Bad Blood

Wharton, City Council deal with widening divide

By Bill Dries

December was already going to be a busy month at City Hall for the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

He would be bringing a plan to provide $15 million in city financing for the $180 million Crosstown revitalization project and rolling out its fix to address the Tennessee Comptroller’s vocal concerns about the city’s unfunded pension liability.

When he added a long-simmering deal in which the city of Memphis would buy AutoZone Park as the St. Louis Cardinals bought the Memphis Redbirds franchise and pushed for a council vote the same day that council members got the fine print and revenue sources and estimates, the council revolted.

The first tremors came early in the long council day in which all three of the items were on the council’s committee schedule as well as an update on the administration’s controversial Heritage Trails project to redevelop a large swath of the area south of FedExForum into South Memphis.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. could do little but watch as the Memphis City Council revolted on an AutoZone Park deal. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Memphis City Council member Janis Fullilove, conferring with Wharton at a recent council meeting, was a key player in an earlier tremor in the council-mayor relationship. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

The newest member of the Memphis City Council, Lee Harris, is among those on the council questioning the Wharton administration’s funding priorities. Harris and others argue the priorities change swiftly and bump other long-planned projects to the back of the line. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. could do little but watch as the Memphis City Council revolted on the ballpark deal, capping a period of turmoil in the council-mayor relationship. (Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Where is the plan and how do we connect the dots to all of these projects and programs?” council member Wanda Halbert asked during the briefing by Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb. “We need to start pulling that together. Otherwise it keeps looking like we are pulling a bunch of projects out of the sky.”

Halbert’s criticism would echo for the rest of the day in the remarks of other council members and beyond.

The concerns are long-standing ones about what most on the council see as a lack of focus by Wharton and his administration, which rolls out initiatives then has little to say about them for months and then returns with details and a deadline that is almost immediate.

The council criticism began to crest in November when the administration wouldn’t say yes or no to a plan to fund $1.5 million of improvements to Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven that council member Janis Fullilove brought to the council.

“What filter do y’all use to say yes or no to a project?” asked council member Kemp Conrad. “There’s no shortage of need in this community. … In an era of less and finite resources, what filter do y’all use to get behind and allocate scarce dollars? … What do y’all say no to?”

Conrad’s frustration has grown after two consecutive budget seasons in which he thought he had negotiated a five-year approach to budgeting with Wharton, the second time by a vote of the council, and there is no sign of such a plan.

This time Wharton is seeking approval of a complex six-way transaction that involved the most hazardous political undertaking any group of local politicians can get near – a sports venue.

Given the rich and controversial history of such venues all involving city financing from The Pyramid to the Mid-South Coliseum – which Wharton wants to demolish – to FedExForum and even including the Memphis Cook Convention Center, Wharton’s timing was not just bad.

He couldn’t have picked a worse kind of project to take to the council on a tight timeline with questionable and changing revenue numbers.

The ballpark deal, regardless of the outcome, and the challenges that will follow into the new year are a political crucible for Wharton, his leadership style and his re-election prospects in 2015.

Wharton took office in late 2009 after the resignation of the city’s longest-serving mayor, Willie Herenton, as both a reaction by voters to Herenton’s leadership style after 17 years and a move by Wharton to not only win the office but change the city’s politics.

“What we did deliberately in this campaign – we brought a bunch of young folks along to show them it can be honest and clean,” Wharton told supporters on election night in 2009. “Politics can be good and clean.”

Four years later, it is more apparent when Wharton is frustrated even if he doesn’t express it publicly and he is frustrated more than he was initially.

Asked after the latest council delay in the ballpark deal to respond to the criticism by council members of his handling of it as Fullilove stood nearby, Wharton paused.

“There is a lot I could say but I will accept those criticisms for the sake of the deal and move on,” he said. “This is an extremely complicated transaction. … I take those criticisms and move on.”

With a departure from Herenton’s temperament and leadership style, Wharton nevertheless kept the raft of ambitious projects that Lipscomb shepherded starting early in Herenton’s run as mayor.

Herenton left and Wharton began as the recession and its lingering effects settled in for a long stay, making it much more difficult to find the money Lipscomb has a talent for rounding up.

And Wharton has said projects like the Mid-South Fairgrounds renovation and the Bass Pro Shops move into The Pyramid are necessary ingredients in an administration he has vowed will not be about austerity measures.

“It has failed in Europe … this idea that austerity will cure all ills,” he said in July on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “It has not worked globally. It will not work locally. … Who is focusing on growth? Everything is cut, cut, cut. Anybody can say that. Forrest Gump can say that.”

Wharton struck an unusually strident tone in the interview.

The statement came after a spring in which Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson went public with his concerns about the city’s refinancing of its bond debt and transfers of funds within city government’s budget that left some interfund accounts with negative balances.

When the council approved the measures Wilson prescribed to meet those problems, he then served notice that the city would also have to fund more of its unfunded pension liability or risk having the state order measures to meet the requirement.

While Wharton tries to serve two very different fiscal masters – one of his own preference – his timing has suffered.

He wanted the council to vote in the summer on his overhaul of city sanitation services.

That included a solid waste fee hike proposal and a retirement supplement for sanitation workers that Wharton insisted wasn’t a pension supplement.

Some on the council said it was. Others said any legitimate difference was academic in terms of perception because other city employees were already complaining loudly that they weren’t getting a supplement.

The council delayed action on the sanitation overhaul to see what Wharton’s fix for the overall unfunded pension liability of the city would be. In the process, they approved the retirement supplement but voted down the solid waste fee hike that is an indirect factor in creating the savings to fund the supplement.

The administration assured council members the loss of the revenue from the fee hike would make the savings more difficult but still doable. But there is now talk of revisiting the fee hike when the council meets Dec. 17 for its last session of a tumultuous year.

Wharton is encountering hostility outside City Hall as well.

In July, several hundred Whitehaven residents turned out for a hastily organized town hall meeting at Berean Missionary Baptist Church. Wharton and Police Director Toney Armstrong were there to deal with rumors that the Raines Station police precinct would close.

Armstrong’s earlier statements that the department might have to close three precincts if he continued to take budget cuts next fiscal year prompted the rumors. Raines Station was one of the precincts he mentioned.

Wharton walked back the possibility at least for the current fiscal year that had just begun, telling those in the church sanctuary it wasn’t true.

That got applause even as Wharton added “There is no painless way to live in the times we are living in.”

But the applause was mixed with angry comments that took in the recently approved city property tax hike.

“What are you willing to sacrifice?” a woman in the audience said. “You lead by example. We are always the ones who are suffering.”

Another Whitehaven resident, Mildred Carroll, put her finger on the problem that is at or near the center of the divide between the mayor and the council.

“Y’all say one thing and do another,” she said. “And I’m talking to the councilmen too.”

Meanwhile, council members continue to believe the differing signals from the administration are the result of division directors being muzzled or pressured after they offer candid assessments like Armstrong did about possibly closing three precincts.

With Wharton at the Whitehaven meeting, Fullilove tried to isolate Armstrong.

“Do not let the mayor do anything to strip you of your dignity,” she shouted, standing just a few feet from Armstrong. “If you have to stand by yourself, you stand by yourself.”

When Wharton approached, she guarded the microphone.

“No, you can’t have this microphone,” she told him. “This is serious.”

Later Armstrong drew a different kind of boundary that put him on the other side of a line from both the mayor and the council.

“I’m not a politician,” he told the citizens. “I’m never coming to you asking for your vote. … It’s my job to come here tonight and tell you what I foresee coming in the future if we don’t make some adjustments.”