Nov 29 2014

The Comedy and Tragedy of James Harvey’s Mayoral Aspirations

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections

Its more of a tragedy than a comedy

This is more of a tragedy than a comedy

In the blur of pre-Thanksgiving preparations, and the shadow of the Ferguson Grand Jury decision, a process that even Justice Scalia thinks was nuts, comes this article on the “non-traditional” campaign of former County Commissioner, James Harvey for Mayor of the City of Memphis.

Now, Harvey’s illustrious eight years on the County Commission are remarkable, only in that he was never seriously challenged…which says something about the sad state of affairs in politics in Shelby County.

The most notable item about his time on the Commission is his unique ability to begin speaking in favor of an issue, and by the end of his external monologue, have talked himself out of his own position, which doesn’t say anything about his ability to see both sides of an issue…rather, it speaks to just how few convictions he has on anything.

Veasey’s article frames Harvey as conducting the beginnings of a non-traditional campaign, working independent of money, to win the hearts and minds of Memphians a full ten months before the election…and at least five months before the campaign begins in earnest.

Now, if you’re one of those disappointed in the leadership at City Hall, and there’s a growing group of people that feel that way, you might be interested in looking to something fresh and new. And while that instinct may not be misplaced, any faith in Harvey’s ability to turn the City around is absolutely misplaced unless you think he can do that with his ample supply botched platitudes and mixed metaphors.

And while there’s no doubt that money alone doesn’t buy Mayorships, the fact that Harvey has raised less than 10k, nearly a year after announcing his candidacy, says something about his support citywide…that there isn’t any.

This fact should be well understood by looking at previous efforts to get elected to something…anything by Harvey.

In 2011, he ran for Mayor against Wharton and Edmund Ford Sr. Harvey managed to eek out just over 2000 votes in the effort, putting him in 3rd place behind Wharton’s 48.6k and Ford’s nearly 21k.

In the only other race that Harvey has faced an opponent and won, the 2006 Primary Election for County Commission, Harvey won just over 4700 votes, for 41% of the vote. Hardly a mandate.

But what’s most comical is that anyone would think of Harvey as a contender in a race against a sitting Mayor, who has a proven record of fielding a vigorous campaign, and a growing list of capable candidates seeking to unseat that Mayor…of which, Harvey is far from being in the top tier.

So while its understandable that…as we get closer to the October election, there should be a discussion of the declared candidates, the comedy and tragedy of it all is that Harvey is even mentioned as viable. He’s not.

If you’re one of those who feel Memphis needs new leadership, pinning your hopes on James Harvey is an exercise in futility.

Look elsewhere…anywhere else.

There will be more viable candidates emerge as we get closer to the filing deadline.

As for Harvey, I’m glad the CA got this fluff piece out of the way when no one was really paying attention. Hopefully they’ll decide to ignore him along with the crackpots and maroons who will inevitably file to run.

We need to have a real discussion, not distractions, about the top spot at City Hall…and no amount of framing will place Harvey at the big boys table in that discussion.

Jun 05 2013

Who’s driving this bus?

Memphis budget back and forth raises questions about long-term plans, vision for the City among other things

If you’re not confused you’re not paying attention.

To be honest, I’ve been on vacation for a week, and doing everything I can to not pay attention, but the events of yesterday’s Memphis City Council meeting snapped me back into reality.

By my count, I’ve seen five separate budget proposals put before the Council:

• The original plan that increased the rate to $3.39.
• Three plans reported by the CA on May 30th. All three have a variety of options, all dire either through extreme cuts, or tax increases.
• The current plan, which increases the rate to $3.51 reported on June 4th.

I reserve the right to revise and extend this list in case I’ve left one out (I’m a blogger, not a journalist, I can do that).

I haven’t seen the latest four budget proposals, so all I can do is rely on media reports until I can track them down. I also don’t know which one Mayor Wharton is most wed to. I presume its the most recent budget, which seems to resemble the original proposal more closely, but also seems to ignore the results of impasse proceedings that have made their way through the pipeline over the past several weeks.

