The Jury Is Out

The city council tips its hand on an NBA arena, but not the county commission.

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Although the Memphis city council, by means of a letter to the Shelby County legislative delegation signed by all 13 of its members, more or less put itself on record last week as favoring the construction of a new local arena for the would-be itinerant Vancouver Grizzlies, some doubt remains about how the Shelby County Commission will come down on the issue.

The council members' letter seems straightforward enough, concluding, "In addition to communicating our support, we want to extend our commitment to work with you in every way to seize the tremendous opportunity standing before our community."

However, key members of the commission -- Commissioner Walter Bailey among Democrats and Commissioner Tommy Hart among Republicans being typical -- are still playing their hands close to the vest, citing concerns about the use of public money for building the arena. (Each local body is being asked to pledge roughly $12 million toward the end.)

Two speakers before the commission on Monday presented differently shaped appeals as a symbolic debate erupted over the issue of appointing six nominees by Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County mayor Jim Rout to the Memphis and Shelby County Public Building Authority.

The six are: Willard Sparks, Luke Yancy, Carol Crawley, Henry Evans, Kevin Kane, and Kevin Roper. (A seventh nominee, Elijah Noel, withdrew his candidacy on grounds of a possible conflict of interest; he is a part-time tax attorney with the county Trustee's office.)

Rout was on hand to ask for an immediate resolution of the nominations, reassuring Commissioners Bailey, Hart, and Bridget Chisholm that the newly reconstituted body would A)be dealing in the short run only with the matter of getting The Pyramid up to snuff for potential short-term use by the Grizzlies, beginning this fall; and B) be reporting back to the commission in advance concerning any commitment of public resources.

The mayor insisted that "we can't afford to wait ... to put The Pyramid in good enough shape to serve the NBA's purposes." If the Pyramid were not fitted to the league's specifications, Rout said, "they're going back to Vancouver." (The statement drew ironic cheers from opponents of the arena, who were on hand for the meeting in some numbers.)

If the arena issue were not quickly resolved, Rout said, "My personal opinion is that it's going to be 30 or 40 years before we have another shot at this."

In the follow-up to the mayor's statements, Hart noted that the NBA had already ruled that it didn't "have enough time to decide whether to change the colors or not" on the Grizzlies' uniforms. More cheering erupted when Hart asked rhetorically why the commission was expected to act so much more promptly.

Duncan Ragsdale, who has filed a suit in Chancery Court challenging the use of public money, spoke at some length against the arena project, explaining the main premises of his suit, which alleges, among other things:

· that Article II, Section 29 of the state Constitution, prohibited the "issuing of credit" (as in a bond issue) without a vote by the residents of affected jurisdiction;

· that Section 835 of the Memphis City Charter prohibits the arena constructions on the grounds that the Grizzlies' lease "will not be a 'profitable' use in that the lease will result in a loss of revenues of the City of Memphis ... and will result in injuries and damages to Plaintiffs and the Taxpayers of the city of Memphis;"

· that Article 1, Section 212, of the Tennessee Constitution provides "that perpetuities and monopolies are contrary to the genius of a free state, and shall not be allowed," whereas the proposed stadium lease would create such a monopoly.

One member of the commission, asking not to be quoted, said he thought Ragsdale's legal case was "pretty shaky," in that, "if what he says about the Constitution is true, then we would never be able to issue bonds for any purpose, and we do it all the time."

In the end, the six proposed PBA members were approved. Three more will be named in the next few days by the mayors.

Meanwhile, Ragsdale and other opponents of the arena -- some circulating petitions for a referendum -- will rally at Overton Park Shell this Sunday at noon.

· An interesting sidelight to the main debate at the County Commission meeting Monday was the final resolution of a matter that had been hanging fire for a couple of months -- ever since the Sports Authority, at the beginning of the current cycle, first played host to visiting principals of the NBA and the Vancouver Grizzlies at the Memphis Country Club.

That fact had raised the ire of Commissioner Walter Bailey, who has done his best over the years to keep the issue of racial exclusivity in private organizations on the front burner of public consciousness. Bailey sounded off on the matter and became even more offended when he thought Sports Authority executive director Reggie Barnes had attempted to publicly minimize his concerns.

One result of that was the postponement, meeting after meeting, of what normally would have been the routine appointment of three new members to the Shelby Farms Board by county mayor Jim Rout.

Of the three, no potential controversy attached to nominees Lee Winchester and Dr. Theron Northcross. But former First Tennessee Bank president Ron Terry happened to be a member of the stoutly private (and exclusively WASPish) Memphis Country Club, and that made him a suspect nominee in Bailey's eyes.

Accordingly, the pending nomination was kept on deep freeze for several weeks. On one occasion, back in early April, the three Shelby Farms nominees were sitting together at a commission meeting preparatory to the scheduled vote on their nominations. Rout went over, whispered to them, and then the three left. The same ritual was repeated at several successive meetings. As one commission member noted after this week's meeting, "It was just a matter of allowing a decent interval to intervene between the Sports Authority's meeting and the vote."

