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VOL. 129 | NO. 72 | Monday, April 14, 2014

Lewellen Endures in Collierville Hot Seat

By Bill Dries

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James Lewellen has been town administrator for Collierville for 18 years, which is about 16 years more than he expected for a non-elected full-time position known for short stays that end abruptly after elections that produce new mayors.


“In a lot of ways it’s been a very rocky ride. I have never looked beyond a two- or three-year window,” Lewellen said. “The point is I’ve made some enemies along the way or I’ve told some people no or had a part in saying no to some things. And I thought that surely along the way that at any time, I would say no to the wrong person and I’d pay for it in the next election.”

So, he was surprised when he found out this month that he will be the recipient of the Dunavant Public Servant award given each year by the Rotary Club of Memphis East to a non-elected public official.

“It really caught me off guard. I’ve kind of joked with my wife and friends that the irony of a service award is that I don’t ever feel like I help anybody,” Lewellen said. “I’m always the bad guy, telling people they can’t do things. I’m always negotiating through problems and working through problems. I very seldom am able to make anybody happy or it doesn’t feel that way sometimes.”

Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft is the recipient of the Dunavant Public Servant Award for elected officials.

The awards, which are in their 11th year, are named for the late Probate Court Clerk Bobby Dunavant. The Daily News and the University of Memphis cosponsor the awards.

A committee of Rotarians and members of the Dunavant family based on nominations from the public chose Lewellen and Craft.

The awards will be given April 21 at the annual awards luncheon at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis.

The keynote speaker will be U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

The difficulties of being a town or city administrator are not unique to Collierville. It is the nature of the job in a local government structure where the town administrator is full time, running local government on a day-to-day basis and the city or town mayor is part-time.

Lakeland had a change in town administrators with the election of a new mayor last year.

Lewellen came to Collierville from neighboring Germantown 18 years ago primarily for the experience of working for Collierville’s long-time Mayor Herman Wright Cox.

“I thought I could learn a lot from him in a short period of time and I’m going to take the job. If I only survive for two to three years, I’ll gain a lot in that experience and it will be worth it,” he recalled.

Two more mayors and a lot of growth have followed along with plans for dealing with the growth that Lewellen and other Collierville leaders say was inevitable.

Lewellen is among those watching what is certain to be another big change with the coming of the Collierville Schools system that is to debut with the new school year in August.

“We don’t know and probably can’t yet comprehend what the impact on Collierville is going to be from our own school system and what effect it’s going to have on the geography of Shelby County,” he said. “Will the patterns shift? Will the movements from one place to another be different from what they had been? It has the potential in a lot of ways to speed it up. You could also argue it has the potential to slow the migration down.”

He believes the school system is certain to change Collierville’s growth pattern and its demographics “dramatically,” but beyond that there are no certainties.

“I think we’ll look back on this in a few years and say, ‘Wow, we didn’t really have a clue,’” he added.

For now, Lewellen has an idea of some of the numbers associated with taking on a school system. The town’s annual budget doubles from $60 million to $120 million and Collierville government’s payroll goes from 500 to between 1,100 and 1,200.

Past choices on change involved whether Collierville would seek out businesses that employed people there and what the balance of that would be with new residential for an area that had been rural in nature.

“I don’t think there was anything we could have done to stop the growth,” Lewellen said. “I think the only question was what kind it would have been and what it would look like today.”

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