The long and the short of it is: We’re 25 days out from the new fiscal year, and we seem no closer to a resolution to the budget issue than we were back in the middle of May when I published my last post.

Coincidentally, Nashville just passed their budget. $1.8b for all Metro and County operations. $1.8b is also the sum of all City and County operations, even though our population is nearly 300,000 more people. Maybe if I add in the budgets of the other municipalities it would make more sense, but I kinda doubt it.

Footloose and fancy free

There’s been a lot of rhetoric surrounding this budget season. The reasons for this are many: ideology, political aspirations, and personal vendettas are the first three that come to mind. But beyond the rhetoric is the basic reality of 9th grade civics involving government. Simply put:

It is the responsibility of the Executive Branch to propose a budget.

The proposed budget should reflect the priorities of the Executive branch with an eye towards the long-term direction of the community and the realities of the revenue sources, long-term liabilities, and nuts and bolts expenditures of the city. An accurate portrayal of these financial realities is critical, because they ultimately inform the public, and Legislative Branch, of things that are coming down the pike. This is just a proposal, however, not the final product.

It is the responsibility of the legislative branch to enact a budget.

The enacted budget can be similar or radically different from the proposal. Legislative branches have wide latitude to re-shape all kinds of priorities with the budget pen. The tailoring of these priorities can be surgical in nature, or a Frankensteinian hack-job.

But lets not get it switched. It’s not the fault of the Executive that the Legislative branch passes a budget that conveniently ignores any or all of the revenue streams, liabilities, or expenditures. Once the Legislative branch is done either giving a haircut, creating a monster, or anything in-between, it is the job of the Executive to try and make that budget work, and realize as many priorities as possible, with the tools they have available as a result of that budget.

Seems to me that both sides have forgotten portions of this throughout this and previous budget seasons. And while I believe that a skeptical eye is both critical and necessary to being an effective legislator, personal issues seem to have taken over what should be a professional exercise.

Comptroller Complications

The budget season was on track to be a contentious battle in the first place. Lower revenue outlooks due to decreases in property values meant either a tax increase (from 3.11 to 3.36 to remain revenue neutral) or serious cuts were in the future.

In the midst of that angst, a powder keg was ignited when the Comptroller’s report came out on May 22nd (read the whole report here).

The report detailed many problematic financial issues. The one most widely mentioned is the “scoop and toss” debt refinancing the City has engaged in several times in recent years. While there’s no doubt that using one credit card to pay another is a bad idea, if it means a lower interest payment, and there’s a commitment to actually pay down that debt, it can be an effective strategy for reducing the impact of debt on revenue streams.

It should be noted, Shelby Co. government has refinanced a great deal of debt over the past several years using historically low bond interest rates to reduce short-term liabilities. I’m not sure why Memphis’ use of this tactic is any worse, except that the overall revenue outlook probably doesn’t have as much upside.

So debt is a big deal. The other big deal is revenue, which the report notes, is declining necessitating a tax increase, a reduction in spending, or both.

What most people haven’t keyed in on is the section of the report called Fiscal Concerns located on page 4.

In that section the Comptroller says:

“…We are concerned with the low level of general fund balance after accomplishing the corrective actions listed above. The City appears to have funding needs in the near future for liabilities related to pension obligations, other post-employment benefit obligations, and money owed to the school system. Also, the City has aggressively used PILOTs and other property tax incentives for economic development purposes which have cut into future property tax revenue growth.”

You can take that paragraph a couple of ways, but all of them include the following: We’ve got some big bills coming due.

Really, most of this is stuff people already knew.

Pensions aren’t in the budget, as far as I can tell, but its a subject that some of my more conservative friends consistently herald as a bad long-term liability. Its hard for me to tell if this is reality or just some bias against paying pensions, but I sure would like some clarity on the issue. (though this article mentions the liability problems, though not in detail)

There is a section called OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits). We borrowed $22m from that fund last year to pay for Pensioners Insurance (that’s what it looks like anyway). From my perspective, that money never should have been borrowed. Period.

