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VOL. 131 | NO. 46 | Friday, March 4, 2016

Hedgepeth Defends Greensward Action, Conservancy Moves to Mediation

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Council member Reid Hedgepeth says the body's Tuesday, March 1, vote to give the Memphis Zoo control of part of the Overton Park Greensward was an attempt to “rectify a mistake.”

REID HEDGEPETH

“This mistake was made by us when we entered into the management contract with the (Overton Park Conservancy) in 2011, and through an oversight on our part did not realize that it conflicted with rights already granted to the Memphis Zoo by the city of Memphis in prior agreements,” Hedgepeth wrote in an email sent Thursday, March 3.

The email offers the first public comments by Hedgepeth, the author of the Greensward resolution, since the council decision.

“This is not a new encroachment on the Zoo's part, however the creation of the OPC and the city's contract with them was the spark that ignited this entire debate in recent years,” Hedgepeth added. “Both parties felt that they had been granted control of the disputed land due to our oversight, and when potentially costly and lengthy lawsuits were filed it was simply time to address it. Because those of us on the council in 2011, myself included, caused this mess through our oversight.”

Hedgepeth cites the zoo’s status as the largest tourist attraction in Shelby County with more than a million visitors a year – including Memphians from other parts of the city.

“To simply renege on the prior agreements with the zoo without an alternative solution in place would've meant denying access to many of these people,” he wrote. “And while it angers the folks in Midtown who view this as their local park, it belongs to all Memphians. So we made the decision we made to reaffirm the zoo's control of and right to use the Greensward on a priority basis because we felt it was the right thing to do.”

Hedgepeth also vehemently denied that political contributions from FedEx founder Fred Smith and his family played any role in his decision on the zoo. Smith’s wife, Diane Smith, is on the zoo board.

In other developments Thursday, the zoo will be represented in mediation sessions with the Overton Park Conservancy by Richard Smith, son of the FedEx founder.

Hedgepeth said he knows the Smith family personally and Richard Smith from when they played football for Christian Brothers High School together.

“But 10 other men and women on the council voted with me that night, and another signed off on the resolution but could not be in attendance for the vote. Did the zoo buy them all off?” Hedgepeth asked, saying the insinuation is “insulting.”

“I didn't allow myself to be bought, bullied or lobbied by Christian conservatives when I voted in favor of the anti-discrimination ordinance, or by the unions when I voted to address our city's massive unfunded pension and retiree benefits obligation,” he added. “So why in the world would I allow anyone to push me into doing something that I didn't believe was right on this issue of all things?”

Hedgepeth also defended the resolution’s rapid move through council committees and to the full council the same day that the resolution was put in written form and made public, saying he was still working on it late the night before.

“But people can stick to their conspiracy theories and keep sending nasty emails and Facebook posts if they want,” he said. “Trust me, I've dealt with worse in my time on the council, and my dignity and integrity are still firmly intact.”

Overton Park Conservancy board members met Thursday to discuss their response to the council resolution.

Zoo CEO Chuck Brady has said the zoo will drop its Chancery Court lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment giving it control of the northern part of the greensward if and when the conservancy drops its counterclaim.

The conservancy won’t make a decision on that for now, at least until the first of the mediation sessions begins next week.

Daily News publisher Eric Barnes is a member of the Overton Park Conservancy Board. He did not participate in the reporting or editing of this story.

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