Shaping the News

One man's take on the growing influence of local PR firms, President Bush's highway cuts, the real cost of light-rail, the CA, and school board

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Item: Public-relations firms have always been something of a hidden hand behind the news, but I detect an increase in their influence -- or at least their attempted influence -- in the public sector. Probably it's the scent of big money and the consultant craze.

The latest example was the West/Rogers poll that City Council chairman Brent Taylor commissioned as part of the council's retreat last week. Some of the poll questions were silly, such as the one where respondents ranked Memphis as a "great" city ahead of New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. When the poll ventured into substantive matters, such as a unified school system, the questions were so leading and skewed that the council, properly, gave them short shrift. Nevertheless, two West/Rogers employees got to sit at the table with council members, which was a symbolic victory of sorts.

Other PR firms shaping the news are the Ingram Group, which represents the New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority and Chairman Arnold Perl; Thompson & Baker, working on MATA's proposed $400 million light-rail line and the chamber of commerce's push for more business tax incentives; and McNeely Pigott and Fox, represented locally by former Commercial Appeal business editor Bob Hetherington. There are no doubt others of which I am not as aware.

Common sense, candor, and openness -- which don't cost anything -- will usually serve public officials and agencies as well as or better than consultants' advice.

Item: The Washington Post reports that the Republican governor of Maryland, Robert Ehrlich Jr., has introduced a bill that would permit 10,500 slot machines across the state at four Maryland racetracks and direct as much as $800 million a year to public schools. I don't care how many times state legislators or preachers say there won't be, shouldn't be, or can't be slot machines in Tennessee, even though both a lottery and pari-mutuel betting are now legal or, in the case of the lottery, about to be made legal. I say there will be legal slots in Tennessee by 2010. And when it happens it will have more to do with economics than morality.

Item: President Bush is signaling he wants to cut highway money to the states by as much as $6 billion next year as priorities shift to war and fighting terrorism. In a related story, the Associated Press says Gov. Phil Bredesen might cut highway funds to close a projected $500 million deficit in the state budget.

Now ask yourself: If Washington and Nashville are cutting highway money, do you think there is a chance in hell of Memphis getting $200 million in federal and state funds for a $400 million light-rail line from downtown to the airport, which FedEx says isn't even on their radar screen?

Normally, I don't correct other people's mistakes, but I'll make an exception. The Commercial Appeal has reported at least twice that the federal share of this proposed project is either 75 or 80 percent. I have twice heard Tom Fox, director of planning and capital projects for MATA, state otherwise. But to make sure, I asked him to clarify the federal share once more in an e-mail.

"Statutorially, the federal share on transit capital projects can be up to 80 percent," Fox wrote. "Practically speaking, in order to compete for discretionary funds (which are largely earmarked by Congress) the federal share requested by local project sponsors is typically in the range of 50 percent. In our presentations, we describe the proposed funding scenario for the Downtown-Airport Corridor as 50 percent federal, 25 percent state, and 25 percent local."

The trolley has gotten this far thanks to Interstate Substitution Funds Memphis received for not building Interstate 40 through Overton Park. That money is gone.

Expensive public projects take on a life of their own when the media, oversight boards, and elected officials don't scrutinize them. This is how the Memphis City Schools building program got out of control. Ignoring a story is one thing. Repeatedly understating the local cost of a project by $100 million is worse.

Item: The Shelby County school board approved Mayor A C Wharton's suburban school building plan last week.

This board is a sleeping giant. It gets a fraction of the publicity of its city counterpart, which meets next door and is more prone to bickering with the superintendent and shooting itself in the foot. It is all-white and dominated by old hands intimately familiar with county school politics. And at the moment, its decisions have more impact on more public dollars than any board in the city or county.

In its own way, it is as efficient as the city school board is clumsy. Under Carl Johnson's chairmanship, tedious city board meetings like last week's six-hour session will be the norm. Under David Pickler's leadership, the county board dispatched with a significantly revamped school calendar and the antiquated "Fair Day" (no longer a holiday for county students) in about six minutes.

Dissenters are dealt with politely but briskly. A black minister, the Rev. LaSimba Gray, wondered why black students are going to be bused past Germantown High School to Houston High School even though Germantown High has more black students and is closer to their neighborhood. Pickler told him the item will be taken up later.

I collared Gray as he left the building. "An all-white board in 2003," he muttered. "That's racism."

A storm is brewing.

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