So now, we not only have to fund the current year, but also last year. I don’t know who proposed that, but it was a bad idea that follows a trend of folks taking a promise and turning it into a threat when it comes to dealing with retirees.

That ain’t cool.

What’s most interesting to me is the comment about the aggressive use of PILOTs and other tax reduction schemes for business. Does this mean these things aren’t paying off? This year the budget mentions $5m in PILOT payments. Last year, AFSCME had a list of the top PILOT recipients. I used to have it somewhere, but I can’t find it. Needless to say, the savings to business was north of $20m…for the top 10 recipients.

This begs the question…are these incentives doing what they’re supposed to? The Pew Center on the States has a paper from last year that deals with state incentives and some of the pitfalls. It might be a good read for local governments too. While the EDGE Board may be super transparent compared to other IDB’s, I haven’t seen them recommend the revocation of a PILOT due to non-compliance. That’s a little concerning since, I’m pretty sure there is at least one isn’t meeting the terms of the agreement.

What’s the long-term vision?

The Comptroller’s report makes mention of a 5 year strategic plan. I haven’t seen this document. I’ve heard a lot about it, but until someone can point me to a copy its vaporware as far as I’m concerned.

The Administration hasn’t done a good job of selling this plan to the public, and that’s part of why the Council is picking them apart.

The Council has, in the past, sought some kind of longer-term budget guidance. I’m not aware of any vote or resolution that would mandate such a plan. Right now, I’m not sure the politics of the situation would allow some members to give that kind of high ground to an administration that they’re basically actively running against. That’s a missed opportunity in my book.

The Council, by contrast doesn’t have to be as consistent. Legislative bodies, by their nature are supposed to have a somewhat adversarial or at least skeptical eye toward administrations. I’m not sure this level of adversity is productive, but political fortunes and personal vendettas being what they are…this kind of thing isn’t entirely unexpected.

In the absence of an articulated, concrete vision, legislative members are free to roam the hills of fishing expeditions and rhetoric that suits their political needs. I see more of that than an honest appraisal of what needs to happen to make Memphis more sustainable going forward.

The City Council has not seemed to be able to muster any kind of consensus long-term vision. 12 of 13 members are in the second year of their second term. Many of the decisions they have made over that nearly 6 year period have brought us to where we are today. I don’t blame them for the overall national economic conditions, or all the things they inherited, though 6 years in, the timeframe for that pardon is quickly diminishing.

Its time we got serious…and if this is what serious looks like…then wow, just wow.

A couple of months ago I gave a talk on school funding. In that presentation I said:

Budgets are a reflection of the moral convictions of a community.

I hold to that.

I hope our moral convictions are such that we would be very cautious about seeking additional sacrifices from working families that just happen to work for the City. The 4.6% cut last year was a hit in hard economic times. There should at least be a timeframe for restoration of that cut. We can’t be a city that penalizes people who serve our community. That’s no way to grow.

I think everyone understands that some positions will be eliminated while we try to clean up the financial mess we’ve made. Hopefully that can be done through attrition rather than layoffs to give more of a soft landing than a hard bump.

In the mean time, the Council needs to think long and hard about their ideas of revenue, expenditures, long-term liabilities, rate and most importantly, value.

“Reduce spending”, “increase efficiency”, “raise revenue”, “decrease the tax rate” and many of the other phrases used in this and previous budget negotiations are empty political rhetoric unless they include specific proposals backed by accurate data that adds real measurable value to the citizens of Memphis, not conventional wisdom or ideological flights of fancy. Sure, it makes for a great sound byte for the media, but it doesn’t mean anything until there’s some real meat on the bone. I hope all parties concerned will take that to heart.

For reasons unknown to anyone, the Mayor seems to have decided to let the City Council drive the bus. Hopefully, they’ll find a place to stop, get a map, and take us somewhere we can at least deal with for a while…that isn’t FantasyLand.

I can’t clap to keep Tinkerbell alive any longer.

