Mattila Vows Not to Cause Shake-Up; Wharton Concerned Over Bass Pro Deal

By Bill Dries

UP TO THE PLATE: Paul Mattila, a legislative assistant to the late Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson, is the new trustee, winning
appointment Monday by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. Mattila intends to run in the August county general election to fill out the remaining two years of Patterson's four-year term of office.
-- Photo By Bill Dries

Shelby County Trustee Paul Mattila doesn't plan to make any changes in faces at the office he took over this week after winning appointment by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Mattila secured the appointment during a busy day at the County Building that saw Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. react for the first time to proposed terms of development of The Pyramid by Bass Pro Shops.

Mattila was the choice of a majority of commissioners Monday to serve until the winner is certified in an August general election to fill out the remaining two years of Bob Patterson's term of office. Patterson died of a heart attack last month.

Patterson's chief administrator, Debra Gates, had been serving as trustee since then. She vied for the appointment but got four votes to Mattila's seven from all seven Democratic commissioners.

There isn't time for primary elections, so the executive committees of both local parties will select their nominees for August. Mattila, a legislative assistant to Patterson, hopes to be the Democratic nominee.

"It's bittersweet, really. The only thing that would have made this better is if (Patterson) were standing next to me," said Mattila, who had worked for Patterson since 1997. "Right now we've got to sit down and look at the whole picture. There's going to be some adjustments. We understand that. There's going to be some changes."

Those changes don't mean Gates will be out of a job, Mattila was quick to add.

"My only goal ... is I made a commitment to Bob Patterson that I would do everything humanly possible to keep this team together and move it forward," he said. "I intend to live with that commitment. Now if somebody decides they don't want to be a part, I can't control that."

Jockeying for position

Gates, who ranked second on the office's management chart - below Patterson - made a brief pitch to commissioners Monday before their decision. She urged the majority-Democratic, 13-member body to disregard party affiliation.

"I am the most qualified for this job. And I ask you to work with me," she said.

Mattila's selection marks the second time since the advent of partisan county elections in 1992 that the commission has voted to fill with a Democrat a position previously held by an elected Republican. The other time was the 2000 appointment of then-County Commissioner Shep Wilbun to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Juvenile Court Clerk Bob Martin.

Unlike the selection of Wilbun, commissioners this time went with someone who works in the office. And Democrats have the majority of votes on the commission, which they didn't in 2000.

Like the 2000 appointment, Republicans on the commission were split.

Republican Commissioner George Flinn backed a third nominee, John Wilkerson of Lakeland. Republican Commissioner Joyce Avery was absent.

Several GOP commissioners left the room when a unanimous vote was called for by Democrats. Only nine commissioners voted for the move to accept Mattila by acclamation. Republican Commissioner Wyatt Bunker voted no.

After being sworn in by County Clerk Debbie Stamson, Mattila told reporters Patterson, who was an active Republican, had enjoyed crossover support during his 18-year tenure as trustee.

"If you look at the early voting results in the last election, you would understand the role we both played in that election," he said of Patterson's 4,200-vote margin in the 2006 early vote over Democratic challenger Rebecca Clark.

In the combined early and election day votes, Patterson had an 8,700-vote margin. Several other Republican incumbents holding other constitutional clerks' offices faced much closer contests in the same general election.

'Numerous issues'

Meanwhile, commissioners got a letter from Wharton in which he wrote that he has problems with the tentative agreement negotiated for the city and county with Bass Pro Shops for development of The Pyramid.

"I am writing to let you know that there appear to be numerous issues that would prevent me from recommending approval of the agreement at this time," Wharton said in the first comment by either him or Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton since the tentative terms were released. "Since neither I nor my staff has yet had an opportunity to discuss this with our city partner, I do not want to comment on specific issues at this time."

The agreement negotiated on behalf of the local governments by city Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb would require the approval of both mayors as well as the City Council and County Commission. Lipscomb is scheduled to present the agreement formally to both bodies next week.

Some City Council members contacted by The Daily News have since predicted the terms are likely to change or shift even before that presentation. The Commercial Appeal reported Monday that Lipscomb has taken out the 18-month timeframe Bass Pro would have to develop design plans, and shortened it to a year.

County Commissioner Mike Ritz said Monday he believes the retailer will ask for more than the $30 million in federal funding that would pass through city and county governments under the current terms.

"I couldn't support that agreement, mostly because I don't see any reason whatsoever for the public to subsidize retail development," he said as he talked of the county washing its hands of and closing its checkbook to a facility county government owns half of. "If the city wants to cut a deal ... I would think we should just stand aside and let them do it.

"The County Commission doesn't have to be involved. On the other hand, if we are going to be involved, I think we've got to decide how we are going to proceed."

Ritz favors opening the process of Pyramid reuse to soliciting a new batch of proposals, including the Ericson Group plan for a theme park inside as part of a 90-acre Pyramid Harbor development that also takes in Mud Island River Park and the surrounding riverfront.

Meanwhile, developer Greg Ericson this week delivered his own contract terms to city and county leaders. The terms include developing The Pyramid first and then Mud Island; paying local government $10 million if his company terminates the agreement and Ericson's company would pay all operational expenses and The Pyramid's debt service. Under its plan, Ericson's company would buy The Pyramid and Mud Island as well as the surrounding land. The Bass Pro agreement is a lease agreement.