VOL. 11 | NO. 6 | Saturday, February 10, 2018
The Metrics Mayor
By Bill Dries
(The Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
At times in the last two years, political supporters of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland have been worried. They agree with what got him elected, his “brilliant at the basics” philosophy that makes basic services and fundamental play-it-safe financial strategies the priority at City Hall.
But they are concerned that he’s not visible enough and not touting his accomplishments enough.
Halfway into a four-year term of office and with plans to run for a second term in 2019, the attorney, one-time Shelby County Democratic Party chairman and former Memphis City Council member is secure in his political and administrative methods.
“That’s just my personality and I’m not going to be able to change,” Strickland said. “I joked with someone in my office that some people don’t get my rhetoric and the response was, ‘You have no rhetoric.’ I’m just a normal guy who just says directly what I mean. And it’s not very flowery. I’m not a great speaker. But again, I want people to judge me by my actions.”
In his State of the City address last month at the Memphis Kiwanis Club, Strickland acknowledged some “long nights” in his two years as mayor.
“Through it all we’ve tuned out the noise and we focus on a central mission to improve the services we offer to our citizens,” he said. “We don’t get involved in partisan politics of the day or the shouting matches that too often define politics these days. … We shut up, we roll up our sleeves and we take action.”
Strickland may be the first metrics mayor with an approach to setting a goal, a date for milestones on the way, and then measuring it on an ongoing basis. Past mayors have touted low property tax rates, city reserve fund levels rebuilt and similar financial milestones. Strickland talks about the time it takes to answer 911 calls and street paving miles and cycles.
“That is no small matter to me,” he said. “There is no more visible sign to citizens that the city cares about you and your neighborhood than a fresh coat of black top.”
It’s the kind of comment that drives Strickland’s critics to social media.
And Strickland has many critics in the social media-driven protest and social justice movements that have raised their profiles in the last two years.
The most consistently critical has been the Memphis Coalition of Concerned Citizens, the group that formed in the wake of the July 2016 Black Lives Matter protest that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge for several hours.
The group has been critical of Strickland lately for the city’s “I Am Memphis” theme promoting the city’s formal observances of the 50th anniversary of the 1968 sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Al Lewis and others in the coalition say the slogan, derived from the iconic “I Am A Man” sign the strikers used, is offensive and symptomatic.
“We shall fear no evil, Mr. Mayor, because we got a big-ass stick called truth to confront and slay the dragon of lies and the snare of deceit,” Lewis said in December outside City Hall. “No, this isn’t 1968 all over again. It is a succession of years and times and policies and practices repeating themselves over and over again.”
In response to criticism of the slogan, Strickland says some of the 1968 strikers were on the city committee that came up with it.
“I’m not a very creative person so I trust the group that came up with it. I do think it is appropriate,” he said. “I think it is a very, very small group of people who are not satisfied. You can’t satisfy everyone.”
He wasn’t so passive when leaders of Take Them Down 901, the local group calling for the immediate removal of Confederate monuments, challenged him to take down the statues and abandon the strategy of seeking permission from the state or getting a court ruling.
“The reasons they are not taking down the statue is that it is illegal and they would be held accountable,” he said months before the Dec. 20 removal of the monuments in Health Sciences Park and Memphis Park following the city council’s sale of the parks to a private nonprofit. “But it’s OK if I break the law? We are not going to break the law at City Hall.”
Take Them Down 901 founder Tami Sawyer was just as adamant in what amounted to a difference over tactics and timing toward the same goal.
“We tell our city, have bold and courageous leadership,” she said at an October “die-in” protest outside FedExForum. “Be brave. Listen to the people and take them down.”
She wasn’t the only citizen who questioned the city’s strategy.
State Sen. Lee Harris, a former City Council member, didn’t question Strickland’s intent or that he was “on our side” on the basic question.
“But I do think we have exaggerated some of the penalties,” he said. “I can’t imagine how city workers that destroy city property could be guilty of something. They own the property.”
Strickland called the scenario “goofy.”
Any idea that Sawyer’s criticism of Strickland was part of a larger strategy in which the two approaches were somehow united below the rancorous surface was dispelled the August Saturday that Strickland was among those marking the opening of the Crosstown Concourse development.
As that was underway, Sawyer and several hundred protesters were in Health Sciences Park around the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest with a heavy police presence close by.
When several people in the crowd attempted to climb onto the statue and cover it with a sheet, police arrested six people.
Charges were later dismissed against all six arrested.
The differences cover a lot of ground including a die-in on the lawn of Strickland’s house at the end of his first year in office, a resulting list of 81 people requiring a police escort anytime they came to City Hall and a lawsuit over the list that alleges police had been conducting surveillance of protesters from a wide range of causes in violation of a 40-year-old federal court consent order.
Strickland said he reluctantly agreed to authorize police to arrest protesters at his home in the future after the die-in. Police then transferred the names of those protesters, and others from later demonstrations – including a protest outside the Valero plant in southwest Memphis – to the City Hall list. Strickland said they were added to the list without his knowledge. All were then removed from the City Hall list.
Circling the Memphis Wagons
The second half of Strickland’s current term of office could see “brilliant at the basics” coexist with more familiar political and mayoral goals. That starts with MLK 50 observances this spring, while planning continues for the 200th anniversary of the city’s founding in 2019.
Strickland has talked a lot about putting the city’s best face forward as the national media focuses on Memphis in April. The strike anniversary was instrumental in the city setting a goal of having the Confederate monuments removed well in advance of the April 4 observances of King’s assassination. The possibility that the Legislature would change state laws again, making it even more difficult to remove such monuments was the major reason why the administration’s goal was to do it sooner – by the end of 2017.
