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VOL. 129 | NO. 197 | Thursday, October 9, 2014

Some Council Members Feel Dissed By Wharton

By Bill Dries

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It was a phrase guaranteed to put more diss in the dysfunction between the Memphis City Council and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

Some City Council members are unhappy with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton referring to council members with whom he consulted about changes to the city’s health insurance coverage as “key members.”

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

And some on the council had plenty to say Tuesday, Oct. 7, about the weekend press release from Wharton announcing changes in the city’s health insurance plan starting next year.

The change of keeping about 1,200 working spouses of city employees in the city’s health insurance plan is one that most, if not all, council members agree with in general.

Initially, Wharton asked the council to approve a measure that would require spouses of city employees to drop the government health insurance if their employer offered coverage. The council approved that measure in June.

But when Wharton reversed course, the press release said no council vote on the changes was necessary and that the changes were instead “a move endorsed by key members of the Memphis City Council.”

“I want someone to tell me how do you determine who is a key member of the council?” council member Janis Fullilove asked at Tuesday’s council executive session.

Fullilove wasn’t among those consulted by Wharton and said she called Wharton four times after the Friday press release and has yet to hear from him. Wharton was not at the executive session either.

“I was never contacted,” Fullilove said. “I talked to a number of council members who were not contacted about this reversal. I was really kind of embarrassed and livid that here it is -- we are playing with these employees lives.”

Council member Wanda Halbert called it a “lack of political and professional respect.” For Halbert it is the latest chapter in years of complaints during her council tenure about not being in the loop when such decisions are made.

At times, other council members have told Halbert she should take the initiative more as they do to find out more. But at other times Halbert is merely the most vocal among several council members who complain they are rarely if ever consulted when similar changes or deals are in the works with the administration.

Wharton’s is not the first administration at City Hall to line up seven votes on the 13 member body and stop seeking support from other council members once it reaches seven. The basic political method of vote counting over time also leads mayors to assemble the same block of votes and then try to round up a new vote or two if someone in the voting block can’t vote yes on a particular issue.

Council member Myron Lowery said Wharton called him about the change.

“I said, ‘This issue’s been dealt with by the council. I don’t think it should come back to the council.’” Lowery said. “He said, ‘I can do this by administrative decision.’ I said, ‘If you have the right to do that, then do that.’”

City Chief Administrative Officer George Little said Wharton communicated primarily with council chairman Jim Strickland and council personnel committee chairman Shea Flinn. Flinn’s committee is where the health insurance and pension changes have been discussed before decisions by the full council.

When the discussion about who was a “key member” of the council strayed into the concept and word “privilege,” Flinn spoke up, saying he found it “offensive” to think the administration was voluntarily offering him information.

“I bust my ass at this job,” he said. “I go to them.”

“You’ve had privilege all your life,” Fullilove replied. “I’ve been dissed.”

For council member Lee Harris, the changes after the June council vote on the health insurance changes were the issue.

“Is the mayor firm this time?” Harris asked Little. “Is the mayor certain or is he going to go back on other things and change his mind unexpectedly?”

Little said the numbers and terms are firm and will not change again.

“Who knows?” Fullilove replied after Little responded.

Harris’s point goes to a larger question of certainty after a council vote. Wharton proposed the changes to the health insurance benefits and the still to be voted on changes to pension benefits. But it has always been with Wharton’s caveat that it could be changed by the council and if the council does make changes he will abide by them.

Some on the council have long urged Wharton to be more decisive and push harder for his positions especially on such reforms.

Still other council members have been critical of Wharton for offering up dollar figures and other statistics to back a position only to change the numbers underpinning the proposal several times over during the course of the council’s consideration.

PROPERTY SALES 41 308 2,265
MORTGAGES 47 379 2,607
BUILDING PERMITS 128 1,018 6,068
BANKRUPTCIES 53 255 1,787