Last week, I was surprised to hear Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware say she was embarrassed by the way the City Council was acting. Actually, I was surprised to hear her say that she was a member of an honorable body, too, but that she was embarrassed about it was the real shocker.
Why? Well, it was her reasoning. Ware wasn't embarrassed about members of the council being indicted on federal bribery charges or a very public investigation into one council member's $16,000 delinquent utility bill. She was embarrassed that members of the council were still concerning themselves with the employment of beleaguered Memphis Light, Gas and Water president Joseph Lee.
Naturally. It's not like MLGW is a city division or anything and that the council might have an interest in how it is operating.
In a heated committee meeting last week that split along racial lines, the council once again talked about what it could, and should, do about Lee. At issue were two proposals: a resolution by Carol Chumney accepting Lee's March 1st letter of resignation and one put forth by Jack Sammons asking Lee to resign.
But in reality, everything seemed to be at issue.
Brent Taylor told Chumney he might agree with her resolution, but he didn't like the way she presented it. She responded tartly, "If I'm out of order, so be it."
Ware reminded council chair Tom Marshall that he asked for the independent investigation into MLGW's special treatment of Edmund Ford, not the full council.
Dedrick Brittenum told Marshall that the proposals were being handled in the wrong committee.
Joe Brown told Chumney, a popular mayoral candidate, that she was using her council position for political gain.
"You can't use your elected office to promote yourself. You're in a gray area, and at times, you do violate that gray area," he said. "You can't even have the staff send out faxes about 'Coffee with Carol.'"
And that was all before things got really ugly.
Ford, looking throughout the meeting like the cat who ate the canary, said to Marshall, "I don't have a prejudice bone in my body, but I know you do" before making a reference to white sheets and saying he was going to draft a resolution to remove Marshall from his position as chair.
"It's a personal issue. It's a black and white issue," said Ford. "I don't know what you've been promised, but I want you to leave me alone. I'm not the one."
And, in a typically long-winded speech, Brown said that the council discussion was setting race relations in Memphis back 50 years. He referenced the recent sentencing of Dale Mardis, the white car-lot owner who pleaded no contest to second-degree manslaughter for killing black code-enforcement officer Mickey Wright. When Mardis was sentenced to 15 years, family and friends of Wright were outraged.
"There's something coming," said Brown. "We wouldn't want a civil disturbance."
And people wonder why Memphis has a hard time keeping up with its sister cities. This isn't a time to see black and white; if anything, it's a time to see red.
The issue is possible malfeasance and a lack of public trust in the utility's leadership, not race. But by making it a question of color, the council continues to damage its own credibility.
And for what purpose?
To remove Lee, the council would have to draft charges against him and essentially hold court proceedings to establish cause. Even then, however, there is no certainty that it is within the council's authority to fire Lee.
The council approves the mayor's appointees; it doesn't generally remove them.
But in the monthlong brouhaha that surrounded the scandal, there simply wasn't enough political will to even try to fire Lee, leaving the council in a surreal tug-of-war last week between asking a man who has already resigned to resign or accepting a resignation that isn't the council's to accept.
When it came right down to it, neither resolution passed in full council. Lee is still working at MLGW, the council never resolved anything, and the city stuck debating between what's black and white and what's right and wrong.
And to me, that's just downright embarrassing.