VOL. 128 | NO. 237 | Thursday, December 5, 2013
Council’s Ire at Wharton Timing Grows
By Bill Dries
It is a political constant in life at City Hall for Memphis City Council members to complain that they get critical information much too late in the decision-making process and then are pressured by the mayor to make a decision then and there.
The complaints have spanned generations of council members and mayors who have come and gone.
In some cases, mayors have sought quick council votes close to a “deadline” to minimize debate and doubts that could cause necessary votes to waiver. In other cases, council members have stretched legitimate deadlines to win concessions on other issues from the administration.
It is a long-time part of the relationship between the two major tenants of City Hall.
But the complaints from the current council about the administration of Mayor A C Wharton Jr. reached a critical mass this week.
It came on a day when the council considered $15 million in city financing for the Crosstown redevelopment project, a complex deal in which the city of Memphis would buy AutoZone Park for $25 million and what was to be a briefing from Wharton on how the city intended to fund more of its unfunded pension liability or risk state officials ordering the city to take certain steps.
The council approved the Crosstown financing but delayed, until Monday, Dec. 9, a decision on the ballpark deal in which the St. Louis Cardinals would also buy the Memphis Redbirds franchise as well as delaying Wharton’s briefing on the pension.
Earlier in the day, Wharton and Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb gave council members an update on the Heritage Trails project that set the tone.
The city submitted its application for a federal Choice Neighborhoods grant in October and could have some word on that part of the funding in February.
After Lipscomb described Heritage Trails as “the most important project for the inner-city of Memphis,” council member Wanda Halbert said the administration has described numerous projects in similar terms.
“It just appears that we are all over the place,” she said. “Where is the plan and how do we connect the dots to all of these projects and programs? The Fairgrounds is one of the most important projects in the city. Crosstown is one of the most important.”
“The only way we are going to balance the books is to grow,” Wharton responded. “All these dots will be connected. … We’re never going to prosper unless we have a growth plan.”
But Halbert said other projects disappear from the city’s list of priorities with little or no word on what has become of them.
“We need to start pulling that together,” she said. “Otherwise it keeps looking like we are pulling a bunch of projects out of the sky.”
About two hours after the council’s update on the Heritage Trails project, Lipscomb opened a presentation on the Crosstown project by describing it too as “one of the most important projects in the city of Memphis.”
There were some audible groans from several council members.
That was followed by frustration as the council committee room was standing room only with those involved in the Crosstown project and its supporters.
“When are you going to pass out the documents that you’ve got in that box for us,” council member Harold Collins said. “And the people who support this project who are supposed to be some of the best minds in the community business-wise, ought to be appalled. You wouldn’t go to your board of directors … and ask them to vote for it. I’m sure they had plenty of time to digest the gravity of purchasing a building like Crosstown. They didn’t make the decision in two hours. Why should you ask us to do it?”
“We are ready to go,” Collins continued. “The problem is we go in so many different directions. Right after this we are going to take on another project you want us to vote on that we got information on less than 48 hours ago.”
The late arrival of details about the more complex ballpark deal drew criticism from council member Reid Hedgepeth still later in the council’s long day. Even at that point, Hedgepeth said he couldn’t vote for it.
“None of us know what is going on with this bond deal. We don’t have a clue,” he said Tuesday evening. “We’ve had all of this thrown on us today. Given our past performance in sports arenas … I think we need to be very careful on this.”
Council member Janis Fullilove thought the predictions of foreclosure and an auction of the ballpark and the Redbirds franchise without an immediate vote weren’t true.
“I do not believe for one moment that this is the eleventh hour,” she said. “I believe you are lying to me. That’s just me. … I’m insulted.”