Recently in City Hall Category

Halbert email: She and voters 'beyond confused'

The email comes from Wanda Halbert, the Education Chair for the Memphis City Council, and it reveals, well, read it for yourself. Halbert claims that rampant confusion still exists over what, exactly, Memphians are voting for in Tuesday's schools referendum, and her email to City Council attorney Allan Wade and Memphis City Schools attorney Dorsey Hopson indicates that Halbert is confused herself.

Halbert, a former chairman of MCS's board, also distributed the email to MCS board members. Her main issue seems to be with the actual ballot question, which reads, "Shall the management and control of the Memphis City School System be transferred to the Shelby County Board of Education?" That language was approved in January. Halbert writes in the email:

I am now hearing the decision on March 8th is to "turn over the administration of MCS to SCS."  What exactly does that mean? Will MCS be abandoning its charter, making itself a thing of the past? If the vote passes, does SCS' administration take over MCS immediately?
The answer proponents give most often is that nothing will change immediately -- MCS will continue to operate, teachers teaching, principals managing and students attending their schools until the end of the school year. The state will contend that the legislation passed by Mark Norris setting up a planning commission would be triggered, with full implementation delayed until summer of 2013. The City Council and County Commission will contend that a) the County Commission is moving to set up an expanded unified countywide school board with 18 Memphis representatives and seven suburban and b) the Norris legislation will eventually be struck down by a court.

Halbert asked many more questions recently to try and clear up confusion in the community, and one of the charter proponents, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, answered all 17 of them. For that document, click here.

For the entirety of Halbert's email sent this morning, click the link below to the right.

Prof. Wharton hints at Memphis's legal options

At a press conference today at his mayoral offices at City Hall, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton sounded like an old lawyer itching to make opening arguments in a legal case on the right of Memphis to surrender the charter of its special school district and transfer administrative control to Shelby County.

Rather than provide a normal narrative breakdown, I think it's instructive to just listen to Wharton's words and see how his legal mind works -- and understand why some have said he was such a brilliant courtroom lawyer. It's no coincidence that Wharton made such an impression as an attorney and law professor that one of his old students, John Grisham, based a character in one of his books on Wharton.

To begin with, Wharton's thoughts on the legislation from State Sen. Mark Norris that Gov. Haslam signed today:

"The bill was flawed from its very inception because no matter how you polish it up or amend it, it sets out to change the rules of the game in the middle of the game."
"I know various reasons have been assigned why the law had to be changed.

"'The schools were failing.' Well, they were failing two years ago -- nobody took any action.
"'We're sending a lot of money down there.' They've been sending a lot of money down here five, 10, 15 years ago -- nobody changed anything.
"Well, Memphis is big. Memphis was big five years ago, 10 years ago. Nobody set out to change it.
"It's just clear. You don't have to be Dick Tracy or a detective to see what happened here. Only when Memphis City Schools, whether you agree or disagree, followed a law that had been on the books for decades -- all of a sudden that law had to be changed.
"There is no way to amend the bill and erase that initial fatal flaw."
Then here is Wharton on possible legal action the city might take:

"I've already had preliminary discussion with City Atty. Herman Morris. We've had preliminary talks with Council Atty. Allan Wade and we will be getting together very shortly.
On legal grounds the city might pursue:

"I have my theories in mind.
"There's denial of equal protection. There are aspects of federal constitution embraced in state constitution, the law of land provision in the state constitution, and the fifth and 14th amendments deal with due process.
"There may also be some voting rights. I happen to have taught this and there are cases that are legendary throughout the south, in cities where they saw minorities getting the majority and they started changing the qualifications."
"Look what we have here. Six months ago Citizens of Memphis had the unbridled right to surrender the charter of Memphis City Schools and without anything else the enrollees in that school system would go back to their parents.
"Now what do I mean by that? When the Shelby County School system was chartered decadees ago it made a pledge to educate all of the children in Shelby County Tenn. That's why it's called a county school board.

"In a way, Memphis City Schools could be equated to a babsysitter who babysat those kids for a couple of decades and they are now saying we are bringing your children back to you -- because they (Shelby) have not relinquished their charter. They've always had the repsonsibilty for every child in Shelby County, Tenn. And the only thing that was required to send the children back home was to do as the board did on the 20th (Dec. 20, when the MCS board surrendered the charter and asked for a referendum to transfer administrative control). That's all that was required. If you were to ask the school system on that date, what else was required of them, the answer would be, 'Nothing.'

