First, the bad news (such as it was): Mayor A C Wharton's maiden effort at a virtual town meeting last week had a few bugs. That was the finding of one attentive viewer, who was on site at the Bert Ferguson Community Center in Cordova, one of four locations where attendees had the opportunity to interact with the mayor via a jumbo TV screen and interactive web communication.
Wharton and members of his administrative team were at City Hall, and, besides the one at Bert Ferguson, audiences were present in Orange Mound and Whitehaven and at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Poplar. In theory, the people who showed up could talk back and forth with their city officials without having to travel very far from their own neighborhoods.
But the aforesaid observer was bothered by one thing he noticed. Some of Wharton's aides (Robert Lipscomb, in particular, fielding questions in his role as director of Housing and Community Development) were looking not at the audience(s) — which is to say, the camera — but at Wharton until the mayor was able to caution Lipscomb and others to focus their remarks on the electronic eye.
Wharton was able to offer this advice in a timely manner because the complaining observer was none other than George Little, his chief of staff — present in Cordova expressly to watch for such glitches. "I tweeted him [Wharton] more or less constantly as I saw something that could be improved," Little confided.
Bill Boyd, one of several Memphis City Council members to attend one of the cybernetic sessions, was also at Bert Ferguson, and, he too, had some misgivings.
"We've got to get the word out and get more neighborhood people, the average citizen," Boyd said. "I don't think we really got that here." He went on: "The first three people who asked questions in this group lived just outside the city of Memphis. One was on Appling Road. Another person lived in Lakeland, and the last person lived in Bartlett. All of them were interested in consolidation."
We count that as constructive criticism from both sources, and neither will deduct many points from Wharton's final grade. "I thought it was a good maiden voyage," Little said. "I look forward to the next one," Boyd said.
At the very least, Wharton is entitled to an Incomplete. His own capacity for snark and civic beatitudes and sometimes outright bloviation were on display, but so were his grasp of the overall civic situation and of departmental issues in particular. And it was during the virtual town hall meeting that the mayor dropped the first concrete hints that something was amiss in the city's fleet-management division — a scandal involving misappropriated funds that was shortly to receive full mayoral and public attention.
All in all, this first of what promises to be many such virtual communions with citizens was a good show, and we give the mayor high marks for his good intentions.