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VOL. 124 | NO. 208 | Thursday, October 22, 2009

Chaotic Council Welcomes Wharton To ‘Land of Fire’

By Bill Dries

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COVERING THE BASICS: Memphis Mayor-elect A C Wharton Jr., right, gets contact information for City Councilmember Barbara Swearengen Ware, left, after his first executive session with the council this week. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Memphis Mayor-elect A C Wharton Jr. got an early welcome to the ways of City Hall in the week before he took the oath of office.

It came from the City Council he will serve with for the next two years.

“Welcome to the land of fire,” Councilmember Joe Brown offered during Tuesday’s council executive session.

With the city charter requiring a city attorney and not just an acting one, Wharton, with the cooperation of outgoing Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, Tuesday nominated Herman Morris as his city attorney.

Morris, the former president of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, was tapped and the council voted the day after Elbert Jefferson left the post.

Quick actions

With the clock running out under state requirements for the appointment of a metro charter commission, Wharton and Lowery took the five city nominees for the 15-member panel to the council as well. The charter commission’s job will be to draft a consolidation proposal for city and county governments.

As county mayor, Wharton recently appointed and the County Commission approved the 10 other members.

Although Morris has been approved for the city attorney post, some council members groused about his pay of $140,000 a year – $15,000 more than Jefferson was making.

Wharton said he chose Morris because of his legal training and experience in working in large law firms and as general counsel to MLGW before becoming president of the utility.

“The management side of the office is often overlooked,” Wharton said. “And I suspect that may be what is causing some of the difficulties we are having now. … I suspect that Mr. Morris will not spend that much time in the courtroom. But you’re managing an office that has 68 employees.”

The charter commission picks met more resistance.

Cacophony begins

“Council members need to understand that the actions that they take – sometimes they forget about them. And then when they don’t act upon them in the proper time, then you have chaos or uncertainty – or both. And that’s what we had today.”
– Harold Collins
Chairman, City Council

Earlier this month, the council delayed its vote on the city’s nominees until Tuesday’s session because most members didn’t want Lowery to appoint members to the panel.

But as this week began at City Hall, no council members had made any recommendations to Lowery or Wharton. The nominations flooded in late Monday and into Tuesday morning – the day the council met.

Lowery and Wharton chose only from the names submitted by council members.

But several of them had problems not just with the names, but with even considering the idea of local government consolidation.

“What’s so important about metro government? Nothing,” Brown said.

Council Chairman Harold Collins said the council’s earlier decision created what some saw as the sudden arrival of the five nominees.

“Council members need to understand that the actions that they take – sometimes they forget about them,” Collins told The Daily News. “And then when they don’t act upon them in the proper time, then you have chaos or uncertainty – or both. And that’s what we had today.”

The original five nominees were:

  • Damon Griffin, an assistant district attorney general;
  • Carmen Sandoval, an administrative director at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital;
  • Steve Ross, a freelance video and technical director who also runs a popular political blog, www. vibincblog.com;
  • Jim Strickland, attorney and Memphis City Council member;
  • and the Rev. Ralph White, pastor of Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church and candidate for Shelby County Criminal Court clerk in past elections.

Strickland was named just this week to Wharton’s transition team. But he is giving up the that spot to serve on the charter group. Council members Bill Boyd and Brown voted against Strickland’s appointment, saying they considered it to be a conflict of interest for an elected official to serve on the commission. Brown didn’t vote on the other nominations. Council member Wanda Halbert passed on Strickland.

Ross encountered vocal resistance during committee sessions from council members upset with critical comments he has made on his blog about council members.

Councilman Shea Flinn, who recommended Ross, came to his defense during an emotional committee discussion – clashing with Brown as Lowery and Wharton watched from the end of the council committee table.

“I’m a real man,” Brown told Flinn at the end of the exchange. “I’m a real black man. I hope you are a real white man.”

After the executive session, Wharton said he was unfazed.

“Keep in mind, I’m a trial lawyer,” Wharton told reporters. “I’m accustomed to that.”

By the time the full council voted, Wharton and Lowery decided to pull Ross’ nomination and instead nominated Richard Smith, a FedEx executive and son of FedEx founder Fred Smith.

Councilman Reid Hedgepeth recommended Smith. Councilwoman Janis Fullilove was the only no vote on Smith. Halbert recused herself because she works at FedEx. Brown and Boyd did not vote.

The withdrawal of Ross’ nomination marks the second time a local political blogger has been shunned by the council.

Lowery appointed Joe Saino to the city pension board near the beginning of his interim service. But the council denied Saino’s appointment because he, too, had been critical of the council on his blog.

Halbert, who represents council District 4, complained that no appointees live in Districts 1 and 4. District 1 Councilman Bill Morrison, who recommended Sandoval, said he had no problem with that since citizens citywide would have the chance to vote on the charter proposal in a referendum.

Hedgepeth pointed out that with five positions, all seven council districts couldn’t be included, but that all five charter commission appointees lived in the two council super districts that encompass the two halves of the city.

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