"But now other things are required. Again, you don't have to spend a day in law school to say, 'Wait a minute, something is wrong.'"
Wharton had other things to say, but this was his conclusion:

"I don't know what legal theory that is. It's like a Supreme Court justice said he couldn't define pornography but he knew it when he saw it. I can't tell you what it violates but I can tell you it stinks."
The City Council will meet today (Thursday) at 5 to consider the resolution to approve surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. This of course creates a lot of unanswerable questions. The basic answer City Council Chairman Myron Lowery gives is that MCS will continue its current operations, the March 8 referendum will still be held and eventually courts will sort out what actions by which entities have force of law, which are unconstitutional, which might create violations of federal civil rights laws, etc.

The resolution provided to members of the media last week spells out a contingency plan that puts Memphis Mayor A C Wharton in charge of negotiations with Shelby County to a) continue operations of MCS without disruption and b) generate a transition plan for full consolidation with county schools to be implemented by July 2012. Those pushing for the council to surrender say it creates another path, along with the referendum, for Memphians to force schools consolidation with the currently all-suburban Shelby County Schools. The state legislation which has been passed by the House and Senate is tied only to the referendum.

After the jump, read the full text of the resolution passed out last week.

A C (hearts) Haslam move looking quite savvy

At the risk of over-reading Memphis mayor A C Wharton's decision to welcome Bill Haslam into City Hall's seventh-floor mayor's office -- and stand with him before TV cameras -- that move is now looking like pretty wise. As Rick points out in an earlier post, Memphis is more of an island unto itself than ever in Tennessee, so much so that Haslam, a two-term city mayor with a moderate record and moderate campaign focus, may potentially be the best ally the city can hope for on Capitol Hill.

Wharton continues to insist there was no political significance to the meeting, but the most popular Democrat in Shelby County -- if not the state -- standing next to the Republican nominee in his office in front of cameras during the general election is not inconsequential.  Haslam's massive victory should earn him some leeway with the Republican legislature, and some of that margin probably was helped by Wharton's move. Memphis must hope that Haslam wasn't just offering empty rhetoric when he pointed out that his wife, Memphis native Crissy Garrett Haslam, would kill him if he didn't take good care of the city.

Haslam told us Monday that he would be back in Memphis on Saturday for meetings. Mayor Wharton might remind him of that campaign-season hospitality.

We put this brief on B1 today because it should be considered a a big deal that Columbia University historian (and Memphis native) Kenneth T. Jackson is speaking in town tonight. Given his scholarship on the history and growth of suburban America, it will be interesting to see if anyone gets him to address some of the recent rezoning decisions by the City Council, as well as the controversy over the Union Avenue United Methodist Church location that CVS wants to convert into a drugstore.

When I first read Jackson's remarkable book, "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States," I had no idea he was from Memphis. The book really opens your eyes to the ways in which local, state and federal governments really subsidized the creation of American suburbia and primed the pump that led to so much white flight (and now, middle-class flight). Though some part of me may have known it took taxpayer dollars to create the interstates, roads, sewer systems and artificially cheap energy necessary to sustain suburban living, Jackson's scholarship lays it out in surprisingly accessible detail.

The brief is below:

Columbia University professor Kenneth T. Jackson, one of the nation's pre-eminent historians and an alumnus of Memphis City Schools and the University of Memphis, will speak at 7 p.m. today at the meeting of the West Tennessee Historical Society at Memphis University School's Wunderlich Auditorium.

At Columbia, Jackson is the director of the Herbert H. Lehman Center for the Study of American History and the Jacques Barzun Professor of History and Social Sciences. Jackson's seminal book, "Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States," is considered one of the most important works of history in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Reprinted 29 times in paperback and five times in hardcover, "Crabgrass Frontier" was the first full-scale history of the development of American suburbia and has been described as an often critical examination of "how 'the good life' in America came to be equated with the a home of one's own surrounded by a grassy yard and located far from the urban workplace."

