To really appreciate the rift between the City Council and Mayor Herenton, you have to know what a normal city nomination hearing is like. Usually it goes like this: The nominee comes to a committee meeting and tells committee members (rarely more than three or four council members) his or her name, background, and what they plan to do in the position, once approved. Then someone from the council moves to approve them.
It's simple. Painless. Quick. Everything the city's recent nomination hearing -- a grueling all-day process for 12 division directors -- wasn't. Four nominees were rejected. Two were postponed. And the City Council was flexing its muscles to the point of throwing punches.
And of course, the mayor, the former fighter, threw them right back.
On the Monday night before New Year's Eve, Councilman Tom Marshall drove from his house back to his office. In an attempt to circumvent leaks to television news, Marshall expected to receive a fax from the mayor's office at 10 p.m. that would list the nominees for division directors. But the fax never came, and the next morning Marshall and his colleagues read about the nominations in The Commercial Appeal.
That slight was followed by another two days later in the mayor's New Year's breakfast speech.
"Every year the mayor does something like this at these prayer breakfasts. I think he's getting some bad holiday ham or something," council member Brent Taylor says of the mayor's now-infamous divine-mandate speech. "I knew after he sent the nominees to The Commercial Appeal. I could see the direction the mayor was headed."
Last year at this time, the mayor was ready to dismantle the city school board and take on the suburban mayors. This year, it seems as if he would like to do the same thing with the City Council.
For some council members, especially those long thought to be the mayor's allies, the attack was completely unexpected. TaJuan Stout Mitchell, who nominated Herenton for American City and County magazine's Municipal Leader of the Year for 2002, says Herenton invited her to the breakfast and even gave her two tickets. She brought her husband. Her mother was there as well and swore Mitchell in. When the mayor started talking about the council plotting against him, Mitchell says she had no idea what he was talking about.
"I don't know how it started. It was just like a volcano erupted," she says. Council member Barbara Swearengen Holt, another attendee at the breakfast, was stunned by the mayor's comments, as well.
Speculation about a split between mayor and council was also fueled by the fact that instead of attending council member Myron Lowery's annual New Year's Day event, the mayor decided to host his own. Lowery went to both breakfasts and says there's nothing wrong between him and the mayor: "The mayor told me that this was a historical occasion -- his fourth inauguration -- and his supporters wanted him to have a separate event closer to where the inauguration was to occur."
By the following Tuesday, when the council met to consider nominations, members had communicated and reached a rough agreement to challenge six of them. Four would be rejected outright.
One City Hall veteran who asked not to be identified blamed the mayor and CAO Keith McGee for not doing their homework. "If Rick Masson [McGee's predecessor] had been here, those four appointments would never have been made," the source said.
Several council members say the nominees weren't rejected because the mayor made them angry, but that the mayor's comments spurred them to do their jobs. Council member E.C. Jones says that "if the mayor had not even made a speech on January 1st, I was probably going to vote no" on a few of the candidates.
However, the conflict escalated the next day, when Herenton named Joseph Lee interim president of MLGW. The council had feared just that action when some of them saw a mayoral spokesperson on TV saying the council's role in the nominations was ceremonial. There was also an indication that even if the council did not appoint the mayor's nominees, he would name them division directors on an interim basis.
Within hours of hearing the Lee news, council members had mobilized to spike that idea and reject Lee for the job entirely. Only the intervention of City Attorney Robert Spence averted that response. Spence did not render a legal opinion about interim directors but did spend an anxious hour or two advising "everyone to take a chill pill."
Lee withdrew his name, but others were just getting warmed up. CA columnist Wendi Thomas was mortified by Herenton's Elmore Leonard dialogue ("Don't bring me no mess," etc.), but the mayor consigned her "open letter" to junk-mail status and further opined that council members, previously likened to "footstools," would be "nobodies" without their elected offices.
"What's interesting," says Taylor, "is that [Herenton] has yet to say what the problem is or what the issue is." Taylor believes the distance between the council and the mayor goes back to the issue of the mayor's pay raise. Though the council eventually gave Herenton a $20,000 raise, Taylor says he thinks the mayor felt slighted when they initially voted not to give him a raise.
For his part, the mayor allows that he thinks Rickey Peete, who introduced the raise for council consideration, "mismanaged it." Herenton says he wanted to put salary proposals for management on the table earlier in the year but was asked by Peete and Marshall to take them back because it was an election year.
"That's why they didn't vote on the mayor's salary earlier," says Herenton, "because they thought they were going to lose votes if they voted for the pay raise before the election."
Peete would not comment for this story.
If the power struggle continues, the image of the mayor and the council will probably take further hits.
Jones, one of the most vocal critics of the mayor's nominees, says he could see the conflict lasting even until the summer. He says not all elected officials have to agree, but they have to know that differences of opinion will exist: "If [the mayor] feels like his opinion is the only one that's right, I guess we'll continue going back and forth."
And in a continuing struggle for power, Taylor has introduced a resolution that says the mayor can only appoint interim directors with council approval and that those interim directors can only be paid for 45 days. The ordinance's second reading will be at the council's regular meeting January 20th; the third and final reading will occur at a special meeting called for that purpose two days later.
"The mayor will then have three options: He can sign it into law, he can veto it, or he can take it to court," says Taylor. He adds that he's working with city attorneys to make sure the mayor will have little legal ground on which to challenge the resolution.
As for the mayor, he says he's ready to meet any challenge to his authority.
"I'm not looking for friendship on the council," says Herenton. "I'm looking for a cooperative working relationship to move this city forward, and respect. I don't need no damn friends on the council."