When a politician discloses his retirement intentions 13 months in advance, he's laying some groundwork for both his successor and himself.
Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout did that this week in an announcement that managed to be stunning, if not all that surprising. Still politically ambitious, but vexed with or maybe simply tired of some of the current conundrums of county government and sincerely devoted to his family, this highly capable public servant just wanted out.
What his successor does, and who he or she is, makes for an interesting discussion. But the bigger issue is what Rout still the county mayor and a functioning, hands-on version at that if he continues to steel himself to the job can get done in the next year, absent reelection pressures.
Without going into detail at his withdrawal announcement Tuesday, he mentioned fixing the jail and the school-funding formula as his two top priorities. As far as the jail currently under various court mandates is concerned, Rout is only one of four major players, the others being Attorney General Bill Gibbons, Sheriff A.C. Gilless, and U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla. For that reason, and because it will take much longer than 13 months to fix the various problems that are rampant in the overcrowded facility, we don't see the jail, for better or for worse, as constituting the pièce de résistance in Rout's legacy.
Schools and the companion issue of consolidation of government services are another matter. Rout and Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton can change the world, or at least this part of it. If a politically secure black city mayor and a political lame-duck white county mayor with over half a century of experience in local government can't do it, nobody can.
No more study committees or blue-ribbon task forces! What we would like to see is ready? the Rout/Herenton Plan, a state-of-the-art blueprint for change and reform, possible if the mayors put their personal differences behind them and stand together as they were able to during the recent NBA sales job. They did that deal in a few months. Let's see what they can accomplish by the end of the year on schools and consolidation.
In touting up his achievements Tuesday, Rout said he had cut a full one-fifth of the county payroll in seven years. "Bravo!" we say. And "Encore!" Honestly now, mayor, how much more is there that could be safely eliminated on the grounds that it duplicates a city function? What is essential and what is a political sacred cow? What, if any, form of consolidation makes sense?
For Mayor Herenton, now is the time to share all he knows about what works and doesn't work in education, integration, and funding. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce appear willing to get behind single-source funding of schools. City superintendent Johnnie B. Watson and county superintendent James Mitchell are openminded veterans without personal agendas.
Rout and Herenton must lead the way to lasting solutions now, while both are in their prime and there is an open field in front of them. We have every reason to believe they will take advantage of the fact.