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VOL. 130 | NO. 4 | Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Council Signals Return to Schools Funding Mediation

By Bill Dries

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It’s back to mediation Thursday, Jan. 8, in the six-year long schools funding deadlock between the city of Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

That was the next step several Memphis City Council members pointed to after more than an hour behind closed doors at City Hall Tuesday with their attorney as well as city Chief Administrative Officer George Little.

During the last council meeting of 2014, last month, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said in a letter to the council that he had negotiated a settlement to how the city would reimburse the school system for schools funding the council cut in 2008. Later that same day, the Shelby County School board approved the settlement in which the city would pay $43 million, including credits and other non-cash arrangements, over a period of 12 years starting with a $6 million payment by Feb. 1.

Later, Wharton acknowledged the settlement depended on council approval.

Meanwhile, some council members accused Wharton of an end run around the court-supervised mediation process many of them favored over direct talks between Wharton and SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

They also attributed political motives to Wharton’s announcement which initially made no mention of the need for council approval, simply saying the mayor has the right to negotiate such agreements under terms of the city charter.

Hopson said he approached Wharton after a mediation session in December was postponed by the city on short notice – such short notice that Hopson and his staff showed up for the session only to be the only ones at the table.

There was no move Tuesday by anyone on the council to seek a vote on Wharton’s proposed settlement although any member could have made such a motion.

Council attorney Allan Wade said after the closed session with council members that elements of Wharton’s proposal were among the items discussed at mediation sessions before Wharton and Hopson reached their agreement last month. The talks began just before Thanksgiving.

And Wade said those elements would likely still be discussed when mediation resumes Thursday.

In other action, council member Joe Brown attempted to add a resolution that would have reversed outgoing council chairman Jim Strickland’s decision to lay off two council staffers.

The motion was voted down on a 3-3 tie vote at the council’s executive session.

At the first council meeting of 2015, council members delayed for two weeks a vote on a Beale Street Tourism Development Authority to guide future development of the entertainment district through a nine-member appointed board.

Council member Harold Collins said he wanted to more time in committee before the Jan. 20 council session to review the 12-page resolution establishing the authority under state law.

The district has been governed for the last year on an interim basis by the Downtown Memphis Commission with various city divisions assisting.

Also delayed Tuesday were third and final readings of two ordinances by council member Kemp Conrad that establish new rules for taxi cabs in the city as well as the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft.

The council approved a Strickland resolution for an audit of the city’s health care and OPEB – other post employment benefits – fund for $70,000. The money is to come from the city’s health fund with Segal Consulting of Atlanta performing the audit.

Also approved was the city’s half of a $500,000 disaster recovery assistance program proposed by Collins to aid homeowners in areas flooded which do not qualify for federal disaster assistance.

The city’s $250,000 would come from city reserves. A companion resolution is scheduled for a vote by the Shelby County Commission which would put up the other $250,000.

Collins proposal is a reaction to Sept. 11 flooding in several parts of Whitehaven that have flooded before in recent years. The damage dollar estimate from the flooding did not meet the threshold to trigger federal disaster funding.

Council members also approved on third and final reading an ordinance by council member Lee Harris that requires Memphis Light Gas and Water Division to seek council approval before it undertakes contracts to collect non-utility related charges for various municipalities or Shelby County government via its monthly utility bill.

The passage of the ordinance came on Harris’s last meeting as a council member.

Next week, Harris goes to Nashville as a state Senator for the start of the 2015 legislative session and gives up his District 7 council seat.

Council members plan to fill the vacant council seat at their Jan. 20 meeting and are taking applications from citizens who want to be considered until noon Wednesday.

Former council member Berlin Boyd, who held the District 7 council seat on an interim basis before Harris claimed the seat in the 2011 city elections, is the only person who had submitted an application by the end of the business day Tuesday.

Boyd said he intended to run for a full four-year term of office as well in the October city elections.

Those with applications out but not yet filed are Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Brian Carson, Kemba Ford, who also sought the District 7 seat in 2011 and took Harris to a runoff election, and former council member Barbara Swearengen Ware.

Ware’s resignation from the council seat in 2011 set the stage for Boyd interim appointment and Harris’s election.

She was suspended from the council in late 2010 under terms of the city charter when her name surfaced in a corruption probe of the Shelby County Clerk’s office. In 2011 she was indicted by the Shelby County Grand Jury on a charge of using her office and influence to avoid getting her cars and the cars of others inspected over several years. At the time the auto inspections were required of city residents for them to renew their car tags.

Ware took diversion on the official misconduct charge in a memorandum of understanding with prosecutors, parts of which were confidential including whether she was required to resign her council seat and/or forbidden from seeking election to the council again.

Carson, Ford and Ware were on the running list council staff is keeping of who has pulled an application packet in person. Other citizens may have accessed applications via the council’s web site without the council office knowing until or unless they file by Wednesday’s noon deadline.

The application includes an affidavit that the applicant lives in District 7 as well as proof of residence. And those applying must submit a petition signed by 25 voters who live in the district who support them.

Whoever gets the appointment will serve the year remaining in Harris’s four-year term of office.

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