Clock Problem

Critics of the FedExForum contract see their opportunities slipping away.



Time is running out for dissidents who question details of the FedExForum, now entering the final several months of construction in downtown Memphis. So concedes Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham, chief among those who have consistently questioned the contract between local governments and Hoops, the umbrella organization representing the ownership of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies and local NBA supporters.

Until recently, Willingham and other arena skeptics held a majority on the commission ready to approve a $50,000 contract with the local engineering/consulting firm of Barnett Naylor/Hanscomb to vet arena arrangements. That consensus vanished after a visit to the commission last week from Public Building Authority executive director Dave Bennett, who apparently convinced several commissioners to hold their fire.

Project consultant John Hilkene is on tap for a special meeting Thursday of Willingham's Public Service and Tourism committee, and the commissioner was of two minds about the impending visit. "I'll be pleasantly surprised if he shows up. Their attitude has been, 'Don't bother us. We've got an arena to build,'" said Willingham, who added, concerning the pending watchdog contract, "If he [Hilkene] doesn't show up, you can bet your ass the vote will be there to go ahead."

· On the same day that President Bush told a Las Vegas audience that things were "getting better" for the United States in Iraq, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist hedged that bet after a Memphis speech last week, responding, "No, it's as bad as it looks," when asked if there was "light at the end of the tunnel" in Iraq.

Otherwise, Frist, just concluding two weeks of intense labor in Washington, offered a relatively rosy scenario at an installment of the "Frontline Politics 101" series at the Park Vista Hotel -- particularly concerning the final passage of what Frist described as a "bipartisan" Medicare reform bill.

Frist described the enacted measure, which includes subsidies to drug companies that extend prescription benefits to seniors, as superior to the more "bureaucratic, big-government, more costly" version favored by Kennedy and other Democrats. He said the Medicare bill had succeeded in three aims: "It was bipartisan, it is voluntary, and it will transform Medicare."

Also making a local stop last week was 7th District U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who toured Iraq recently. Before addressing members of the East Shelby Republican Club last week, Blackburn acknowledged that "the way will be hard" in Iraq but, like Frist, offered her full support to the president's current policies.

· Spirited races are shaping up next year for two local countywide offices:

General Sessions Court Clerk: The Republican incumbent, Chris Turner, faces one possible GOP challenger, newcomer Charles Fineberg, and certain Democratic opposition. Among the known or likely Democratic challengers: Becky Clark, who served as chief administrator under former clerks Gene Goldsby and John Ford; former broadcast personality Janis Fullilove, who lost a close race to incumbent City Court clerk Thomas Long this year; state senator Roscoe Dixon, who ran unsuccessfully for the office four years ago; and O.C. Pleasant, longtime chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission.

Shelby County Assessor: The Democratic incumbent, Rita Clark, faces opposition from within her own party ranks. Former assessor Michael Hooks Sr., who held the job from 1988 to 1992, is gearing up for a primary challenge to Clark. Republicans include former Lakeland mayor Jim Bomprezzi, real estate appraiser Grady Frisby, who ran for the office four years ago; Bob Kahn, another former aspirant; and John Bogan.

A special case is frequent candidate Jesse Elder Neely, who has drawn petitions to run for both assessor and General Sessions clerk. Neely is certain to be disallowed as a candidate until he pays accumulated fines owed the state Election Registry for past failure to file financial disclosure statements in previous races.

· Several Democratic presidential campaigns have taken root in Shelby County. Local supporters of both Wesley Clark and Howard Dean held meet-ups this week, and there was a similar turnout for John Kerry (whose chief Memphis-area supporter is U.S. Rep. Harold Ford) last week. Both Richard Gephardt and Joe Lieberman also have some prominent local supporters. John Edwards has had a fund-raiser or two in these parts. Even Dennis Kucinich, widely considered an also-ran, is attempting to set up a local organization, having recently sounded out local activist Jay Sparks, who has at least one other iron in the fire, about setting one up. ·


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