Mayor Meets with Council on FedExForum Parking Garage

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Who knew that a downtown parking garage meant so much to members of the Memphis City Council?

Mayor Willie Herenton met with the council for half an hour Tuesday, then spent several more minutes answering questions and sparring with reporters outside the conference room in City Hall. At the end of the day, there were no definitive answers about the FedExForum parking garage that enriches the Memphis Grizzlies but was supposed to be a nonprofit mass transit facility.

Herenton suggested council members were overreacting to media reports, which were in turn an overreaction to a state report about the parking garage.

“Often we are victimized by overzealous media,” he said.

He said nobody broke any laws, but conceded “there were some omissions, in my opinion, some serious omissions, made by individuals, but the issue of compliance with this federal grant has been resolved.”

The city of Memphis lost $6 million in federal funds in the deal, but Herenton said taxpayers would feel no pain because of it.

“No essential municipal services will be affected,” he said, conceding that “the federal government was absolutely right to rule that we were in non-compliance.”

The meeting was testy, and council members seem determined to press ahead for more answers in two weeks. Several people involved with the construction contracts for FedExForum were there, including former city attorney Robert Spence and Public Building Authority attorney Charles Carpenter. But some others didn’t show for various reasons, including former City CAO Rick Masson, mayoral assistant Pete Aviotti, and attorney Arnold Perl, who was chairman of the Public Building Authority.

Herenton noted that he has “never in my political career asked for anybody to be investigated” even though he said he has heard rumors that some council members are “less than honest.” Three council members have called for a federal investigation of the parking garage.

Carpenter said the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) was well aware of what was going on in Memphis with the garage.

“For TDOT to say someone duped them, that they did not know what was going on, is not an accurate statement,” he said.

That prompted Councilman Myron Lowery to ask why TDOT was asking for money back. And Councilman Tom Marshall asked if anyone asked TDOT officials whether or not it was okay to give the garage to the Grizzlies as a profit center.

Councilwoman Carol Chumney handed out a printed transcript of a committee meeting last November in which she asked Carpenter “what’s the exposure on that if we had to pay some money back to the state?”

Carpenter answered, “we feel that there is little or no exposure.” Sara Hall, the current city attorney, said in the November meeting that she had gone over PBA records on the garage “in detail with respect to the communications from the state as to the parking garage.” She said the intermodal transit plan was “a work in progress” rather than something that was previously agreed upon as a condition of federal funding. Hall attended Tuesday’s meeting but said she was unfamiliar with most of the records and would need time and assistance to review them.

Those questions were left hanging at least until the council meets again in two weeks.

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