Mar 25 2011

Thinking About What Could Be

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

City of Memphis Website

“There is no question that our current website is long overdue for a complete overhaul. My intent for a new is simply to have the most helpful and dynamic website possible for the people of Memphis. We have surveyed the public extensively and have a very clear idea of what people want: intuitive design, accessible information, and a way to make their voices heard. We have made great strides using our existing website to improve transparency; a new website will only create more opportunities to share the policy documents, data sets, reports, contracts, and permitting documents that people find useful and necessary. I want this to be a convenient and evolving place online where people and their local government to communicate more easily and productively with one another. Our website can be more than a simple repository of information. It will be comparable to our front door and floor directory. We will see that it is as easy to find as 125 North Main Street and as easy to navigate as the ‘you are here’ plaques on our hallways. It can be a virtual gathering place for people to share ideas, create connections, and begin shaping the grassroots action plans that will accelerate community and economic development throughout our great city.” – Mayor A C Wharton

Those were the words emailed to me just two days after the release of this RFP to redesign the City of Memphis Website.

Since the day he took office, Mayor Wharton has been committed to increasing transparency. While his administration has made great strides, they’re hindered by this outdated site that has reached it’s design limitations, and then some.

In addition to being less than visually pleasing, it’s also difficult to navigate, and generally disorganized. Some basic functions are buried under several levels of unnecessary clicks, making it difficult for many users to find anything.

While there may be no perfect design for a website serving a city of our size, there are a heck of a lot better ones. Which got me to thinking. What would you like to see in a redesign? I know what I want, better and more advanced searches, tagging, and simplified URL’s that take you right to a division. But what do you expect?

What kinds of functions frustrate you? What do you need better access to? How can the City government make information more accessible?

If you’re a developer and a Memphian, take this opportunity to look over the RFP and see if this is something you or your group would be interested in undertaking.

The RFP deadline is April 15th with a Q & A period starting on the 30th of this month. Mull it over and let’s think about how we want our city website to work.

Edited to Add: For the record, I am not connected to anyone who may bid, nor do I have any intention to bid on this project, and probably disqualified myself by even writing about it.

Feb 10 2011

SB0025 to Governor, City Council Approves Surrender – #MCS

This morning, as expected, the State House passed SB0025 which now goes to the Governor. There are three actions the Governor can take. He can: sign it, veto it, or refuse to sign it but allow it to become law after 10 days.

Previous press reports have said that he would consult with Mayors Wharton and Luttrell before making a decision. As of this writing, Mayor Wharton noted that Gov. Haslam had not yet signed the bill.

The City Council met at 5pm and only had one item on the agenda. I tuned in a little late because 88.5 didn’t broadcast the meeting. As far as I can tell there were two friendly amendments that tweaked the resolution. Ultimately the resolution passed by a vote of 10-0-2. The two abstentions came from Councilmembers Ford and Morrison who are teachers.

The resolution will be sent to the Tennessee Secretary of State tomorrow.

I hope to have the final version of the resolution soon and will include it in this post as soon as I do.

So what does all this mean? Well, a lot of that is still in question, but according to City Council Attorney Alan Wade, upon the date set forth in the resolution MCS will exist for the purposes of wrapping up business, then, presumably, SCS will take over administration. How long that process lasts is in question as are many things. How it all turns out will depend on who decides to do what and when.

I’ll add updates to this post as necessary, as well as update on twitter as events unfold.

Oct 27 2009

Defining “Greatness”

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Yesterday in the Eye on City Hall blog Zack McMillan poses the question ”Has Memphis Ever Had a ‘Great’ Mayor? Can AC Become One?”. It’s an interesting read that lists many of the challenges facing our newly elected Mayor as well as the failures of past Mayors. From the post:

Generations of Memphians have taken history from University of Memphis historian Charles Crawford, and he often makes the point that the problems that plague Memphis, with roots dating back to the 19th Century, are so vast and complicated that even the best and boldest civic administration would have difficulty solving them. Each subsequent generation of Memphians — and by Memphians we include all those who live in the eight-county Memphis metroplitan area — wants to believe that problems just shot up out of the soil, but in fact things like deep-seated poverty, violent crime, lackluster universal public education and a low-wage low-skill job base have been here for a long time.

