Opinion » Editorial

MLGW: The Fallout



Maybe he should have sold it.

When Mayor Herenton suggested several years ago that serious consideration be given to the possible sale of Memphis Light, Gas & Water to an investor-owned utility company, he found few supporters, aside from the banks and brokerage firms that would have done the underwriting. The more typical response was that the idea was kooky and unthinkable and

just what you'd expect from "King Willie."

So now MLGW head Joseph Lee is appearing before a federal grand jury, there are indications that politics have corrupted the utility, and the ordinary Memphians who are the shareholders of MLGW get bad news, high bills, Memphis Networx, and diversion of money from the water division to a professional basketball team.

It might seem to add up to a great platform for former MLGW CEO Herman Morris to run for mayor against Herenton this year, but it's not that simple. There's enough credit and blame to go around for both of them. Morris, by the way, has made no official announcement but has told several people he is interested. The filing deadline is not until July, and qualifying petitions can't be pulled until April.

Herenton, remember, promoted Morris to CEO from legal counsel and gave him a free rein. When Morris' term expired, Herenton let him continue and even approved giving him a raise to a salary higher than the mayor's own. Morris left with a generous pension and severance package, although not as lucrative as the one he originally sought because Herenton thought it was too much and blew the whistle.

Right after the big windstorm in 2003, Herenton famously made a campaign visit to Little Rock while Memphians coped without power. In a press conference after the storm, he passed questions about MLGW's slow response to Morris. Neither man can claim stellar marks for that one.

Herenton replaced Morris with Lee in 2004 and replaced several board members as well. That was overdue. The board had been dominated by cronies, consultants, and preachers for too long.

Late last year, Herenton chose his communications assistant (and Democratic Party activist) Gale Jones Carson to be MLGW's head of public relations. She says the political favors that have been recently uncovered at MLGW predated Lee's tenure. But the argument makes no sense. Herenton appointed both Morris and Lee, as well as the board members. And if he wanted to cut down on the politics and the impression of political skullduggery, he should have gone outside his inner circle and hired someone other than Carson for the PR job. There is no way she can be seen as a neutral spokesperson, given her history, especially if Morris jumps into the mayor's race.

Candidate Morris would be questioned about his performance at MLGW. What does he know about "the list"? It seems there was such a thing when he was CEO. (See our story on page 15.) Why did he allow MLGW surpluses and PILOT payments to be used for Memphis Networx and the financing of FedExForum? Can the city afford the pensions, union pay scales, and health-care packages that were approved on his watch?

In short, both Herenton and Morris are likely to be careful about throwing stones. MLGW's office headquarters is crawling with loyalists and grudge-holders for both of them. And now federal investigators are on the case. This looks like a story with staying power until the October election and beyond.

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