Mayor Herenton thinks MLGW needs a little outside input. We think The Commercial Appeal needs a little outside input. The case of Herman Morris and MLGW shows why on both counts.
The mayor has called the utility company "an island unto itself" with good reason. Apart from the question of salaries, Memphis Networx, bobblehead dolls, long waits on the telephone, and East Memphis office buildings, MLGW is, in our experience, simply the most secretive, protective, unresponsive public agency in Memphis or Shelby County.
Six years ago when Herenton suggested selling MLGW, no news outlet reported more thoroughly or critically about the proposal and its well-paid author, consultant Rotan Lee, than we did. We have had our scraps with the mayor, and we have no history of bad relations with Morris. But the Flyer and its readers have been absolutely stonewalled lately when it comes to getting information out of MLGW.
We reported last week that Morris proposed a severance and benefits package for himself worth $1.17 million. The Commercial Appeal reported, misleadingly we believe, that "Morris bows out with $205,000." A later CA story acknowledged that Morris would also get a pension estimated at $470,000 and other benefits listed as "confidential" in the packet he gave to his board for approval.
We stand by our story. The mayor stands by our story. We have attempted several times to contact MLGW spokesman Mark Heuberger without success. If we're wrong, we would like to see the documents, then we'll say so.
The real story here is not a package of benefits for Herman Morris. Even if it does total half a million or a million dollars, that is not unusual in the corporate world for an officer with 15 years experience. And a $500,000 pension could well be achievable in the public sector, depending on years of service and final salaries.
The issue raised by Mayor Herenton is whether MLGW employees should get severance pay under a policy written by Morris and his staff three years ago to protect themselves in case they lost their jobs. The mayor says severance pay, along with extra pay for storm days and out-of-town days for executives, is not the norm in other branches of city government. He has said he will try to undo the policy.
For our part, we don't see why the separation and release agreement for Morris says, in item number three, that "the terms and conditiions of this agreement are to be treated as strictly confidential." And we note that the next item says that the two numbers spelled out in the agreement -- the $205,000 severance payment and $2,000 outplacement expense -- are "in addition to any amounts that (Morris) would otherwise be entitled to" but does not list them.
An agreement is either confidential or it isn't. Why part of it was given to the CA and not all of it is beyond us. But we would argue that none of it should be confidential, and that a newspaper that doesn't squawk about that isn't doing its job.
MLGW's five-member board is clearly out of its depth and has no understanding or respect for open meetings and open government. Typically it will meet before lunch to do business upstairs, then come downstairs after lunch for a public meeting that sometimes lasts less than two minutes. Herenton, we note, made his criticisms of Morris and MLGW in a public meeting in a room packed with reporters and government employees.
Judgment on the $1.5 billion bond deal between MLGW and TVA cannot be made until Morris and MLGW officials explain how they doled out the legal and underwriting business and Herenton explains why he wanted it changed. Typically, MLGW is letting out only the information it wants to let out and only to those reporters it considers favorable to its cause.