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THE COUNCIL RESPONDS: 'DON'T BRING US NO MESS!'

THE COUNCIL RESPONDS: 'DON'T BRING US NO MESS!'

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At one point during the city council’s day-long interrogation Tuesday of Mayor Willie Herenton’s designates for top city jobs, council member Barbara Swearengen Holt prepared to pose a question to a mayoral nominee and got a friendly interruption from councilman Rickey Peete, who suggested a line of questioning to her. “Don’t tell me what to ask!" responded Holt, with a testiness that was part mock and part real. “Don’t bring her no mess!” paraphrased councilman Brent Taylor, ever ready with a quip and especially so Tuesday, as he and several other council members kept looking for means of breaking a tension that was evident from the moment Herenton left the room after requesting proper “respect” for his appointees. Taylor’s line -- which broke up the room -- was, of course, an echo of one of Herenton’s memorable phrases during his New Year’s Day “State of the City” address, during which the mayor excoriated unnamed “enemies” on the council and the Shelby County Commission, warning them, “Don’t bring me no mess, and I won’t bring you no mess!” ON the basis of its findings Tuesday, the council seems to have divined the outlines of a mess in Herenton’s appointee list. In a show of independence, the council rejected four of Herenton’s nominees to be directors of city divisions and postponed voting on two others. Rejected outright were Roland McElrath in Finance, Inetta Rogers in Human Resources, Jerry Crawford in Fire Services, and Darrell Eldred in General Services. Richard Copeland, put forth as interim director of the joint city-county Office of Planning and Development, saw a vote on his appointment delayed for four weeks -- on the issue, essentially, of defining the concept of “interim” -- and the most widely anticipated matter of all, the vote on Joseph Lee to be director of Memphis Light Gas & Water, was also delayed four weeks. The premise was to encourage a “national and international search,” but the bringer of the motion to postpone, councilman Rickey Peete, was frank to say that “political realities” were a major factor. The council was generally in a fighting mood because Herenton criticized some of them last week and did not notify them of his nominations before they appeared in the news. And Herenton set the tone himself by not reappointing Herman Morris as president of Memphis Light Gas & Water. What had really roused the council, however, was the mayor’s scorching and challenging New Year’s Day speech. The reprisal-like tone of Tuesday’s meeting was set early on by personnel committee chairman Tom Marshall, who -- at least until the major rejections had occurred -- kept the council focused on the business at hand, several times cautioning both council members and the overflow crowd in the 5th floor committee room in City Hall against distractions. The first appointee to be voted on, Sarah Hall, ultimately got a clean bill of health from the council, but council members’ questioning was determined and vigorous on issues like that of Hall’s experience. As she was explaining that she had not done trial work as such for some years, there was a loud mechanical noise from the adjoining hallway, where onlookers and media people, including TV crews, were crowding to join others inside. “Sounds like you might have a trial there,” cracked Taylor, and another jibe or two went around, but Marshall brought discussion back to the point with the measured statement, “All right! It’s nothing terrible.” Later, when he joined several other council members in disagreeing with Hall about whether interim appointees could hold office without council approval, Marshall spoke sarcastically about the charter’s purported provision of “awesome powers of the mayor,” thereby echoing another Herenton statement from New Year’s Day. “I’ve read the charter very carefully,” Marshall said, “and I don’t find that here.” It was clear that other council members agreed -- and their questions, statements, and, finally, their votes Tuesday constituted what they intended as a definitive refutation. The rejection of McElrath was especially harsh, given that he had formerly been Finance Director under Herenton before taking a top job with the Memphis City Schools. He resigned from that job last year after clashing with board members. The City Council’s Personnel Committee voted 12-0 against him. Council members said McElrath would not stand up to the mayor on their behalf for small expenditures that were not in the budget. Members also raised questions about his pension. Herenton, downplaying concerns about Lee’s experience at the start of the marathon personnel committee meeting, told council members that his nominee was fiscally conservative and well respected on Wall Street and that he could hire engineers and staff members with utility experience. “It might sound self-serving,” said Herenton, “but he [Lee] communicates with this mayor. ... Why not go outside? I didn’t need to go outside.” As the day developed, council members seemed to adopt a love-’em-or leave-’em-state-of mind. Several of the uncontroversial nominees were confirmed by virtual acclamation. Others were not so lucky. With allegations of both misuse of public property and employing racial slurs (one, a possibly innocent e-mail) against Eldred, councilman Jack Sammons made a motion to postpone the appointment for two weeks to investigate the claims. The motion was denied 7-5 and Eldred’s appointment was voted down, 8-3. Former city schools staffer Inetta Rogers also succumbed to the council’s will in what might be known as the credenza offense. After the July storm, Rogers had spent almost $10,000 to replace furniture with water damage, only to have it show up in someone else’s office. Although Rogers was never sanctioned or reprimanded for the purchases and, in fact, was shown to have followed the school board’s procedures, the council was highly critical of her judgment. Rogers, who had ordered a desk, office chair, round table, four chairs, a hutch and a credenza, said she regretted the decision and that she has “a new appreciation for the public” after the fiasco. Late in the day, with nominees like Parks director Wayne Boyer and MHA/HCD director Robert Lipscomb getting unanimous approval, the mood lightened. During a round of prolonged flattering commmentary on the re-nomination of city attorney Robert Spence, who will be leaving the position voluntarily in February for employment elsewhere, council chairman Joe Brown was expounding at length on how good a job Spence had done and someone said, “Yes or no?” to speed things up. And when Brown then reminded the council that he is council chairman, Tom Marshall countered with, “We want you to vote before your term expires.” The council took the extraordinary action of rolling all its separate actions into one vote and expediting the process of approval so as to nail down the results at the later public council session and preclude any possibility of reconsiderations and/or reversals. Now it’s up to Herenton to respond, as no one doubts he will. (Contributors were Jackson Baker, Mary Cashiola, and John Branston.)

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