In all the years I've reported on Memphis politics, I'm convinced only Jack Sammons could rightfully hold the title of "The Natural." His energetic personality, his still-boyish charm, even at age 59, and his infectious belief that Memphis can still be that "shining city on a hill" are all undeniable.
So, why am I not enthusiastic over the possibility the ubiquitous businessman, former councilman, and current Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority Board chairman could become this city's next chief administrative officer (CAO)? I'll tell you why, and it has nothing to do with the amiable Sammons on a personal or professional basis.
Just as teams recycle grizzled baseball managers and football coaches, we in Memphis continue to recycle the same people through the meat grinder of government. In a city of more than 640,000 people, in a county of just under 1 million people, how is it that our pool of the brightest and most innovative minds is somehow limited to the same patronage stream that has been fished in for decades?
I've often been asked, "Why don't more good people step up to the plate when it comes to engaging in public service?" My usual reply is a sad rhetorical question: Why should they?
From what I've observed, most people who run for office or seek appointment come in with idealism. They start out truly believing that their determination and desire to serve their constituents will bring about meaningful change and right long-standing injustices. Some, like former councilman and now 29th District Tennessee state Senator Lee Harris, defiantly weathered the hypocrisy. He fought for the people of his district even when he didn't win, against forces that were entrenched in self-serving agendas and political grandstanding. I also see that quiet determination to earnestly serve the public in interim Councilman Berlin Boyd. Both these men are fighting the idea that Memphis government doesn't have to be trapped in the same stale ideologies of the past. But, these young, bright minds are sadly the exception, and not the rule, when it comes to those participating in Memphis government.
So it was with some consternation that I reported on the details of Jack Sammons probable return to city government. Regardless of what Mayor A C Wharton has said, this is a political appointment. Long ago, Wharton separated himself from the have-nots of this community. It's not about initiating programs to help. It's about what's left of his desire, spirit, and will to carry out these programs to bring about positive change. I truly believe his tank is nearly running on empty in all those categories.
No further evidence has to be shown on that account other than his leaving out-going CAO George Little to twist slowly in the wind during the debates over pension and health-care reform for city employees. Wharton appeared content to let Little take the heat from the council and the public. If you're Jack Sammons, it should be a signal as to what you're getting yourself into.
If I were Sammons, I'd also ask myself why it's taken five years for Wharton to decide to appoint me as CAO, when I effectively served in the position for five months under interim Mayor Myron Lowery and was fired by Wharton in 2009.
Sammons has always had the ability to be a "fixer" in government, similar to the role Rick Masson played during the early years of the Willie Herenton administration. And, of course, it's going to take some legislative hoodoo to allow Sammons to retain his job as Airport Authority chairman while he serves as CAO. Tell me this doesn't smack of an old cigar-smoke-filled backroom deal.
Why do we continue to tolerate this blatant kind of political musical chairs? If Wharton truly believes the time has come to take this city in a different direction, why not find new faces with new ideas to get us there? Career bureaucrats, those who've been recycled because of their failure to meet the demands of their old jobs and political cronies need not apply. We need those people who are willing to put in the elbow grease to work for the good of the city they live in. We need to find the people who are "naturals" at what they do, and City Hall needs to give them their unmitigated support.
Les Smith is a reporter for WHBQ Fox-13.