Politics » Politics Feature

The Shape of Things To Come

Wharton, Lowery, and Malone talk up consolidation.



A C Wharton, already one kind of mayor and a declared aspirant to be another kind, turned up unexpectedly Monday night at a League of Women Voters-sponsored forum on consolidation — "crashing the party," as he termed it. Thereafter, he and Myron Lowery and Deidre Malone, the chairs, respectively, of the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission, conducted what amounted to a cram course on the issues of city/county consolidation.

As the Shelby County mayor and declared candidate for Memphis mayor put it to the audience at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Poplar: "What is it the folks want in any kind of government?"

Inasmuch as Wharton has advocated a referendum on consolidation for the ballot year 2010 and is generally considered the most likely person to head a consolidated government if one should come about, the question had pragmatic as well as theoretical import.

Speaking first, the county mayor quickly dispensed with what he saw as a chief obstacle: "My research tells me that schools is always the big, big issue. That's where everything falls apart. I said very clearly, we should leave the schools out of the whole process. Mayor Herenton says he feels otherwise. But just to get a fair hearing on this, let's put the schools aside for the time being. My position is very practical on it. I don't think [consolidation] is doable with it."

Therefore, said Wharton, he favors an explicit charter provision excluding the city and county school systems from any projected consolidated government.

Wharton, Lowery, and Malone all went on to minimize various misgivings frequently expressed by residents of the outer county — ranging from municipal independence (the incorporated communities would continue as formal entities, just as in the metro government of Nashville/Davidson County) to considerations of tax rates (the existing ones for all localities would probably be frozen until the level of services became uniform and equal).

But neither Wharton nor Lowery and Malone, the co-chairs of a newly formed joint commission on consolidation, represented significant cost reductions, at least in the short term, as the chief reason for combining services. "It's a matter of efficiency," as Malone put it. "The economy is a driver. But it's not the driver."

Both she and Lowery favored immediate steps toward functional consolidation and lamented city/county wrangles over what Lowery called "turf."

Noting the current debate over revising residency requirements for city police and citing in particular the adverse reaction of Memphis police director Larry Godwin to a suggestion from Councilman Harold Collins that sheriff's deputies help patrol Memphis, Lowery said, "Wait a minute. Do we need officers or not? Who cares about the colors of their vests?"

Wharton, too, stressed a need to pursue various forms of functional consolidation. But he pointedly identified the one basic flaw in such ad hoc arrangements — their temporary nature. "All it needs is one election for one side to withdraw," he said. An example, supplied by Lowery, was the withdrawal of city police, some years ago, from a joint city/county narcotics unit.

Duplication of services was, in any case, the main vexation to all three officials. Wharton told of going with a delegation led by Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen to China in a hunt for new industry. The governor was "able to ink the deal there," he said. But Wharton said he was forced to say, "I've got to go back home and see if I can get the other side of the street to agree. 'But aren't you the big-time mayor?' they said. 'Yeah, but I'm just one side of it.'"

• As it happened, consolidation had not been mentioned last week when Wharton took his first explicit (if low-key) step toward running for mayor of Memphis.Addressing a crowd of several hundred attending a $500-a-head fund-raiser at the Racquet Club last Wednesday night, the county mayor said, "I will not be launching any kind of formal campaign yet," and cautioned his audience that anybody "expecting to hear some grand announcement or possibly receive some yard signs for distribution is going to be disappointed."

That caveat having been uttered, Wharton went on to make it clear that his hat was very much in the ring.

Looking beyond the expiration of his current term as county mayor, which ends after the county general election of 2010, Wharton said, "I have elected to remain in the weal of public service." He said his zeal had "only gained steam in recent years" and that "my head is still filled with ways to make connections ... and address our challenges."

Therefore, he assured the crowd, "You'll be hearing from me."

Most of what Wharton had to say was from a prepared statement which he read — after several jests to the effect that his wife, Ruby Wharton, had warned him to avoid extemporizing "old crazy stuff that I'll hear about for weeks to come."

Brandishing the several sheets of paper that constituted his formal statement, Wharton quipped, "It's better to read it rather than listen to a critique for the next three weeks." He called the written speech "a warranty to keep me from getting in trouble."

Hence, no reference to consolidation, the current legal problems bedeviling his mayoral counterpart, the squabble, brewing even then, over city and county policing functions, or any other problem areas as such.

Instead, Wharton praised the urban community he intends to lead and made passing references to such policy areas as public finance, schools, and health care.

And, just as he avoided unleashing any heavy thunder in his remarks, the newly fledged candidate made an effort to downplay any grandiose expectations on the part of his supporters. He dismissed as "ridiculous" the idea that "anybody could dry up all the money" with an early entry into the city mayor's race.

• All's well that ends ... well, further ahead than you were before you got behind. And for a good cause, too. That was the case at the Memphis Pizza Cafe on Madison last week for what was billed as a "Democratic Solidarity Event."

It was called for the purpose of raising enough money to compensate Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy for paying for corrections to an unauthorized version of the Shelby County Democratic Party's sample general election ballot.

Mulroy, one of the boosters of the Yes-On-Five campaign favoring a referendum for instant runoff voting (which, like nine other referenda, went on to pass handily), came out of his pocket to the tune of some $600 to defray the costs of pasting labels over a box on the sample ballot passed out to voters that said "Vote No on Referendums."

Since no such box was ever authorized — or even considered — by the Democrats' executive committee or steering committee, Mulroy and numerous other Democrats had every right to suppose that the party would reimburse him for his trouble in correcting as many as he could get to. No dice.

So independent Democratic organizer Brad Watkins, chairman of the ad hoc Operation Change campaign, took it upon himself — in league with other aggrieved Democrats, including several of the city's leading progressive bloggers — to see that Mulroy got reimbursed.

The bottom line was that Mulroy's $600 was raised, along with enough overage — about $300 — to contribute to the Inner City Outreach Center, located in Foote Homes.

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