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VOL. 123 | NO. 60 | Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Take Back! Mayoral Resignation Saga Marches On

By Bill Dries

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YES, NO, MAYBE: Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, speaking Tuesday at a crime forum at FedExForum, said to reporters later, "I'm not looking for a job."

Less than a week after he said he was going to give up the office of mayor in July, Willie Herenton has taken back what originally seemed to be a simple but stunning plan to leave the mayor's office with plenty of notice.

Herenton told reporters Tuesday that his letter saying he intended to retire didn't mean he was leaving at all.

"The citizens of Memphis elected me a few months ago as mayor. I'm not looking for a job. I do not need a job," he said. "I do like challenges. I do accept challenges."

The remarks are a direct contradiction of Herenton's statements Thursday when word of his would-be resignation leaked from City Hall. The day before, he had a private lunch with City Council Chairman Scott McCormick, where he told McCormick to prepare to be interim mayor for 20 days under rules of the City Charter. Herenton then told The Daily News he was interested in becoming the next superintendent of the Memphis City Schools system, the job he held for 12 years before becoming mayor. He also told The Daily News there were "private sector opportunities" he wanted to explore.

"The question is to Willie Herenton, the remaining period of your public life, or your private life, how are you going to spend it?" Herenton said at the time.

But wait, there's more ...

He even sent a letter to the city's chief administrative officer, Keith McGee, announcing his intent to retire at the end of July.

That changed this week.

"It has been so obvious to me that so many people in the Memphis community lack the ability to read and interpret. I don't know what it speaks to - the level of literacy? I did not send a letter of resignation or retirement," Herenton told The Daily News Tuesday.

After speaking at a crime summit at FedExForum, Herenton said his interest had always been to improve city schools from the mayor's office.

"I am deeply concerned about the quality of our educational system. I do intend to make some contributions to the Memphis public school system, either in my role as the mayor or whatever possibilities that may occur in the future," Herenton said. "But I do want to make it emphatically clear that I'm not looking for a job. I want to help and I want to define how I can help as mayor within the next 30 days."

What a coincidence

Herenton's growing outspokenness on the state of Memphis city schools since beginning his fifth term of office as mayor appears to have merged with the school district's search for a superintendent. A February letter from Herenton to city school system leaders expressed concern that the school district again would hire someone from outside Memphis to head the school system - a move Herenton criticized as drawing applicants who are looking to burnish their resumes on the way to other jobs, as well as applicants who don't understand the challenges of the school system.

Herenton also indicated this week that he had hoped to have more control over the selection of his successor and may not have anticipated the political maneuvering that was touched off with Thursday's word from City Hall that he was making other career plans of his own.

"There are a lot of people out here jumping up and shouting. They think Willie Herenton is gone from the office of the mayor. ... In the last election, you had a number of candidates that quite frankly I was extremely fearful if any of those individuals had taken the helm of this city," he said. "At some point we have to transition into new leadership for the city mayor. I want to be a part of that.

"I had no other choice but to run for re-election. I had to run for office to protect what I had invested in this city - 16 years as mayor. I had to protect the progress of this particular city from individuals that I thought did not have any wherewithal to take this city to the next level."

In the 'rat race'

Herenton would not say whether he intended to serve out his full four-year term through 2011. He also didn't rule out possibly applying for Memphis schools superintendent.
Herenton's rivals in the 2007 election, Carol Chumney and Herman Morris Jr., each were quick to indicate last week they would be interested in running in a special election for the mayor's office.

"We take this one day at a time," Herenton said.

Herenton's new direction has caused others waiting in the wings to become more tentative.

City Court Clerk Thomas Long had intended to formally announce his candidacy this week.

"I'm going to run for mayor," Long said when asked. "I didn't want people thinking that I'm being disrespectful of the mayor. Willie Herenton is my friend. I worked for him 20-plus years when I was at the school board. I thought it was better to just relax for a minute and then, if and when the mayor decides to leave ... then I'll move forward with my plans."

Long said he would not be interested in an interim appointment by the City Council.

"The interim person should be one who is not going to seek the office of mayor. I would never attempt to be an interim person and then turn around and run for the office."

Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey is interested but not in a race for mayor with a truncated campaign schedule.

"I am very interested in being there. But my biggest interest is 2011. I think it's going to be a rat race. I think the office of mayor is a little discombobulated at this point," Harvey said. "I want to get in a fair race. I want to take my business knowledge, my political experience and all of the bridges of relationships I've built from business through politics over time into a stable campaign that people can understand."

Harvey, who is in the second year of his first four-year term of office, left the door to a mayoral bid slightly ajar in the best tradition of Memphis politics.

"If the population decided that now is the best time for me to serve, I will. But I'm not asking that."

Hip to be clueless

Memphis school board president Tomeka Hart said Monday evening that if Herenton is interested in being superintendent, he should apply to the search firm hired to recommend finalists to the school board.

Ray & Associates, the search firm hired by the school board, held four hearings around the city Thursday evening as word of Herenton's resignation broke at City Hall. And Friday was the deadline for citizens to submit a survey form to the consulting firm.

Thursday, the board members are to get a report from the consultants on what the public has had to say in the surveys.

"The board has not given me any authority to change that process," Hart said Monday evening.

Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. has said he plans to move to change the process and have the board talk directly to Herenton about the superintendent's job.

Until or unless that idea gets five votes, Hart said the process is to wait for the search firm to survey the public including parents, accept applications and recommend finalists to the school board some time in July. For now, Hart said the board doesn't know who has applied.

"We're out of that process. That's why we have the search firm ... I'm not sure that they are to that point," she said. "To be a fair process and to be one that's objective ... we're not even involved ... I don't have a clue who's going to apply."

The funding to pay for the search firm was a 50-50 split between the school system and Partners In Public Education (PIPE), a private nonprofit group that supports the city schools system financially in some cases and with training and programs in other cases.

"That is a legal and binding contract. ... Memphis City Schools didn't solely pay for it all by ourselves. ... We wanted to have that process so that it is above board, so the community doesn't think we are politicizing it," said school board member Stephanie Gatewood. "I'm one person. It's my opinion that we should not abort that process. The people that we represent demand that we do that. We have to do the right thing."

Gatewood said if Herenton applied he "probably would be one of the finalists."

Difficult moments

The process of picking a city schools superintendent has had its difficult moments over the years. That was the case in 1978 when Herenton emerged from the furor with the votes to become the choice to replace John Freeman, the superintendent he flourished under.

Herenton was not the initial choice or finalist for the job. Williams Coats, at the time the superintendent of schools in Grosse Pointe, Mich., was the board's choice on a split vote.

But the school board's direct involvement in the process included at least one private meeting in which some board members weren't invited. When the three black school board members learned of the meeting, the process reached an emotional climax with other lingering tensions filling the breach. Coats turned down the job and Herenton emerged as the next choice.

The turmoil divided the board and it remains a vivid memory for Herenton, who toward the end of his tenure weathered another bitter board debate that spanned weeks over calls for him to step down because of a sexual harassment lawsuit later settled out of court. There was also a consultant's study critical of his management of the school system.

Herenton told The Daily News last week that he was "one of the best school superintendents in the nation." And he reaffirmed that Tuesday.

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