Strickland has also touted the administration’s proposal to pay the surviving sanitation workers from 1968 $70,000 each – a higher amount than the administration initially proposed after wording in the resolution prepared by the administration gave two conflicting dollar figures.
The city marks its 200th anniversary in 2019 with plans for a Bicentennial Gateway development that takes in the Memphis Cook Convention Center, the nine-block Pinch District area between the Pyramid and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s campus. The Pinch, which is now mostly surface parking lots, would use city-funded infrastructure changes and $9 billion in programming and physical expansion by St. Jude to leverage private investment. The bicentennial plans also include the rollout of a new 20-year plan for future development of the city called Memphis 3.0.
City council member Janis Fullilove, at the first council briefing on the ambitious bicentennial plans, was quick to note that all of that takes place in a city election year.
“This is a bunch of bull,” she said at the end of the first council briefing on Memphis 3.0 in December of 2016. “It doesn’t take three years. It sounds like a political thing.”
Hours later Fullilove moderated her comments somewhat, an indication that a more fluid
relationship exists between the mayor and council than his predecessor A C Wharton had.
“I know all of us want the same thing,” Fullilove said. “Some of us think we may have to go different routes to get it. I don’t bite my tongue. But I’m willing to work so we can get things done in this city.”
Some of the criticism reflects on ongoing civic restlessness that was a factor in Strickland’s upset of Wharton in the 2015 mayor’s race. Strickland capitalized on that restlessness but he didn’t create it. And it remains present to some degree two years out from city elections.
At times, the administration’s low-key approach has lacked some transparency.
That was the case with Strickland’s August decision to end new connections to the city’s sewer system for developments outside the city limits.
Strickland later said he regretted not consulting with other elected leaders in the county, including the mayors of the county’s six suburban towns and cities whose sewer agreements with the city remain intact.
The sewer cutoff decision is exhibit A in how the basics can intersect with larger issues and goals.
“For too long the city of Memphis helped subsidize its own population loss with this policy,” Strickland said of sewer connections in the suburbs. “We put an end to that and we are reinvesting in our current sewer system. … After decades and decades of sprawl, our administration is taking Memphis in a different direction.”
The Tennessee Legislature had ended annexation by ordinance, requiring people living in areas to be annexed to approve such a move in voter referendums, then approved bills to allow areas previously annexed to approve de-annexation by referendum.
The annexation moves played a role in the sewer cutoff edict.
Strickland rallied and bulked up the city’s lobbying efforts and banded with the mayors of Knoxville and Chattanooga to delay the de-annexation legislation. He then embraced the concept with the city making the call on what areas are to be de-annexed.
The administration is preparing to move ahead with the de-annexation of two areas of the city – the part of Eads that is within the city limits and uninhabited flood plain acreage in southwest Memphis near Cypress Creek. While the specific proposals aren’t controversial, the larger issue of the city giving up acreage – any acreage – means the council vote for a referendum will likely not be unanimous.
Strickland has linked it to the foundation of his 2015 campaign for mayor – the city’s drop in population for decades when annexation is not considered.
“More than $11 billion in recent, current or future development is going on in the greater Memphis area. And the kicker is most of that – the vast majority of that – is within the Memphis city limits,” he said in his State of the City address. “We will build up not build out. Our growth will be anchored on the strength of our core and on our neighborhoods. Our growth will enable opportunity for all Memphians.”
Strickland has applied the same monitoring of percentages to the city’s minority business program – touting gains since he took office while continuing to say the percentage of city contracts going to minority businesses is not enough.
Upon taking office in 2016, he combined two city offices working on the issue. The effort now includes streamlining certification of minority businesses to bid for contracts and count toward the percentage of contracts going to minority businesses.
Strickland has outlined proposed redevelopment plans for the Memphis riverfront and the Fairgrounds that also reflect a financial cautiousness. Each will be pursued in parts over years as private investments partnered with public infrastructure materialize.
The riverfront plan was rolled out two months before the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art board announced it was considering moving out of Overton Park but staying within the city. Its choice of land highlighted in the riverfront plan as a possible site for a “cultural asset” did a lot to counter cynicism about the riverfront study, the latest of at least a dozen proposed over the last 30 years.
But the plan rejected an earlier proposal by RVC Outdoors head Andy Cates to turn Mud Island River Park into an outdoor resort experience. Instead, the city plan for Mud Island resurrects and adapts an aquarium proposal first floated by a private group for the Pyramid before its conversion to a Bass Pro Shops super store.
Strickland said he wanted to preserve more of the river park even with the addition of the aquarium.
The Fairgrounds proposal sticks to a youth sports tournament complex as the anchor of the redevelopment. But it’s not a complex that would incorporate a readapted Mid-South Coliseum. The mothballed arena instead remains in limbo, prompting criticism from backers of a city renovation of the 50-year-old arena.
But the Fairgrounds plans could have a catalyst similar to the riverfront plans with word in late January that the Shelby County Schools central office is in the due diligence phase of moving off the more than 12 acres it owns at Hollywood and Avery, next to the Fairgrounds.
Former City Council member Bill Boyd not only served on the council with Strickland, he’s known every mayor under the 50-year-old mayor-council form of government in Memphis and worked for two of them.
He worked for city commissioner Hunter Lane in the transition from the commission form of government to the mayor-council form. One of Boyd’s tasks was coordinating the move of city government out of the courthouse and into the then new City Hall in 1966.
“Every one of them is different, of course, and has good and bad points I would say,” Boyd said of Strickland and his five predecessors. “He does work kind of quietly, behind the scenes. … He’s good at planning.”
Boyd says letting actions speak instead of the politician is a difficult strategy to follow.
“That is tough for a politician to be able to overcome the urge. It’s tough to do and very few can do that.”