VOL. 131 | NO. 5 | Thursday, January 7, 2016
After First Meeting, Personality of New Council Emerges
By Bill Dries
The judgments began early for the new Memphis City Council, which met for the first time Tuesday, Jan. 5, at City Hall.
The newly installed Memphis City Council – which includes six new members – met for the first time Tuesday, Jan. 5, at City Hall.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
State Sen. Lee Harris, on hand to be honored as a former city council member, called the group the “Kumbaya Council,” as it approved 13 appointees by Mayor Jim Strickland, 11 of them with unanimous votes.
But the council first rejected a move to approve all 13 with a single vote on the slate, and the unanimous votes came after a lot of questions.
CFO Brian Collins faced pointed questions from veteran councilwoman Janis Fullilove about his role in the Wharton administration. She and other council members clashed with Collins regularly over his estimates of the city’s finances, especially as the legislators considered and approved controversial cuts to city employees’ health insurance and pension benefits.
Fullilove said that at times Collins “looked like a deer in the headlights.”
She also cited a common sentiment among council members at the time that Collins and others were often blindsided by conflicting numbers and estimates from other parts of the same administration.
Mayor Jim Strickland, at one point, said his administration would speak with one voice and that he would be talking with council members directly to make sure there was no confusion.
Despite her reservations, Fullilove voted for Collins in what was a unanimous vote.
“You had to be the messenger and sometimes the messenger gets shot,” she said to Collins just before the vote.
Strickland defended the pay raises for some of his new appointees compared to the salaries those appointed positions paid in the Wharton administration.
“Even with the increase, it’s still below market value, certainly in the private sector, but even in the government sector,” Strickland said in the first committee session of the day. “Every position at MLGW pays more than what I’m proposing to pay. And the second thing I’m asking you to keep in mind is there is a net decrease.”
The “net decrease” hasn’t been finalized, as the new mayor still has three primary positions to fill. Strickland estimates the positions eliminated in his reorganization, including some deputy director positions, will save the city more than $600,000 across a fiscal year even with some raises.
Strickland also defended the pay raises because some of the positions with almost the same title are taking up functions from positions he is eliminating. That is the case with the chief communications officer, which will speak for all divisions of city government, not just the mayor’s office, and will also be involved in the marketing of city services.
The jury is still out on whether that explanation convinced the council. There was strong sentiment among many members that the new mayor should be able to appoint whom he wanted. And the reservations about the pay for the positions could surface in other discussions to come.
Council staff helped guide new council members through committee sessions that began at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday morning and the council stayed on time.
There were procedural questions from the new members, but there was also some staking out of political turf evident.
Council member Martavius Jones said he plans to propose a city charter amendment for a referendum that would require city employees to live within the city, an amendment city voters previously have approved and then repealed.
The declaration prompted former council member Shea Flinn to tweet: “Every new council has to start with residency requirements. It’s in the rules.”
Jones also said the council should go on record as supporting the Shelby County School board’s recent call for a moratorium on any new low-performing schools being taken over by the state-run Achievement School District.
“The ASD, in its current form, destabilizes our neighborhoods,” he said during a discussion of the city’s legislative wish list for the Tennessee legislature. “You will always have a bottom 5 percent (of schools) and the state will always have a way to come in and destabilize neighborhoods.”
Council member Worth Morgan questioned whether the city’s legislative packet could add to several items calling for enhanced and mandatory sentences for violent crimes.
Council member Patrice Robinson said the city should pursue more programs for offenders reentering society.
“They continue to have to pay forever,” she said.
Both seemed satisfied with special counsel Alan Crone’s explanation that the administration is pursuing those programs for nonviolent offenders and enhanced sentences for violent offenders.
Fullilove and Robinson had a moment as Fullilove began an aggressive questioning of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division president Jerry Collins on the opt-out provision for Smart Meters.
Fullilove has been the council’s most vocal critic of the meters. She cut off Collins at one point, and Robinson interrupted her.
“Excuse me, Mr. Collins,” Fullilove said. “I know she’s a former employee of MLGW.”
“Let him finish,” Robinson said.
A bit later, Fullilove said to Collins, “I don’t know why you keep looking at chairwoman Robinson. I know she’s retired from MLGW. But I’m talking to you.”