Disputes Continue Over MSARC Storm

By Bill Dries

BATTLE IS ON: “There’s 13 of you and one of me,” said Mayor Willie W. Herenton to City Council members Tuesday afternoon as he spoke about his role in relation to trouble at the Memphis Sexual Assault and Resource Center. Herenton said the center will remain a city agency. -- PHOTO BY LANCE MURPHEY

Memphis city attorney Elbert Jefferson called it “a perfect storm.”

That was how he described the controversy that surrounds the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center when he met last month with its employees.

Two and a half weeks later, the political storm shows no sign of subsiding.

It intensified Tuesday as Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton responded for the first time to questions about MSARC from City Council members.

Herenton said the rape crisis center will remain a part of city government and will not be transferred to Shelby County government as long as he is mayor. Shelby County commissioners are considering such a move, but have delayed action as the most serious difference of opinion between Herenton and the council elected in 2007 grew wider this week.

At odds

Council member Jim Strickland announced that he will propose the city transfer the agency to county government despite Herenton’s stand on the matter.

Strickland and other council members repeatedly asked Herenton how the center has a staffing problem. And Herenton repeatedly responded that he wasn’t going to talk specifically about what caused the problems.

“I don’t know where this is all going. … What’s behind is behind me. I’m moving forward,” Herenton said. “The only useful purpose in me having a dialogue with you about what took place three months ago is that if mistakes were made, it’s for the administration to ensure that they are not made in the future.”

Even council members who have tempered their criticism of Herenton agree that the administration should give an accounting at some point.

Two and a half weeks ago, Herenton announced changes at the center that performs forensic examinations on rape and assault victims as well as offering counseling. The actions followed the resignation of the center’s director and a staffing shortage that led to at least two victims being told to come back later.

The problems had been noted in writing at least since February, when Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons wrote the administration. Gibbons said the letter was the result of problems that he first noticed last fall.

“Essentially no progress was being made on it, which is why I wrote my letter in February – to try to get some action on it,” Gibbons told The Daily News.

No one at City Hall responded to Gibbons’ letter.

In May, Herenton acknowledged that was a failure. He also acknowledged the problems that prompted him to intervene and hire a new director, oversee the full staffing of the center and accept an agreement with Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center to handle the examination and counseling of child victims at the Child Advocacy Center.

“I acknowledge we’ve had a few challenges in recent weeks,” he said at the time. “I agree with the citizens. I’ve heard you from across the community that we cannot allow a national model … to be compromised or questioned.”

Agendas, conflicts

The statement took on new meaning this week starting with a press conference Monday to kick off the Le Bonheur effort. Jefferson was asked what went wrong at MSARC. Herenton moved oversight of MSARC to Jefferson from the division of Public Service & Neighborhoods.

Jefferson described it as “an issue of the day.”

“For all those patients who have been seen over the years, it went right,” Jefferson said. “It’s easy to say it went wrong.”

Asked again what went wrong, Jefferson blamed budget deficits.

“Council members have indicated time and time again that there are not sufficient resources to do this or do that,” he said. “There are a combination of things that make a perfect storm. But the employees have done their job.”

The next day, Herenton told the council the center had staffing problems because of what he described as “hidden agendas” among those who worked at the center, as well as personality conflicts.

He also was critical of some council members as well as what he termed “pressure groups” who have expressed concern about the city’s methods and a delay in handling the problems. He said both had politicized the problem.

“It got politicized. It got personalized. It was media-driven,” Herenton said of the uproar over rape victims told to come back later. “No, I wasn’t as upset about that particular incident and it doesn’t mean I’m insensitive to rape victims. I’m sensitive to all victims of crime.”

He also wondered aloud about why council members weren’t as concerned about two drownings of children at city pools last summer or the recent child abuse death of an infant. Several council members insisted they had shown concern and questioned whether Herenton was accusing them of being racist.

“When you come up, or any of you, and you’ve got a hue and cry because there’s some well-connected people in the community got your hot button – got your attention – and you think I’m going to be moved by that? Hell no,” he said.

Strickland said it was “absolutely 100 percent not true” that he was not concerned about black crime victims. Strickland was a vocal part of council committee hearings last year on the drownings.

Herenton said he wasn’t talking about Strickland but fellow council member Kemp Conrad. Conrad said race had nothing to do with his concern.

“Crime is going to happen,” Conrad replied. “The difference here is we had crime victims who came to a city service to be served and they weren’t served. We dropped the ball.”

“I’ve already said that,” Herenton countered. “So what do you want me to do about it? We dropped the ball. We’re trying to make sure we bounce the ball right and get it in the hoop next time.”

Herenton said Tuesday he disagrees with critics who argue that having different sites for different victims to go to is not the best approach.

“I don’t have to explain to people the why of this and why of that,” Herenton said when asked why he believes MSARC should remain a city agency when the city is in the process of turning over full funding of the Health Department to Shelby County government. “I have made decisions that I think are in the best interest of this organization.”

He also said he has not decided whether Kenneth Moody will remain director of the Public Services & Neighborhoods division or what will happen to Yalanda McFadgon, the deputy director with specific oversight responsibilities for the center.

“You’ll know when I make it,” Herenton said.