Mayor’s Race Parses Political Records

By Bill Dries

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. will probably continue to include the comeback of Overton Square in an election year roll call of economic development accomplishments even after being called out for his opposition to the city-funded Overton Square parking garage.



Memphis City Council member Jim Strickland, who is challenging Wharton in this year’s race for mayor, said Thursday, Jan. 29, immediately after Wharton’s State of the City address in Overton Square that Wharton worked to discourage council members from voting for city funding for the garage while saying publicly that he favored it.

The council approved it anyway with Strickland and council member Shea Flinn leading the push for the garage, which doubles as a flood water retention area at its lowest non-parking level.

Wharton’s office qualified that later Thursday, saying Wharton had concerns about the garage but not the larger redevelopment of Overton Square.

There is likely to be more calling out and qualifying as the mayor’s race moves toward candidates pulling qualifying petitions starting in April on the way to the Oct. 8 election day.

Since shortly after he was elected mayor in 2009 in a special election, Wharton has been accused by council members of saying one thing in public and pursuing another direction behind the scenes.

In budget deliberations over the last two years, council members have sought to get Wharton and police director Toney Armstrong in the same committee room at the same time to reconcile what they see as conflicting assessments of police needs in terms of officers and money.

When they’ve both been at the council committee table at the same time, some on the council have complained that each has advocated a different outlook and then acted as if they said the same thing.

At a memorable Whitehaven townhall meeting in 2013, council member Janis Fullilove urged Armstrong to “not let the mayor do anything to strip you of your dignity.”

When Wharton tried to answer, Fullilove refused to give up the microphone telling Wharton, “This is serious.”

Wharton made a deliberate decision not to appear at council meetings last year to discuss the city health insurance and pension benefit changes he called for and that the council approved with amendments.

Wharton commented on the process, but not on the council’s turf with the council in session.

It was a decision council members disagreed with but one that Wharton continues to stand by, citing his meetings with city employees and one-on-one discussions he had with them before the proposed changes got to the council.

For Wharton, it is a big part of a goal he’s had from the outset of his time at City Hall of changing the city’s politics and “changing the culture of city government.”

The philosophy and practice has endured into the rising level of controversy and opposition to his still-forming plan for redevelopment of the Mid-South Fairgrounds financed through a Tourism Development Zone.

“As we move ahead, I will continue to focus on results rather than politics and on policies rather than personalities,” Wharton said.

Meanwhile, Wharton said he hopes Shelby County Schools leaders will use the money they are about to start getting from the city for a continued expansion of prekindergarten classrooms in Memphis.

But Wharton’s wish, as expressed in his State of the City address, came two days after Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson said his preference is to use the city money from the settlement of the long-running schools funding lawsuit for an expansion of Innovation Zone schools – not the ongoing SCS pre-kindergarten expansion using other funding.

“One of the reasons I pushed so hard to settle the long-running litigation with Shelby County Schools was so that those funds would be available for the local Pre-K initiative,” Wharton said. The different ideas about how to use the funding -- $28 million in cash, $41.8 million including cash and credits -- which will span 15 years and starts next month with a first cash payment of $8 million, is just one example of how slippery it can be to sort promises and accomplishments in politics.

Before sorting out how the money can and should be used, there is the matter of the settlement itself whose terms were the result of court-supervised mediation favored by city council members.

The mediation continued after Wharton announced a tentative settlement that he and Hopson negotiated directly outside the mediation process. The council ignored that proposal totaling $43 million in cash and credits, which was approved by the Shelby County Schools board. The school system went back to mediation and the school board then approved the mediation settlement after the council vote in favor of it.

“Let me smile and say I don’t care who gets the credit for it as long as we take care of the school system,” Wharton said.