Beale and Third
Memphis City Council members said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland disrespected their authority by allowing the Beale Street Bucks program to continue at the $10 level after they had set it to $5, bringing one member to say they were “slapped all over the body.”
The controversial program got another intense grilling at Memphis City Hall Tuesday during a council committee meeting.
Beale Street Bucks was established last year and charged visitors to the street $10 to enter on certain nights in the summer to control crowd size. It was put in place after two stampedes on the street brought injuries and property damage.
However, some council members said the program was racist because it targeted African Americans. A council vote reduced the fee to $5. Another vote established a task force to review the policy and, perhaps, find new ways to handle security on Beale Street. That group is expected to report its findings in 90 days.
Strickland lobbied against reducing the fee, saying the program worked where many other attempts at Beale security had failed. He even threatened to veto the council’s decision.
But he didn’t. Instead, Strickland continued to collect the $10 fee the Saturday following the council’s vote to reduce the fee to $5. In a statement issued late last week, Strickland said he directed the Downtown Memphis Commission to lower the fee to $5 for this past Saturday (and they did). However, Strickland said he reserved the right to increase the fee back to $10 “if I feel public safety is compromised.”
How Strickland could go against the council’s resolution left a “big question mark” in the mind of council member Jamita Swearengen. The mayor should not be able to “override our approvals,” she said, “if so, then, there’s not need for the Memphis City Council.”
“We have not just been slapped in the face,” Swearengen said, “but we have been slapped all over the body.”
Council member Martavius Jones agreed, calling the move “totally disrespectful” and that “I hope we’re never placed in that situation again.”
Council chairman Berlin Boyd said he worked with Strickland’s administration on the matter as it unfolded. He said attorneys disagreed as to whether or not a resolution was the right method of changing the rule but finally saw eye to eye on the matter. That’s when Strickland agreed to lower the fee to $5.
The committee meeting took an altogether different direction after council member Joe Brown was recognized to speak. Brown began to handle the meeting not as a discussion on Beale Street Bucks (as described in the committee schedule) but as an investigative hearing on the Downtown Memphis Commission and its handling of the program.
Brown demanded to know how much money the program had brought in, who took the money, where the money was deposited, how any of the money had been spent, and demanded bank account numbers, bank agreements, and the business licenses of contracted firms.
Brown peppered his inquiries with threats, lectures on the council’s powers, and off-hand remarks that showed he was clearly enjoying himself.
Here are some choice quotes from Brown:
• (About the company contracted to administer the Beale Street Bucks program): “Everybody in that organization better be up to par.”
• (About the DMC’s performance during Tuesday’s meeting): “You’re making mistakes you don’t even know you’re making.”
• (Again, about the DMC’s performance during the meeting): “You’re doing a good job because I got enough. This is better than Washington. Thank you.”
• (About his line of questioning Tuesday): “I’m not asking you questions I can’t ask you. If I subpoena you, I want the records. That’s a power this council has.”
• (About what he’s thinking about his investigation): “We are tired of playing little boys games and little girls games. It’s hardball from here on out. We got trump cards or we would’t be asking you any questions.”
However, council member Worth Morgan said he wished the Beale Street Bucks program would have been left alone until the task force finished its work, that the reason for the change was “pulled out of thin air,” and that he wished Strickland would have vetoed the change to the program. He also praised the DMC for its work on the program.
“We made a change to the program before we heard recommendations on it from the task force,” Morgan said. “That was a mistake.”
Though no formal request was made by council members Tuesday, there’s little do
ubt that the Beale Street Bucks program will return to city hall for another review soon.