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Best of Government




One of the crummier ideas going around is that politics and government are bad things. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, recently illustrated how this idea has been pushed, with much success, by conservative groups, publications, and wordsmiths that are often funded by wealthy individuals and foundations. In Memphis, the government-is-bad disciples are talk-radio hosts, serial authors of grumpy letters to The Commercial Appeal, and even some politicians and wannabes.

Politics can be ugly and distressing, but politics is a good idea. How else would you govern a diverse city like Memphis? And government wastes some money but probably no more than most corporations. But government does some good things too, in one man's view, such as:

· The best voice of local liberalism is Shelby County commissioner Walter Bailey, who happens to be our longest-serving public official. Picks his spots and gets to the point. Consistent and articulate, takes on the big dogs and doesn't mince words.

· The best voice of local conservatism is Shelby County commissioner David Lillard. I find myself agreeing with him even when I don't agree with him. A close second, with a completely different personality and speaking style, is city councilman E.C. Jones.

· The best idea on the near horizon is term limits. They should apply, though, to mayors and appointed boards as well as members of the school boards, Shelby County Commission, and Memphis City Council. Eight years sounds about right. Some talented people would be missed, but it is a mistake in politics, as in the news business, to think that you can't be replaced. Sorry, Walter, that means you too.

· The best advice to local politicians on the commission and council that doesn't require legislation or a referendum is make your point and shut up.

· The best change of personnel on a public board was at MLGW, where Willie Herenton waited far too long to get a grip on things. Term limits won't have real meaning until they apply to appointed boards as well as elected offices. The Agricenter, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Center City Commission ought to be next on the list for fresh horses.

· The best addition to Memphis, owing to the work of the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development, is the demolition of the Coach and Four Hotel and Restaurant on Lamar. How did this dump survive so long with immediate neighbors such as the University Club, Snowden mansion, and Central Gardens?

· The best future addition to Memphis would be more demolitions, including Baptist Hospital, most of the Mid-South Fairgrounds, Crump Stadium, the Sears building in Midtown, and the Sterick Building downtown.

· The best ongoing road project is the widening of Interstate 240 from Union to Chelsea and the removal of the never-used Midtown interchange ramps. Better 30 years late than never.

· The best urban pedestrian project, maybe anywhere in the South, is the downtown Bluffwalk, Mississippi River Greenbelt, and Tom Lee Park. They probably overspent, but so what? This really is the front yard of Memphis. Stunning.

· The best suburban pedestrian project is the network of parks and walking trails in Collierville, which shows what a community can do when it emphasizes participant rather than spectator sports.

· The best new public park policy is Mud Island's free admission for bike riders, with elevator transportation to the walkway above the monorail.

· The best new idea in an old part of Memphis is the Home Depot going up in Midtown at Poplar and Avalon. Midtowners are understandably proud of local merchants and wary of big-box stores, but this is a recognition of how people live in the modern world and the waste involved in driving 30-40 minutes every time you need some lumber and plywood.

· The best community redevelopment project is the Midtown Corridor, where the expressway was halted 30 years ago. There isn't another one like it in America. A lot of unsung government employees, builders, and homebuyers made it work.

· The best idea in public housing in many a year is replacing density with elbow room and duplexes and fourplexes like you see in College Park across from LeMoyne-Owen College, Uptown north of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and Lauderdale Courts, where Elvis used to live.

· The best voice of news about local government is Mike Matthews of WREG-TV Channel 3, the Barry White of local news, with a dose of Raymond Chandler.

· The best boost to education and community spirit in Memphis is The Commercial Appeal's consistently strong and thorough coverage of prep sports.

· The best water is Memphis water. As good as the stuff that costs $1 a bottle. Yes, it was there anyway, but somebody had to pump it to your sink.

· The best thing about Willie Herenton is that he is always on the record. He says things on the record that other politicians, past and present, believe but only say or said off the record.

· The best thing about A C Wharton is he raises hopes.

· The best new policy is school uniforms. Neat, simple, affordable, and compatible with freedom and individual liberty.

· The best outdoor concert in Memphis is the series at the Memphis Botanic Garden. Concert as baseball game. You watch a little, eat a lot, talk a little, get up and walk around, leave when you're bored. And you can bring your own food and drink.

· The best candidate in city government for a kick in the butt and a major infusion of fresh faces and fresh ideas is the Memphis Park Commission. •

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