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VOL. 123 | NO. 122 | Monday, June 23, 2008

Ex-Mayor Hackett Helps Quash Charter Amendment

By Bill Dries

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NO CHANGE NECESSARY: Former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett last week told the Memphis Charter Commission there is no need to change the charter to give greater council oversight of city contracts signed by the mayor. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Scratch the proposed amendment to the Memphis charter that would require City Council approval of some contracts signed by the mayor.

The Memphis Charter Commission last week took back its earlier decision to include such a proposal on the Nov. 4 ballot. The earlier move was rescinded after current Mayor Willie Herenton and former Mayor Dick Hackett told the group that requiring council approval of contracts over a certain dollar amount would needlessly complicate city government and make it more inefficient.

Herenton and Hackett were invited to speak on the issue by the seven-member panel that is expected to finish its work in August.

Bogged down

The council oversight amendment was approved tentatively months ago without a dollar amount included. Charter Commissioner George Brown called for its reconsideration last month, saying it would undermine the strong mayor-council form of government the city of Memphis has had since 1968.

Advocates of the contract oversight, including several City Council members, have said the city should have the same process as Shelby County government, which requires the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to approve contracts over a certain dollar amount.

“In Memphis, the mayor is the sole contracting authority within policies, procedures and guidelines. There are no limitations. Thank God because decisions are made here,” Herenton said as Hackett sat a few feet away in a rare City Hall meeting of the city’s only two living mayors. “I hear you talk about the county. We don’t ever want to duplicate the county. Things get bogged down. We make decisions here.”

Hackett said he and Herenton had not talked before the meeting and that he had the same concerns Herenton had.

“Are they going to read these things?” Hackett asked, referring to City Council review of city contracts. “If they’re going to read these things, or have someone read them, you’re creating another branch of government. Let me tell you, they are involved.”

Hackett also questioned the political motive for the change.

“I think part of this may be that there has been a demographic change,” he said. “And now that we have had a demographic change, we’re going to gut this mayor and make sure that the African-American community, who now is in office, will not have the same authority that previous administrations have had. … That’s what I’ve heard too.”

Herenton outlined his process for signing contracts that already have been reviewed by four division directors in his administration. He told the Charter Commission that he typically doesn’t read the terms of most contracts.

“You’re not going to read them all. You’re going to look and some numbers are going to get your attention. Six digits typically get my attention. You look at that in greater detail,” Herenton said.

“When the mayor gets a contract, the decisions are virtually made. The perception is that somehow or another that mayor sits up there and he somehow controls contracts. The mayor is the last person to see it. It is a bottom-up process, not top down.”

Tension not new

Contracting authority has been a source of tension between all four mayors and City Council members over the last 40 years.

Council chairman Scott McCormick, also invited to speak to the Charter Commission, said the current system works well for “routine” contracts. But McCormick said that doesn’t include such far-reaching contracts as the lease of the Beale Street entertainment district by the city that was signed in 1982 by interim Mayor Wallace Madewell following the resignation of Hackett’s predecessor Wyeth Chandler.

“That was a contract where we had an interim mayor who entered into an agreement that was a 50-year agreement and spoke for the city without any input from the public or the council,” McCormick said. “In a sense the council is somewhat held accountable for contracts that we have no say in.”

The city currently is working out the terms of two other agreements that could have a similar impact – the proposed development of The Pyramid by Bass Pro Shops and redevelopment of the

Mid-South Fairgrounds by Fair Ground LLC.

“I know the plan is that whatever their master plan is, it will be brought to the council. But is it being brought to the council as a courtesy or is it being brought to the council as a requirement?” McCormick asked. “I would think something as important as the fairgrounds … does require the input not only from the public but from the elected representatives of the public.”

Charter Commission chairman Myron Lowery, who is also a City Council member, told Herenton that having the same procedure for city and county government could help pave the way for local government consolidation. It’s a political goal Herenton long has advocated and which Lowery also favors.

But Herenton said any government consolidation should be built around the structure of city government.

“County government and city government are different as day and night. … They don’t have the vast array of divisions and complexities that we have here in city government. The biggest challenges that they have there are the jail and hospitals,” Herenton said. “The county is very narrowly structured.”

Herenton used a phrase Hackett, as well as Chandler, had used to refer to the mayor’s authority. He called the mayor the city’s “sole contracting authority.”

But Rhodes College political science professor Stephen Wirls, an adviser to the Charter Commission, said it’s not a phrase that is in the existing city charter despite its popularity. And he said some remnants of the previous charter’s commission form of government remain.

“It says that what was in the old charter simply carries over. The problem with that statement is that the only power the old charter gives the mayor is the power to sign contracts. That’s it,” Wirls said. “The problem is that the home rule charter didn’t clearly get rid of the parts of the old charter, which gave City Council contract powers and limited the mayor’s participation to basically signing the contract and not necessarily even negotiating the contract.”

He suggested language that at least makes it clearer who has the authority even if it remains with the mayor’s office exclusively.

City Attorney Elbert Jefferson disagreed. The charter that introduced the mayor-council form of government starting in 1968 replaced the old commission form of government in his opinion.

“If the old charter is different, it’s gone,” Jefferson said. “There is no confusion.”

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