 years. People here aren’t practiced in accepting new leadership, particularly when that leadership may only last 90 days. Now Memphians are being asked to accept as many as three possible transitions over the next 3 years…one now, another one is likely in 90 days, and the possibility of third in 2011. That’s a lot of potential change for a city that hasn’t had much of any in nearly a generation.

Early Missteps

Myron Lowery’s tenure in the 7th story office of the Mayor may only be in its infancy, but already people are questioning his judgment. This should come as no surprise, since Herenton basically set up these questions himself with his July 6th letter changing his date of retirement, and his public statements charging that Lowery was putting the cart before the horse.

In all honesty, Lowery hasn’t been very politically astute in some of his early actions. From his calls early last month for a shake-up at City Hall, to his fumbling of the removal of City Attorney Elbert Jefferson, Lowery has put himself in an unnecessarily adversarial position to at least six members of the council. This is exacerbated partially because of his role as the swing vote in the vacancy resolution, and through his moves that some argue, are designed to subvert Council action on the issue of the City Attorney.

The truth of the matter is that there are only 11 votes in play for the City Attorney issue. Strickland must recuse himself due to pending litigation. That means that it takes 6 votes on the Council to remove Jefferson. Only 5 are a sure thing. Lowery’s decision to roll the vote until August 18th, gives him time to either let the court decide, or build a case against Jefferson. That case, if strong enough, could shift that sixth vote to his side.

Residency Questions

Lowery didn’t help his cause ANY by announcing Jefferson’s replacement would be a person that doesn’t live in Memphis. Because of the City’s residency requirement, all city employees are required to live within the city limits. New hires, that are not temporary employees, have six months to establish residency. This is a problem because Lowery’s tenure may only last 3 months. By appointing someone that lives outside the City limits, Lowery has opened the door to be treated, and have his appointments treated as temporary. Division Directors, like the City Attorney, are not temporary employees, whose offices are authorized through the charter as that serve at the pleasure of the Mayor with approval from the Council.

The Chief Executive Officer of the City of Memphis shall be the mayor, who shall be vested with and exercise the executive and administrative power of the City, shall be authorized to administer, supervise and control all divisions, boards, agencies, offices and employees of the City and shall see that the ordinances and provisions of the Charter are observed, except as otherwise specifically provided. Such administration shall be conducted by and through divisional directors under the supervision and control of the mayor, as provided herein. He shall devote his entire time and attention to the duties of his office. (Section 35 of Memphis Charter)

Despite the potential temporary nature of Lowery’s tenure as Mayor, he is, by all accounts, still the Mayor, and has all the rights and responsibilities of the Mayor at his disposal. The argument, fronted by Council members Halbert and Ware, that the 6 month provision somehow doesn’t apply to Mayor Lowery because his tenure won’t last that long, is a stretch. The residency requirement says nothing about the length of the appointment having any bearing on the hire.

Failure of any officer or employee to comply with the provisions of this section shall be cause for removal or discharge from city employment. New employees shall be allowed six (6) months after the date they are hired or appointed to comply with this section. (Section 190 Memphis Charter)

The residency requirement doesn’t stop members like Ware and Halbert from voting against an appointee. That’s well within their prerogative, but it also doesn’t stop the Mayor, regardless of the amount of time left in his term, from putting forth whomever he wishes for the City Council to approve, residency or not.

Council Connundrum

I’ve already touched on this, but now that the City Council is set in a six/six split, the appointment of Division Directors and the movement of city business is likely to be stuck in a deadlock for the entire tenure of Mayor Lowery. This scenario is difficult for the city going forward. Even though there were only two no votes for the appointment of former Council member Jack Sammons as CAO, any other appointments, or potential replacements of Division Directors will likely be held up by the Council unless a consensus choice, like Sammons, is brought before the Council.

From a political perspective, this can be a plus or a minus for the Lowery Administration. Clearly the city is ready to move forward. Those who would oppose that forward movement can be looked upon as obstructionists. But that assumes that Lowery can muster the same kind of media attention and perception of authority that Herenton demanded.

There is no question that, under a Herenton Administration, a move like the one Lowery made in regard to Jefferson, would have been accompanied with a full menu of the powers of the executive, and dire warnings to the Council if they were to somehow undermine or question his authority. Lowery is hamstrung by the potential temporary nature of his tenure, and the general belief that he will not win the Mayor’s office. Under this circumstance, Lowery has two options, try to build consensus, or play the role of a reformer being held hostage by Herenton loyalists on the Council. I don’t know which role Lowery is most suited for, but certainly he needs to make that choice soon and follow through COMPLETELY with whichever strategy he believes he can accomplish, lest he lose the confidence of his supporters and the city at large.

Election Set

Yesterday, the Shelby Co. Election Commission set the date for the special election. This election will be for the City Mayor, and State Sen. Dist. 31, which was left vacant after the resignation of Paul Stanley (R-KISS), following his intern debacle. The election will be held October 15th with a qualifying deadline on September 3rd and withdrawals by the 10th. This makes the election two weeks sooner than originally scheduled.

Moving the election up doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, but I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to anyone at the Election Commission yet, so, until then I’ll withhold judgment. What hasn’t been reported on is if this will be a primary election for this seat. I assume it will be a primary, since there’s no time for one between now and then, which means that ANOTHER election will have to be held for Sen. Dist. 31, which covers Bartlett, Cordova, Germantown, and 20 precincts in Memphis.

Assuming that this is a primary election for State Sen. 31, then that could shift who participates in the 20 precincts here in Memphis.

There are already three Republicans vying for the Senate seat; Rep. Brian Kelsey (R-83), Rep. Steve McManus (R-96), and Shelby Co. School Board Chair, David Pickler. This contest, particularly with the entrance of the controversial Kelsey into the race, could activate a large number of Republican primary voters. How this will play out in the 20 Memphis precincts that are represented by Dist. 31 is somewhat unknown. In the 2006 general, the Democratic candidate carried those 20 precincts by 1100 votes out of 15,000 cast. However, assuming there is no contest in the Democratic Primary, or possibly no candidate, this could elevate Republican participation, effectively deciding the seat without a general, which could tip the balance in the Mayor’s race.

It’s a stretch, I know, but should someone like Conrad enter the race, particularly with the presence of a dozen candidates on the Mayor’s ballot, inflated Republican turnout in these 20 districts could turn the tide. In the end, it will probably just help County Mayor AC Wharton.

Which is where I’m going to end this post, because, barring a sex scandal, or credible allegations of something hugely untoward, AC Wharton will be the next Mayor of Memphis. He has all of the elements of a successful campaign in place; money, people and time. He’s been running since the day after the 2007 election, he’s got a huge war chest, and he’s had people out working for him since Chism’s picnic, just days before Herenton announced his original resignation date.

No one else is that prepared, no one else was even in the starting blocks. So while I generally agree with LWC’s analysis of the race, reality is reality, and until someone steps up, it’s his to lose.