Among Jackson's other major works are: "Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York," "The Dictionary of American Biography," "Scribner's Encyclopedia of American Lives," "Silent Cities: the Evolution of the American Cemetery," "The Ku Klux Klan in the City," "American Vistas," "Empire City: New York Through the Centuries," and the "Encyclopedia of New York City" (seventh edition due in 2010).

Can we get a local taxpayer receipt?

Speaking of taxes and explanations, check out this cool breakdown of where your federal tax dollars go -- a taxpayer receipt that some say the IRS should reproduce and send to everyone. What would be cool is if someone come up with a localized version of the breakdown -- maybe show us where each dollar out of $1,000 property-tax dollars goes, where each dollar of $1,000 of sales taxes goes, etc.? As City Hall reporter Amos Maki has oft reported, close to 70 percent of city tax dollars go to fire and police services -- so good luck finding cuts not involving the (rightfully) beloved first responders.

Here is a link to an example of a federal taxpayer receipt, which I am putting below. The idea comes from a group called Third Way.


Videos give mayor's take on budget, school funding

Via Vimeo, Mayor Wharton's office put out some sharply-produced web presentations on how City of Memphis got into this school funding fix that has painful budget cuts and tax raises on the table. They sent them out via email, Facebook and Twitter. Ah, remember when the mayor of Memphis tried to shape the narrative by calling a big press conference at City Hall to lecture reporters on his version of reality?

Anyway, the first is titled "How Did We Get Here," and features some 2008 anti-school board audio from City Council members Harold Collins, Wanda Halbert and Myron Lowery that future political opponents may find useful. The caption to it reads, "A short video explaining the origins of the dispute between the City of Memphis and Memphis City Schools regarding school funding."

How Did We Get Here? from Mayor Wharton on Vimeo.

The second, titled "Property Tax Pennies," actually was updated later Friday with some adjustments, but it basically points out that while City Council slashed the city's contribution to Memphis City Schools in 2008, it did not slash taxes and instead spent tax revenues elsewhere. Its caption reads, "A brief explanation of the Memphis City Council's 2008 cut in school funding to Memphis City Schools and the impact on the tax rate."

PROPERTY TAX PENNIES - updated from Mayor Wharton on Vimeo.

I'll not name the Memphis political insider who linked to this Washington Post article on Facebook with the leadline, "Other black mayors grapple with forces that led to Fenty's downfall." The article focuses on how and why Washington mayor Adrian Fenty went from popular, tough reform-focused African-American mayor to losing primarily because of his unpopularity with black voters. It also mentions Newark mayor Cory Booker and Detroit mayor Dave Bing and the similar challenges they face. A quote from Cornell Belcher, a black pollster who was an advisor to President Obama's campaign in 2008 (and did some work for Nikki Tinker's campaign), gets at the article's core thesis:

"Ethnic politics is still very much alive and well in big-city politics. Can you bridge the ethnic politics, or at least not trigger them in a negative way? Yes. But you have to be strategically cognitive of it. You can't pretend that race doesn't matter, because we are somehow post-racial."
I bring this up because it was hard not to miss the Facebook post's implied "hmmm" aimed at Memphis, which will decide next year whether to re-elect A C Wharton as mayor. That's one of the challenges that landed in Wharton's lap when he was the overwhelming choice in last year's special election to complete the unfinished term of former mayor Willie Herenton -- he only gets two years to prove he is worthy of another four years. Given his popularity and fundraising prowess, it's hard to see anyone giving Wharton much of a challenge, although delusions of election grandeur are deeply embedded in Memphis politicians of all races, genders and parties.

The general gist of the Post article and of an interview that ran this morning on NPR was that black mayors risk alienating the black voter base when they embrace reforms so popular with white (and black) urban policy experts. You could feel that tension recently when Wharton explained to a mostly-white crowd of bicycle-transportation activists that he has been chewed out by people irritated at his decision to staff City Hall with someone focused on bike and pedestrian issues. The city is of course spending a lot of money on other so-called "stuff white people like" -- a skatepark in Tobey Park, the almost-completed Wolf River Greenway in east East Memphis -- and the challenge for Wharton is explaining to anyone questioning the project is explaining how those are amenities for everyone and that, yes, retaining affluent white families will be key to sustaining the tax base needed to help less fortunate individuals and families.