“He will run into the traditional Memphis problems that previous mayors have run into and that I won’t say are impossible but are intractable,” Crawford said in a story we have running today. “Some of these things are outside the capacity of anyone as mayor to solve.”

You know, on several levels, he’s right. First of all the …” deep-seated poverty, violent crime, lackluster universal public education and a low-wage low-skill job base”… is a problem that has faced Memphis for generations. Even our own city history page lists many of these problems. Further, Crawford’s assertion that many in the metro area want to believe that these issues “just shot up out of the soil” couldn’t be more right. Many of these issues have been going on since the inception of Memphis, which is not to say that solving them is hopeless, but that it presents challenges that are far greater than even we may recognize.

Which gets me back to the point of the post I referenced at the beginning. In order for us to determine whether a Mayor or community leader has been “great”, we have to define what “greatness” is. If greatness is fixing everything, then no, we have had no great Mayors. But as the post rightly points out:

“Some of these things are outside the capacity of anyone as mayor to solve.”

So, if these things are outside the capacity of any mayor to solve, then what really defines greatness in the position of Mayor of Memphis?

The truth of the matter is, under this standard no leader of any stripe could be considered truly great. No matter how many problems any leader might solve, there are a hundred more lurking around the corner waiting to be discovered. Taking this reality into account, how does a leader achieve “greatness” in the face of generational challenges that are, to a large degree, outside of his or her power to fully address?

Think back to the beginning of our nation. While the Declaration of Independence may spell out the foundation of American philosophy, and the Constitution may spell out the rights of citizens and the responsibility of government, the truth of the matter is that what we think of as “freedom” today, wasn’t the freedom of the late 18th Century. Just look at the right to vote. Early on many states had restrictive rules about voting. Unless you were white, male, and a land owner, you didn’t necessarily have the right to vote (Source). Over time, as the nation matured, these rules changed, and became less restrictive, removing property restrictions and other hurdles, then allowing women to vote, and eventually guaranteeing the right to “All Americans of voting age” (though for some, particularly those who have served their time in jail, having their right to vote restored is still a huge hurdle).

Of course, none of these changes came thanks to any one individual. It took the voices and actions of thousands of people working for a common goal to extend these rights to the disenfranchised. And while each of these accomplishments are “great”, with every victory came the recognition of another form of disenfranchisement. A good example of this is protecting the choices of the voters through legislation like the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act which is a long way away from early attempts to bring voting rights to the disenfranchised and is still being fought out.

That said, I don’t think anyone would say that those who fought for voting rights for the disenfranchised weren’t working toward something “great” regardless of whether it was for women, minorities, or the poor. While achieving these goals certainly is great, it isn’t the achieving that defines greatness to me, it’s the willingness to stand up and fight for the betterment of those around you. Inspiring that action in yourself and your fellow man is the definition of greatness. Recognizing that the fight is continually ongoing and continuing work on the big goal, long after the little goal is achieved is the definition of greatness.

So, under that definition what would a great Memphis Mayor be? A great Memphis Mayor would be someone who inspired the public at large into positive action…a Mayor who, through their advocacy, action, and attention worked for the betterment of the city and those who have been wanting for generations. A great Mayor would connect the sick with the healthy, the poor with the wealthy, and the undereducated with the scholarly for the benefit of both sides of the equation in every instance.

True lasting solutions cannot be dictated, they have to be discovered. Connecting people of all stripes and backgrounds is the way to discover our individual and societal solutions. Removing the barriers of class, race and God knows what else, and encouraging people to discover the humanity of their neighbors is the way to transformational change that raises tides and lifts all boats.

So I’ll ask again, what would a great Memphis Mayor be? Well, solving all our problems certainly would qualify, but we all know that’s highly unlikely. How about we start with the small goal? Using the office to bring people together, opening up the lines of communication and helping nurture a community wide conversation that lead to community wide action would start a Mayor down the path of greatness.

Will this be AC’s legacy? Only time will tell.