Enough of the edge had clearly worn off the issue to permit a vote on the nominations this week. Nor that Bailey didn't seize the opportunity to state his objections. When the matter came up, the commissioner delivered himself of some brief remarks, the kernel of which went this way: "I feel pretty strongly that people who are members of organizations and clubs that don't have diversity, such as, primarily, Memphis Country Club ... it seems to me we ought not appoint those people to boards and commissions."

Bailey then suggested voting on each of the three names separately, a suggestion adopted by chairman James Ford. Terry was asked if he wanted to say anything, and he came to the podium to make this statement: "I'll only say that I have great admiration for the service Mr. Bailey has given our community for many years, and I respect his right to an opinion. I have a passion for Shelby Farms, and I'll do my best to fulfill your needs. Thank you."

When the vote came, Northcross and Winchester received unanimous approval. Terry's name drew a pass from Commissioners Marilyn Loeffel and Bridget Chisholm. And at his point of the roll call Bailey answered, "Regretfully, no." The rest voted yes.

Thus was the issue -- which once was feared as the possible igniter of racial division on the commission -- resolved in a reasonably pro forma manner.

· U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. celebrated his 31st birthday at The Peabody's Skyway last Friday night. Well-wishers, who included a cross-section of party cadres and most Democratic candidates for election in 2002 -- including those for Shelby County mayor -- paid $50 a head for the privilege. It was suggested to the congressman that many a profitable birthday loomed ahead should he continue the practice every year he serves in public office. He grinned.

· Local political frontiers have expanded to include the open skies. Wearing her bright-yellow campaign T-shirt and accompanied by a companion similarly dressed, state Rep. Carol Chumney, a Democratic hopeful for county mayor, campaigned among the spectators at the weekend Mid-South Air Show at Millington, featuring the Thunderbirds flying team. And Republican activist John Willingham played host to the Thunderbirds at his East Memphis restaurant Monday night, inviting a number of his political friends over to help keep them company.

"Yell Louder"

Periodically, we promised a few weeks back, we would afford our readers a selection of what former Commercial Appeal political writer Terry Keeter -- now retired after surviving a serious bout of emphysema-cum-pneumonia -- was up to.

Keeter's first contribution was a tribute -- straightforward but not without its flourishes -- to a late friend, flood-control engineer Pete Houston, putting him in the right time-and-place context of Memphis history. It seemed clear from the piece that the longtime dean of Mid-South political writers still has a hand for the public use of the word.

For years, of course, Keeter has also kept his other hand involved in the form of commentary -- ranging from acidic to slapsticky -- characterized by the annual Gridiron Shows, which use musical skits and comic routines to roast local politicians. (The shows, whose audience normally includes many of the victims themselves, raise scholarship money for journalism students.)

And for some months Keeter has kept a growing network of friends hooked in to his sarcastic vein via an e-mail feature called "Yell Louder," which employs, a la the Gridiron Shows, a cast of cartoonish characters in place of their real-life counterparts.

Even in our broad-minded times, some of these entries would not pass muster with the most liberal censor, but, in tune with the topic of the day and (upon reflection) unabridged, here are two recent selections. Some of the identities are those of Keeter's running mates (former CA writer Larry Williams and lawyer Murray Card can be deduced); others are patently local politicians and public figures. And "Yell County" (interestingly enough the name of a bona fide Arkansas county) is clearly our own Shelby County.

The envelope, please:

"Signs reading NBA-NOT (Not Our Taxes) are beginning to show up across Yell County, in response to the NBA-NOW signs, which are, not surprisingly in the Fed-Hex color-blind shades of Purple, Orange and White. 'I think it's the sign of the times,' said Cousin D. Ragshead Clyde, lawyer, veteran freedom fighter and opponent of public money for a $250 million arena for the rich and famous.

"Cousin Ragshead, author of No Taxes-NBA, said that NBA NOT joins the original sign protest along with NBA SHAFTS (Send Hide and Fredrich To a Star). 'Hell, for that much money, we could buy Cousin Fredrich $ Clyde and Cousin Snake Pitt Hide Clyde their own space station,' said Dr. Drummond Clyde, Mexican gynecologist and expert on heavenly bodies.

'I might be rushin' things, but these guys already have their head in the clouds. And their hands in our pockets,' said Yell resident liberal Cousin Larry W. Clyde. 'They've already done their share to finger us.'

'Oh, my,' said Cousin Dorothy Clyde, crossing Gayoso. 'Ragshead, fingers, and shares! Oh, my! I'm keeping my fingers crossed, along with my legs!' Aunt Nellie Belle, Iuka queen, said, 'It's like the old days, shooting pocket pool in Tishomingo County. One minute your pockets are empty, and the next minute they're full of balls. Then, the next thing you know, your balls are getting racked! But Cousin $ and Cousin Pitt's NBA-sized balls are bigger than those usually found on the table!' ·

You can e-mail Jackson Baker at baker@memphisflyer.com.

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