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All in the Family

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Full disclosure: At this time last week, I was planning to write about the incestuous relationship between MLGW and city government.

Of course, I was only going to talk about interlocking pensions and retirement benefits. But then came news about a list of elected officials that MLGW insiders considered friends and family.

The Commercial Appeal reported last week that Mayor Willie Herenton, along with City Council members Edmund Ford, Rickey Peete, E.C. Jones, Myron Lowery, Jack Sammons, and former council members John Vergos and Pat Vander Schaaf, were all included in MLGW's "Third Party Notification" service, a program designed to alert friends and family if loved ones' utilities are in danger of being cut off.

But the politicians' cut-off notifications, if there were any, were slated to go right back to MLGW executives.

Talk about friends with benefits.

Gale Jones Carson, MLGW's new director of corporate communications, sent out a statement this week saying that the list was compiled before Joseph Lee, the former city finance director, was appointed president of MLGW in 2004. And that people included on the list probably didn't even know it existed.

"We know that it's more than a decade old," said Glen Thomas, supervisor of corporate communications for MLGW. "Judging from the people on there, it has to be pretty old." Thomas said he didn't know what steps MLGW executives would have taken if one of the politicians' accounts became delinquent. One can assume, however, that if someone wanted to know about it, they probably would do something about it.

In her statement, Carson said she could not explain how or why certain elected officials were selected for third-party notification. If council members didn't have knowledge their account was being flagged, that means MLGW executives -- for whatever reason -- were interested if certain individuals were ever at risk of getting cut off. Was the utility simply being nice? Or was it looking for leverage with members of the City Council?

Technically, MLGW is owned by the city. The council has to approve rate increases and budgetary items. But MLGW has its own CEO, CFO, and board. That leads to some interesting overlap.

Carson created a stir in January when she left her job as Herenton's spokesperson to work for MLGW, "bought" her six years back from her previous employment at MLGW, added it to her time working for the city, and because she now had 12 years of service under her belt, started collecting her city pension. And an MLGW paycheck.

But last week City Council attorney Alan Wade determined that there was nothing improper about what Carson did, even if she did buy her time back right before retiring.

"That may seem unfair," said Wade. "If she had bought her time back when she first came over to the city, it would have been $9,000 as opposed to $14,000. By waiting, she penalized herself."

More than 30 other employees have used the system in the same way; five of those were with MLGW.

"The two pension plans are separate and distinct. They're not one and the same," said Wade. "If an MLGW employee comes to the city and is in payment mode, he or she cannot buy into our plan. They have to start fresh."

Lorraine Essex, head of human resources for the city, said she doesn't know why MLGW has a different pension plan than the city. "This is the way the plan was set up in the ordinance," she said. "It didn't just happen this way, but I'm not sure how old the provisions are. Probably older than some members of the council."

That doesn't explain why employees can transfer time from MLGW or the Memphis library to their years with the city, but don't have to add their time together. Employees should get what they've earned; I just wonder why there is an option that leaves the public paying for a pension and a salary at the same time.

Right now, an underlying problem is the "12 and out" provision that lets both elected and appointed officials retire after 12 years of service with the city. The industry standard is more than double that and that's what the city now uses. The "12 and out" provision was ended November 2004 but, because of grandfathering, may come up until 2016.

Politicians with third-party notification, on the other hand, looks to be a thing of the past. Herenton is strongly recommending that the board discontinue the program immediately. MLGW's Thomas said he doesn't know what will happen to the list or if there will be any legal ramifications for the utility.

But with a lawsuit pending and the feds investigating, it seems that when you join this family, it may be for life.

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