Some cynic once said, "I wouldn't want to live in a city where you couldn't get a parking ticket fixed."
Me neither. And I sure wouldn't want to work in one. Gray areas and exceptions to the rule are the mother's milk of journalism. Nothing would be more boring than a perfectly clean town where everything works like a clock. But as recent events involving Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, two former top aides -- special assistant Bobby Lanier and public affairs spokesperson Susan Adler Thorp -- and Tom Jones' pension request show, there is no danger of that here.
The question, instead, is how anything gets done in Shelby County when a half-dozen bright people with a combined total of more than 100 years political experience as elected officials, appointed officials, advisers, lawyers, fixers, spinners, press spokesmen, and newspaper columnists exhibit the communication skills, curiosity, mutual trust, and common sense of a bottle of ketchup.
Rarely has so much news coverage been so far off the mark. This was not a Tom Jones story. It was a county government breakdown story. It was an A C Wharton and Bobby Lanier story. The man of action and the man of ideas; the mayor and his driver and lunch buddy. Bobby Lanier probably got more face time with A C Wharton than anyone in Memphis outside of the mayor's wife. Yet Lanier never explained and Wharton never asked exactly what was up with old Tom, even though Jones had made it clear to both of them that he intended to come back to work for Shelby County government, if only for a day or two, despite his criminal conviction on embezzlement charges.
Politics and criminal justice are imperfect sciences. Deals, compromises, and half-solutions are the nature of the beast. Some criminals go free; some get out of prison too soon; some good people get shortchanged; some rogues prosper. As the mayorally appointed Shelby County public defender for more than 20 years and a criminal attorney in private practice to boot, Wharton accepted plea bargains, deals, and imperfect solutions in the court system. Now he acts shocked that they are part of county politics.
Jones, who reported to a federal prison Monday, is correct that this story has been overblown, at least if it is played as a Tom Jones story. The real story isn't what was done but how it was done, leading to an extraordinary internal investigation and the forced resignations of Lanier and Thorp, a Wharton appointee.
A case can be made that Jones deserves an early-retirement pension of roughly $3,000 a month, which is what he could be drawing today, no questions asked, if he had lasted another eight months in county employment. He worked for Shelby County for 26 years. He was eight months short of his 55th birthday when he got suspended. A few months earlier, he was highly employable, with a fat file of contacts and options, in the wake of the successful opening of AutoZone Park and arrival of the Memphis Grizzlies, projects with which he was intimately involved.
Without another job waiting, nobody 54 years old with a family and the usual array of middle-age worries about health and home leaves a job eight months before his pension is going to double and pay him an additional $540,000 if he lives another 30 years.
Financial newspapers, magazines, and books are full of advice about how to max out your pension. Last week a story in The Wall Street Journal headlined "How the Fed's Move Affects Your Pension" advised older employees to "consider moving up their retirement date."
That's what Jones did. He tried to move up his retirement date from age 65 to age 56. If going to prison, being jobless, turning 56, and family illness aren't life-changing circumstances, then what is?
So he talked to his old colleagues, sent in his paperwork to a county official appointed by Wharton, and exercised his fallback rights. Fallback rights entitle civil-service employees to job protection. That may be a foreign concept to some people but not public employees. Jones did what many other county employees have done over the years, although in his case it was a stretch to go back 24 years when he had civil-service protection before he moved up to an appointed position. And Jones never reported to the phantom job and was not paid.
Susan Callison, attorney for the Shelby County Retirement Board, said she has not seen another case like the Tom Jones case in her nine years in that position.
"Just because someone is put back on the rolls, to me it does not necessarily make them a county employee," she said. "Any employment lawyer you talk to will tell you that just because you say someone is an employee it doesn't mean it is so."
She conceded that, contrary to what she originally thought (and consistent with what Jones has stated), Jones did not put himself on the retirement board's agenda in 2003 by applying for a deferred pension at age 65. Instead, he and other former employees were put on the agenda by administrators so that actuaries could calculate the future needs of the pension system.
"Many times an individual who is entitled to a deferred vested pension at 65 doesn't even specifically apply for one," she said. "In Tom's case that was the case. Every employee who terminates has to be put on the list for the sake of the actuaries."
Callison said an error was made in June by giving administrative approval to Jones for an early-retirement pension. The request should have come before the full board.
"Nobody gets a pension unless the board has approved it," she said. "The names are read aloud, the type of pension is noted, and the approximate amount of the pension is read aloud before the board votes on it."
She said the retirement office "is full of wonderful, straight-up people and they do an excellent job and jealously guard the assets." She suspects office administrators were advised by others to take the actions they did in the Jones case.
And that's where this stopped being a Tom Jones story and became a story about the idealistic Wharton, who, for all of his public visibility, can be confoundingly deliberate and difficult to corral for five minutes of undistracted face time, and his political godfather Bobby Lanier, who for three mayors was the ultimate "man to see" to get something done now.
Government is all about access. Access to boards that zone property and issue permits. Access to members of the City Council and the County Commission. And best of all, access to the city and county mayors. Lanier was Mr. Access to county mayors Bill Morris, Jim Rout, and Wharton, as well as other top county officials.
