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VOL. 130 | NO. 41 | Monday, March 2, 2015

Wharton Eyes City Hall Shake-Up

By Bill Dries

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Facing specific criticism from political challengers that his administration is disorganized and hasn’t focused on priorities much past initial press conferences, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. acted this week to shake up his office starting at the top.

SAMMONS

Wharton is seeking to replace Chief Administrative Officer George Little with former Memphis City Council member Jack Sammons. But Wharton wants to leave Sammons as chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority Board as the airport remakes itself in the wake of last year’s dehubbing of the airport by Delta Air Lines.

Because state law bars a city official from holding such a position with the airport authority, the administration has asked legislators in Nashville about the possibility of amending the applicable state law.

As of Monday afternoon, there was no sign of a bill for such an amendment on the legislature’s web site.

Little would become chief operating officer for the city in the transition. He would focus on several long-held goals of Wharton including a move toward some privatization or "managed competition" of city solid waste sanitation services as well as a realignment of police and fire services.

Little also said he would functioning of a chief of staff to Wharton -- "taking on the portfolio relative to chief of staff for the mayor which is working with his immediate staff on some of the scheduling and other issues."

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. speaks with Jack Sammons, chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, at the arrival of Allegiant Air Tuesday, Feb. 24. 

(Daily News/Amos Maki)

"I'm going to certainly support Jack in whatever he does," Little said of Sammons. "We've already had some very preliminary discussions about the division of labor. I'll make sure that, in general, nothing falls between the cracks."

Deputy chief administrative officer Maura Sullivan will also assume more day to day responsibilities in the transition as well, Little said.

Sammons was an aggressive CAO during the tenure of interim mayor Myron Lowery that followed the July 2009 resignation of Willie Herenton as mayor. Lowery became mayor with Herenton’s resignation because Lowery was chairman of the city council at the time.

Among the first battles Lowery and Sammons waged was the attempted removal of Elbert Jefferson as city attorney which Jefferson resisted for much of Lowery’s two-month tenure.

Sammons also was part of a swifter release of city documents from the Herenton administration. Much of his tenure as CAO was informed by Sammons’ view of the Herenton administration from his time on the council.

Sammons served two consecutive terms on the council from 1988 to 1995. He lost a reelection bid to John Bobango in the 1995 city elections after running for Shelby County Mayor in 1994 in an alliance with then U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr.

The bid for county mayor with the aid of an influential and Democratic Congressman prompted local Republicans, who were Sammons’ base of support, to back Bobango.

The alliance with Ford was water under the bridge when Sammons was re-elected to the council in 1999. He served two terms, choosing not to run for re-election in the 2007 city elections. Sammons was appointed to the council in 2008 when Scott McCormick resigned, not seeking election to the council seat claimed by Kemp Conrad in a special election.

Lowery ran from the interim mayor’s position for mayor in the October 2009 special election that was won by Wharton.

Sammons remained on as CAO until March 2010 when Wharton appointed Little, who had been Tennessee Department of Corrections commissioner.

There was a possibility that Wharton would keep Sammons on as CAO. But ultimately, Wharton opted for a person in the number two position who was not as visibly aggressive as Sammons had been.

Little’s role as Chief Administrative Officer relied on his experience as a state commissioner and his training as an economist and a lower profile. But Little also has been the face of the administration before a City Council that saw very little of Wharton as it weighed changes to city employee and retiree health insurance and pension plans in the last year.

Stay tuned to this space for continuing updates to this breaking news story.

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