Anyway, another link to The Post article is here, and click here for NPR's conversation this morning. One final quote from The Post article:

The new generation is what Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, describes as "uber-pragmatists"-forging alliances with corporate interests and prosperous suburbs, encouraging gentrification, hiring outsiders to fill key jobs, inviting in private foundations that see the inner cities as testing grounds for their ideas.

Philip Thompson, a professor of urban studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls them "technocrats," who view most problems in terms of management and resources, rather than culture or politics. 
Interesting appearance in Shelby County today by Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Haslam today in Shelby County -- he met with all the mayors (except for Joe Ford). First, he met at City Hall with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and Shelby County mayor-elect (and current sheriff) Mark Luttrell before heading out to Bartlett for a meeting with suburban mayors.

It's hard not to wonder what the Mike McWherter campaign made of Wharton, maybe the most popular and respected Democrat in the area, agreeing to be a part of a tour that at its heart is part of Haslam's political strategy?

The first thing to say -- Haslam is, after all, the mayor of Knoxville and Wharton has known him for many years. It's also true that, win or lose, Wharton knows that keeping a strong relationship with Haslam (and the Haslam family AND key supporters of Haslam like Brad Martin and Allen Morgan) is in the best interest of Memphis. Of course, Haslam's huge lead in the one poll taken since the general election makes them seem even more vital.

The second thing to say -- Wharton endorsed McWherter (after first endorsing Jim Kyle, who subsequently dropped out).  

Still, it was hard not to find significant the image of Memphis's very popular Democratic mayor standing alongside the Republican nominee for governor, inside the mayor's offices on the 7th floor of City Hall, with TV cameras rolling. That would be quite a show of hospitality for a campaigning gubernatorial candidate of Wharton's own party, much less the Republican nominee who came out strong in the primary against illegal immigration, for less restrictive gun laws and against federal health-care reform so popular with Democrats.

"It's not the first time in my career," Wharton said when I asked him, meaning he has done bipartisan appearances before. "I have no idea who is going to win and certainly, Mayor Haslam was by no  means presumptious. The kind of discussions we had, even if he were to say, 'I can't go for this,' these are  the kinds of discussions we ought to have across the state of Tennessee. Without getting into any questions of  endorsement, that issue doesn't come up at all. This is what's good for this state, regardless of who is in the  governor's seat. And that is what we discussed, challenges we face across this state but more importantly the  opportunities we have across the state."

Shelby County Sheriff and county mayor-elect Mark Luttrell also met with Haslam and Wharton at City Hall and appeared with them for the cameras afterward.

Have we entered postracial political utopia?

Just in case anyone out there hasn't had a chance to jump into our Comments fray or email me or just tell me straight to my face (as District Attorney Bill Gibbons did this morning) their opinion on my Sunday piece on race and voting, feel free to take advantage of this forum. Basically, we asked whether Thursday's election results really did prove voters have ushered the area into some kind of post-racial colorblind political utopia. Steve Cohen, after his victory in the 9th Congressional District battle over former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, told us "no more elections decided by race" and it sure sounded nice.

Here's the story. One of the things I tried to do was confront the notion that the burden of colorblind voting was falling almost entirely on black voters, because of Herenton's decision to make race an issue in the battle with Cohen. That seemed unfair to me, especially given the history of black voters supporting white candidates, often over black candidates. It is also true that many Democrats and Republicans felt the countywide races would come down to whether white Democrats stayed loyal to Democratic candidates (all but one of whom was black) or crossed over to vote for Republican candidates (all but one of whom was white). This is not to say a voter was somehow "racist" for deciding to cross party lines and vote for what he/she felt was a better candidate for whatever reason, but the point was the focus should not just be on black voting solidarity.

As you might expect, the comments were heated. Several people pointed out to me, as if I didn't know, that white voters supported A C Wharton and, in earlier runs, Willie Herenton. Obviously, President Obama could not have won the largest popular-vote victory ever by a non-incumbent without white support. One more thing to add -- Mark Luttrell receiving support from black voters and Paul Boyd becoming the first black Republican elected in Shelby County can also be seen as evidence of progress.

Bottom line, Thursday's vote in the 9th Congressional race does seem to be another indication that race is diminishing as an issue in elections, but it's also fair to point out that the burden of moving past race should not fall only on the shoulders of black voters.
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at or 529-2564.

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