To everyone who knows him, he is just Bobby. When the modern form of county government was invented 30 years ago, that was one thing. Today it is something else. In a county with a population of more than 800,000 people, not everybody knows Bobby. So if you need to get something done pronto and know Bobby, everything is cool and you have a leg up. And if you live in the little world of county government or city government or the news business, you might think everybody knows Bobby, just like if you follow pro basketball you might think everybody knows K.G. or J-Will. But if you don't live inside the little world of Memphis politics or follow the NBA, you probably don't have a clue. In fact, all this cozy familiarity and nicknames can be downright offensive, like turning on Crossfire or the NFL Today and wondering what some bunch of screamers is so excited about.
Wharton finally had to admit that it isn't fair. His voice nearly breaking, he said "there are no off days" for those who work on the eighth floor of the county building, where the offices of the mayor and his top aides are located. Everybody who lives in Shelby County and has business with the mayor's office is supposed to get a fair shake. It's called equal access. So Bobby Lanier and Susan Thorp, with their infinite institutional memory and hotline to the mayor and glowing reviews from Tom Jones, had to go.
It was understandable that Wharton would keep Lanier around a while. Lanier was so zealous about getting Wharton elected in 2002 that Rout had to warn him to back off the politics until his term was over. Until Lanier suffered a shoulder injury a couple of months ago, he and Wharton seemed to be inseparable, as the mayor seemingly relished the ceremonial duties of luncheon speeches and community meetings. But, we are to believe, they never talked turkey.
As for Thorp, if you're the head of public affairs, you're supposed to be in the know, particularly about hot topics. Like Lanier, Thorp's strength was also a potential liability. You don't write a newspaper column of inside scoop for The Commercial Appeal for 10 years and then make people believe you didn't know what was going on with your old friend Tom Jones or talk to your boss, the mayor, about it.
Wharton and John Fowlkes, his chief administrative officer and a former federal prosecutor, seem determined to do better. They must. Voting is down to 12 percent in the last election. A citizen's group is demanding a referendum on city pensions and making a general clamor for accountability in government. Wharton came to the mayor's office vowing to clean up county government. Two years later he's still at it. As a politician, he is liked by nearly everyone because he is seemingly all things to all people. Last week's painful action was decisive and could indicate a new course and determination. Fowlke's investigation of the Jones pension story was unprecedented. It named names, and Fowlkes said "the mayor is going to consider disciplinary action against others."
Replacements must be found for both Lanier and assistant chief administrative officer Ernie Gunn, who is retiring for unrelated reasons. It will be telling to see exactly how Wharton defines Lanier's old job. The best Fowlkes could come up with after he released his report was "adviser to the mayor," but that evasion doesn't begin to tell the story. n
How a Mayor Learns the Ropes
Other mayors know what A C Wharton is going through. Transitions invariably involve hard decisions about keeping or getting rid of key employees and, for the mayor, asserting a personal style. And there is often a crisis to deal with in the first year.
"Defining your personality and your style to thousands of employees is something that you don't just sit down and say, 'Here is what I'm going to do,'" said former Memphis mayor Dick Hackett. "That's something those employees pretty well define about you. That is why every step you make in public and private life is so important. Your style and character are the soul of your administration."
Hackett was 33 years old when he was elected in 1982 to finish the remaining 13 months of Wyeth Chandler's unexpired term after Chandler was appointed to a judgeship.
"I had to define myself both within the administration and to the public," Hackett said. "I had to make quick decisions and quick impressions. Fortunately, philosophically, Chandler and I had very few differences, but we certainly had different personalities and lifestyles that would affect the kind of people we work with."
One of his first decisions was to replace a police director who was a political crony of Chandler with a professional cop. That proved important a year later when Hackett had to deal with the notorious Shannon Street incident in which a police officer was taken hostage and killed and police in turn killed seven hostage-takers.
"I probably reached a higher comfort level in my second administration, but I was always concerned that I would start to take things for granted and leave well enough alone and not rock the boat," said Hackett. "I realize now more than ever you have to protect yourself from getting too comfortable with the status quo. Being there too long can bite you just as much as being brand-new because you let your guard down."
Hackett was succeeded by Willie Herenton in 1992. Herenton came to the job with a dozen years of experience as superintendent of the Memphis City Schools. He declined to speak about the specifics of Wharton's current situation, but he did offer some comparisons of their backgrounds.
"I had vast experience dealing with high-level government officials and about 15,000 employees and 18 unions," said Herenton. "I was a highly visible media personality. The dynamics of politics and litigation are different. When I came into the mayor's office, I was probably the most prepared individual of anybody to assume the mayor's job. Now, when you contrast that to an individual who has been an attorney who walks into a multi-faceted county organization, he does not bring to the table the same prerequisites that I did. I often say to my good friend A C that there is a lot of difference in practicing law and being a mayor."
Herenton said his own first term was difficult despite his experience.
"The biggest transition for me was coming into an organization and having to work with politicians on the City Council," he said. "I had fired members of the Memphis Housing Authority board, and one of them was the son of a city councilman. I kept some very high-level officials from the Hackett administration because they were good and competent. I felt in time I could gain their loyalty, and that is what happened."
As the first elected black mayor of Memphis, it took Herenton a while to find a "go-to guy" such as Lanier or former city chief administrative officer Rick Masson. His first two terms were marked by turnover in the office of chief administrative officer, police director, and city attorney.
"In my first term I started asking myself why I did this," Herenton said. "That continued in my second term. The third term I thoroughly enjoyed. I saw a lot of my goals and visions coming closer to reality." -- JB