Willie Herenton's forthcoming July 31st resignation came as a surprise to local business leaders, school board consultants, and even close associates at City Hall.
On Thursday morning, developer Henry Turley was meeting with Jack Belz, Scott Ledbetter, Robert Lipscomb, Tom Marshall, Tony Bologna, and representatives of St. Jude Children's Hospital and Ducks Unlimited about Bass Pro and The Pyramid. Turley said he had no idea Herenton was planning a surprise announcement, and he thinks at least some of the others at the meeting were also in the dark.
"It's the damndest thing I ever heard," said Turley, who has worked on various downtown projects with Herenton and Lipscomb for the last 16 years.
Turley said Lipscomb left the meeting for about five minutes at one point, but he made no mention of Herenton when he returned.
Lipscomb said the announcement had been in the rumor mill for about two weeks but he did not get official word until Thursday afternoon.
I don't get involved in politics," he said. "I just work."
Mayoral special assistant Pete Aviotti said Herenton told his top staff Thursday morning, but drafted a letter to chief administrative office Keith McGee earlier this week. The mayor met with City Council chairman Scott McCormick on Thursday around noon to tell him of his plans before they hit the news media.
"The letter contains a Bible verse but I can't remember the exact one," said Aviotti. "He (the mayor) believes the Lord has given him the right direction."
Aviotti said Herenton will apply to be the next superintendent of the Memphis City Schools -- the position he held for 11 years before becoming mayor in 1992. "He told me he has always liked challenges and feels like going back in education system will give him a challenge to bring it up to where it ought to be," Aviotti said.
Herenton plans to stay in the mayor's office until July 31st, at which time McCormick, as chairman of the City Council, will become mayor for 20 days. After that, there could be a special election or a mayoral election in November in conjunction with the presidential election. It would in all probability be too late to put the city mayoral special election on the ballot with the county and congressional elections in August.
"I'm going to be mayor for a maximum of 20 days," McCormick said, adding that he was surprised at the mayor's timing. "The rumor has been floating around that he would resign this term," said McCormick. "I thought it would be in year three or four of this term. I was a little caught off guard that he is doing it at this time."
Herenton has not officially resigned, and it is not clear how or when he intends to do that. In theory, at least, he could change his mind at any time. But McCormick said the mayor gave him "every indication that he intends to resign" and apply for the superintendent's job.
The school board has hired a consulting firm, Ray and Associates, Inc., to conduct a national search for the next superintendent. On Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m., consultants Al Johnson and Carl Davis were at Manassas High School with four people who showed up for a meeting to give community input. When that meeting broke up, Johnson headed for Whitehaven High School and Davis drove to Craigmont High School. In the middle of a meeting with five community members, one of them, Stephanie Fitzgerald, got a call on her cell phone and announced that Herenton was resigning. Davis finished the meeting and proceeded to the next one at Cordova High.
Davis said the school board's charge was to conduct a national search, which was expected to draw about 100 applicants. The field will be narrowed to about 15, then to six or eight candidates who will be interviewed by the board.
At the Manassas High School meeting, Johnson said the job will probably pay about $260,000 per year. He said the board is looking for a candidate who can win unanimous approval.
"It has to be nine to nothing," he said. "At five-to-four, an outstanding candidate will not take the job."