Oct 08 2015

Congratulations Jim

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections

Memphis Mayor Elect Jim Strickland

Memphis Mayor Elect Jim Strickland

I wasn’t able to make it out to the festivities tonight, but I wanted to take a moment to congratulate my friend Jim Strickland on his win tonight in the Memphis Mayoral contest.

This is the first election I’ve had to sit out since the 2007 City election. Its been kinda weird from the sidelines.

All that said, I know Jim will do his best for Memphis, and even though we’ve disagreed on the finer details of policy over the years, he’s a good man who really wants Memphis to shine.

I’d also like to thank Mayor Wharton for his service to Memphis and Shelby County over the years. He has a distinguished career as a public defender, County and City Mayor, among other titles. I wish him the best in all his future endeavors.

As for the other races, at this point we’re still waiting for results. I’ve got several friends running in several contests. Hopefully we’ll know more in the morning.

There are some other things that need to be talked about, including the glitch that slowed results, the way the campaign was conducted and the final results, and concerns about racial representation in the City’s top job.

All of these topics deserve some time, and I’ll get started on the easiest one, the glitches, tomorrow.

Jul 28 2015

Profiles in Cowardice

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections, Memphis, shenanigans

Backing off his support of the CLERB isn’t the first time the Mayor lost his backbone at the last second

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton

Monday, the Memphis City Council met with key stakeholders to finalize a draft ordinance that would give additional oversight of the Memphis Police Department.

The Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board, an entity that has existed in name only for years, would be given additional powers to investigate complaints brought forward against the Police department. One of those powers would be the ability to compel testimony, and the handing over of documents from the Police department.

Until last night, it seemed everyone was on board…the majority of the City Council had pushed through two readings, and the Mayor had signaled he supported the draft that included the above changes. Even the super secret 14th member of the City Council, Alan Wade, had been placated it seemed.

But for reasons not immediately apparent, the Mayor withdrew his support of the ordinance at the 11th hour, and wasn’t even man enough to deliver the news himself.

Considering recent events, many observers wondered why the Mayor would do this? But if you’ve been paying attention, this has been this administration’s Modus Operandi from the very beginning.

Shifting Sands

Wharton is no stranger to randomly, and seemingly without warning, changing his positions.

In 2010, the Mayor withdrew his support for a non-discrimination ordinance that he previously supported. The ordinance was eventually withdrawn.

He did it again in 2012, citing mysteriously vague objections, and trotting out Attorneys Alan Wade and Herman Morris to do his dirty work.

He’s done the same thing to the folks seeking to keep a section of Overton Park from being a defacto parking lot for the zoo. The mayor, at first seemed to support the idea, then both backed off at the last second, and changed his ‘opinion’

In fact, if you look for any issue you’ve seen the Mayor speak on over the past 6 years of his tenure, you will find articles and appearances in which he regularly supports both sides of the issue, sometimes at the same time, and in the process, preserves his political capital for the masses who generally aren’t paying attention to such things.

It is both sad testimony that the local media has largely allowed him to do this, and that he thinks we’re too dumb to notice.


The City has had a Civilian Review Board ordinance on the books since 1994. The ordinance, in its current form, has no teeth. As a result, the board went dormant until a series of actions, both locally and nationally, brought the idea back into the spotlight.

Now, in light of a the local shooting of an unarmed black teen… another in a string of nationally spotlighted shootings of unarmed black men, it would seem like the perfect time to institute some independent oversight of the police…not to go on a witch hunt, but to both provide the public with assurance that the investigations into possible malfeasance by officers are above board, and to root out those few officers who don’t like playing by the rules.

People who don’t like civilian oversight of anything have called supporters of the CLERB “anti-cop”, but that is a gross mischaracterization. If anything, the CLERB would help restore faith in the police by bringing the findings of investigations out into the open where regular folks can see what’s going on.

Many other cities have Review Boards…some with more powers than others. Knoxville has a review board that has many of the powers sought by advocates for the Memphis ordinance. In fact, restoring the relationship between the public and police is job #1 listed in the Knoxville ordinance.

It doesn’t seem like a crazy request or an unreachable. But to the Mayor, in an election year, it scared him so bad, he couldn’t even come down and deliver the news of his flip floppery himself.

Civilian Oversight is the Essence of Our Republic

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” –Thomas Jefferson

Every two to four years we have elections for various and sundry offices in this country. In Memphis, those elections seem to be every 90 days or so, but they still happen.

Its natural for people in power to try to put the best face forward, to obfuscate somewhat, to use misdirection to confuse people.

But there’s nothing confusing about what Mayor Wharton’s administration did yesterday: It purposefully withdrew support for political purposes. Mayor Wharton figures the politics of not supporting this ordinance, and possibly upsetting some police officers, is more important than the public having a voice in the workings of an agency of their government that, under the long veil of secrecy, has continued to lose the faith of the citizenry.


You can be a strong supporter of the Mayor and still support the CLERB ordinance.

You can be a strong supporter of local law enforcement and support the CLERB. In fact, regular cops who serve the public well on a regular basis have nothing more to worry about from the CLERB than they do from the current Internal Affairs process.

You can’t, however, proclaim to be a strong supporter of transparency and at the same time, oppose giving powers to a board that would seek to bring more transparency to an unnecessarily veiled process.

In fact, it is one of the very ideas the Mayor solicited from former County Commissioner, Mike Carpenter when he asked him to review the city’s transparency process.

Its high time the Mayor stood by that 2009 Executive Order and let the sunshine in on local government.

One way to do that, is to support all the changes the new CLERB ordinance proposes.

Doing anything else, means the Mayor has just added to his growing list of flip-flopery on the important issues of the day.

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 MemphisTN.gov 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.