The Mall Parking Matter: Like Toney Armstrong Needed Another Problem?

It appears that Memphis' beleaguered new police director was just Following Orders in chasing the media off Government Plaza on budget night.

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Police director Toney Armstrong
  • Police director Toney Armstrong
Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong is getting off to one of the shakiest P.R. starts of any local public official within memory. Dissension within his department has gone public, more or less non-stop, with the periodic airing of internal policy disputes and leaking of various audiotapes unflattering to the director.

All of that is the work of a self-described “Monster Squad,” so named because on one of the leaked tapes Armstrong is heard referring to himself as a “monster killer,” willing and able to cut off the heads of troublesome holdovers from the administration of his predecessor, former director Larry Godwin, currently the assistant state Safety Commissioner.

With all that going on, and with the added burden of having to deal with some budgetary retrenchments affecting his department, Armstrong didn’t need anything else to get an already wary and watchful media on his case.

From that standpoint, the timing of his department’s enforcement of a new policy regarding traffic on the government plaza downtown was less than ideal.

Tuesday night of last week was one of the biggest news nights of the year, as the City Council, with the fiscal-year deadline of July 1 looming dead ahead, met to try to agree on a budget.

Even on lesser news occasions, the plaza fills up with the satellite vans and other vehicles of the local news media, eager to be in proximity to whatever is breaking in City Hall, the Vasco Smith County Building, or the Federal Building. Other parking spaces are hard, sometimes impossible, to find elsewhere in the vicinity, and the mall has for decades been available for media parking.

The vans and other vehicles began to pull in late on the afternoon of the Council meeting but the reporters, photographers, and technicians were met by uniformed police officers, who, politely and even apologetically, but firmly, delivered the bottom line: Policy is being revised, and no longer will media vehicles be permitted to park on the mall itself. Violators will risk towing and fines.

There followed a mad rush to relocate the vehicles somewhere else close by. As many as possible crowded into the metered spaces on Adams, thereby taking up space that had previously been available for citizen attendees. Other media vehicles crowded onto the adjoining sidewalk. Still others managed to fit into some limited spaces on Front which, in theory, are provided for the media but which, as often as not, fill up with official or civilian vehicles.

In any case, once the media contingent got inside to cover what turned out to be a marathon six-and-a-half-hour Council meeting, there was a good deal of grumbling and tweeting about the new policy — much of it directed toward the new police administration.

But the blame — or the credit — for the new policy should be more widely shared, according to Mary Cashiola, the former Flyer news editor who now serves as brand manager and civic engagement specialist for the City of Memphis.

In a memo to the Flyer, Cashiola explained it this way: Earlier this year, Mayor A C Wharton convened “a committee of the various agencies responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the Main Street Mall.” These included city government itself, the Center City Commission, MLGW, and the Memphis Area Transit Authority.

“One problem they noticed was cracked pavers, mostly due to vehicular traffic. This is not a new problem,” Cashiola said, forwarding copies of a 1993 memo from then General Services director Lewis Fort and a 2005 memo from City Hall building manager Melvin Jamerson. Both documents warned that vehicular traffic could accelerate deterioration of the Mall paving surface.

“Last week, the police department told officers they would no longer be allowed to drive on the mall to conduct personal business. Responding to service calls and emergencies, as well as routine patrols on the Mall, are acceptable. Officers were also told to begin citing unauthorized civilian vehicles on the Mall,” Cashiola said.

She continued: “We know, however, that the people most often parked on the mall (other than for governmental uses) are the broadcast media. In an effort to preserve the mall, we’ve asked them to not to park on it and, for now, referred them to media parking on Front near Poplar. Police are patrolling that space more aggressively to keep non-media vehicles from parking in it, and we’re looking at some other alternatives moving forward.”

In a follow-up memo, Cashiola pointed out that the decision to implement the new parking policy now did not originate with the police but was at the behest of the inter-agency mall-maintenance committee, which met on June 8 and decided to start enforcing a ban on vehicular traffic.

Cashiola said the police started writing tickets on Monday, the day before the Council meeting. Upon learning that, she said, her office began trying to notify media outlets that the ban on vehicular traffic was being enforced. She reached as many as she could on Tuesday, but clearly not everybody got the message.

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