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VOL. 124 | NO. 182 | Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wharton Takes Heat For Consolidation Push

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. drew fire from his political rivals in the Memphis mayor’s race during a candidates’ forum in Whitehaven this week.

The barbs from attorney Charles Carpenter, City Councilwoman Wanda Halbert and former council member Carol Chumney came during a nine-candidate forum at Middle Baptist Church.

Carpenter and Wharton are competing hard in Whitehaven, with their yard signs dominating Elvis Presley Boulevard and the front yards of subdivisions on either side of what is effectively the area’s Main Street.

Halbert attacked the idea of Memphis and Shelby County government consolidation. The criticism was a double shot at Wharton as well as Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery. They, along with County Commissioner Deidre Malone, are the architects of a move to appoint a metro charter commission to take a consolidation proposal to voters in November 2010.

“The current plan … is no more than a plan to come into Memphis and usurp its economic and political resources,” Halbert said as she zeroed in on Wharton’s campaign theme and television ads calling for “One Memphis.”

“How can we be one Memphis when you put on the table that we offer to keep the two school systems separated?” said the former city school board member. She also complained consolidation would strip Memphis of its identity as a city.

Any publicity good

Lowery has defended the consolidation plan so far. The Shelby County Commission last month approved a resolution authorizing the appointment of a charter commission. The same resolution is awaiting City Council action.

“Citizens will have the final say to vote yes or no,” Lowery said. “I think the discussion of this is good. It’s going to create efficiency in government.”

But Lowery also took a shot at the One Memphis theme, saying Wharton should have been more vocal about consolidation seven years ago when he first ran for county mayor.

Wharton said it would be up to city and county school leaders to decide if they want to be part of any consolidation proposal. He also said he would not urge or force them to participate.

Wharton said past attempts at functional consolidation of individual city and county departments haven’t been as effective as consolidation of both governments could be.

“We’ve had a whole lot of agreements over the years. But then they fall apart,” Wharton said. “This is one way to come up with permanent solutions.”

He chose to look at the bright side of the jabs from his rivals.

“At least everybody’s looking at those One Memphis commercials,” he said. “So, you can interpret them as you see fit.”

Not justifying with an answer

Carpenter called the consolidation plan a “backroom deal put together by politicians that are not looking out for the best interests of the citizens of Memphis.”

“All that’s left is the tax base of the city of Memphis,” he said after discounting any significant change to the county’s six suburban municipalities – Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington – as well as any consolidation of schools.

Carpenter also pushed Wharton for a one-on-one debate at the end of the forum, accusing Wharton of being part of a political establishment that needs to be replaced and waging a campaign of “politics and soundbites.”

“If we keep recycling the same politicians, we get the same results,” he said.

Wharton did not respond to the debate challenge.

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