Politics » Politics Feature

Curtains for Jefferson?

Council supporters shift away from city attorney; vote expected next week.



Indications are that the Memphis City Council, stalemated on the subject a month ago, is now ready to approve the firing of city attorney Elbert Jefferson. Key council members appear to have been swayed by new disclosures that Jefferson okayed and expedited taxpayer funds for the potential criminal defense of former mayor Willie Herenton.

The revelation that Robert Spence, then employed as a private attorney by Herenton, received $55,000 on Jefferson's say-so has apparently altered the thinking of at least two council members who were considered supportive of Jefferson when newly installed Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery attempted to discharge the city attorney more than a month ago.

Council chairman Harold Collins, one of several council members attending the opening of mayoral candidate Lowery's campaign headquarters on Elvis Presley Boulevard Sunday, said "it doesn't look good" for Jefferson, adding that the council would meet with the city attorney on September 15th and demand an accounting for a procedure which, Collins said, appears to have been improper. Action on Jefferson's status could be taken on that date, Collins said.

Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, also present at the Lowery headquarters opening, agreed, saying that, on the basis of the facts as she currently understands them, she would be compelled to vote for discharging Jefferson should the matter be brought to a vote.

On July 31st, the date of his formal swearing-in as mayor pro tem, former council chairman Lowery attempted to fire Jefferson and had him escorted from City Hall by police. Jefferson was able to get a preliminary injunction from Chancellor Walter Evans staying the action, however, and, after hearing the matter, Evans would later prohibit any firing of Jefferson without approval by the council and no suspension of the city attorney without appropriate "cause."

Jefferson's sanctioning of public money for Herenton's private legal defense may turn out to be due cause, especially if other council members follow the lead of Collins and Fullilove. After the hearing in Chancellor Evans' court, the matter appeared to have reached what Lowery referred to Saturday as a "stalemate," with the council's six white members presumed to be in favor of Jefferson's departure and six African-American members, including Collins and Fullilove, considered as defenders of his tenure.

Speaking with reporters after he addressed supporters at the headquarters opening, Lowery said the new disclosures amounted to a vindication of his original intent to discharge Jefferson. "Citizens need to know that there are certain things I can't say publicly until I have absolute proof," Lowery said, characterizing the revelations of the payments to Spence as "the tip of the iceberg" and pointing out that the FBI now apparently was investigating Jefferson.

"I think you will see more in the coming weeks, and I want this issue resolved as soon as possible," Lowery said. Noting that his original effort to fire Jefferson had "the support of only half the council," the mayor pro tem said, "If I'm going to run the city the way I want to run it, with open transparency and high ethics, this has got to be done."

• Contending that he is "reassessing all debates," Shelby County mayor A C Wharton remained critical last week about what he contended was an arbitrary change in rules for the previous week's first televised debate on WMC-TV, Action News 5.

"It was not about Prince Mongo [Robert Hodges]," said Wharton, speaking to reporters at Frayser Park after participating in a kick-off event for National Infant Mortality Awareness Month. "It's just that we were told there would be one set of rules, and we were told the next morning there would be another set of rules. I didn't single out anybody. "

Wharton said, "I'm a lawyer, and when you set the rules to a game, you follow them. ... It's just that the rule of law is the rule of law."

The county mayor and presumed frontrunner in the Memphis mayor's race, set for October 15th, said, "There will be no future debates unless we're involved — consulted and given an opportunity to have some input into the rules. That's the way it's done."

Noting that he had just announced the receipt of several federal and state grants to fund county projects, he said, "I think I can better serve the people of Shelby County by doing that instead of jibber-jabbering in some loose form called a debate."

Contacted about Wharton's allegations, WMC-TV assistant news director Tammy Phillips, who oversaw the debate details, denied Wharton's account of how their communications had gone, and she said there were no breaches of the rules for participation.

It was after Wharton was informed on Thursday morning, August 27th, that Hodges would be participating in the coming evening's debate, said Phillips, that she received a hand-delivered communication from the county mayor threatening to withdraw.

A key section of that letter read as follows:

"I accepted this invitation based on the good-faith assurance from [Joe] Birch that this debate would include only 'serous candidates.'

"I learned of the final list of the participating candidates scheduled for tonight's debate while watching WMC-TV's newscast this morning. Please be advised that I am considering withdrawal from this debate."

Ultimately, Wharton unbent from his discontent and participated in the debate, although several media reports noted his detour upon entering Opera Memphis, where the debate was held, to avoid encountering Hodges, who was in the lobby.

• Another mayoral candidate, city councilwoman Wanda Halbert, later called Wharton's critical remarks "strange." Halbert defended WMC-TV for its conduct of the debate and upheld the right of controversial candidate Robert Hodges to have participated. She said, "The [debate] rules were exactly as indicated to us beforehand. There was no change."

"This is a democracy, and he's a candidate, and he had every right to take part in the debate," Halbert said about Hodges Saturday at the opening of her campaign headquarters at 919 South Highland.

• Three mayoral candidates — former councilwoman Carol Chumney, municipal bond lawyer Charles Carpenter, and school board member the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. — attended a kickoff event for the "Issues First" campaign last Thursday at a polluted site with high lead content adjoining Vance Middle School.

Carpenter said, "You look for ideas outside the [local] tax base" for solutions, using federal and state funds in conjunction with planned development of the area. Chumney called for strict enforcement of state and federal regulations, saying she had the experience and determination to force the issue, and Whalum called for bringing "government to the people," hiring local people for the cleanup and even locating new city-government buildings in the area. In earlier remarks Thursday to members of the East Memphis Exchange Club, Chumney said she had done "more for the African-American community than the mayors we have right now."

• For those interested parties who have been keen for some sign from 9th District congressman Steve Cohen as to whether he'd vote for a health-care bill that lacks a public-option provision, the wait is over. The congressman isn't necessarily tied to the public option as a be-all and end-all. Here's how he put it Friday, after participating at Frayser Park in the kickoff event for Infant Mortality Month:

"Let's see what bill comes to the floor. If it's a bill that comes up that is a better health-care program than exists today and is something that has an opportunity for more health-care centers and more family docs and can eliminate preexisting conditions and get wellness programs and all those things, it would be better than what we have today, and I could support it."

As he has before, Cohen stressed his preference: "I'd rather — I want a public option, I've strongly lobbied for a public option." But he said he wouldn't vote to kill a bill without a public-option provision that had the other characteristics he'd cited. "If you did that, there are a lot of bills that you might not have voted for that weren't perfect. The perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the good."

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