After three years in the hot seat as city attorney, Sara Hall takes on fresh challenges at the Airport Authority -- with time (she hopes) for her family.
Over the last few years, as local TV news stations have scurried to cover myriad controversies at City Hall, one face has stood out among the usual suspects. That face belongs to Sara Hall, a young up-and-comer who, until recently, has handled legal affairs for the city. Where did she come from? What propelled her into public service? And, most importantly, what does she think of the scandals that have made headlines and the people behind them? Shortly before she left the city attorney position to take a similar job at the airport authority, Hall responded to our questions. Whether you like her answers or not, this woman calls 'em as she sees 'em.
She grew up in a small East Tennessee town, with a mother who taught college calculus and a father who farmed. She tried a new endeavor each year and often excelled at it: winning a state poetry contest, taking the blue ribbon in a lamb-showing competition, running track, playing classical piano, learning the guitar and the piccolo, spinning disks at the local radio station, playing the lead role in a high school play. She read nearly every book in her elementary school library and especially loved mysteries, including Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie. She also watched Perry Mason reruns, enforcing what she knew as far back as she could remember: that she wanted to be a lawyer.
As a world-traveler and a self-described risk-taker, she visited the Gaza Strip during a bombing, rode camels at the pyramids, and claims to have been followed by men from the Turkish government who thought she was a spy, all while she was three months pregnant. "If I want to do something, I do it, no matter what," says Hall, who served as Memphis' city attorney for three years, the youngest person ever to hold the job when she was hired at age 34, and was recently appointed - on March 26th, her 37th birthday - vice president and general counsel for the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority. Explaining that she left the city attorney job "to spend more time with my family," Hall adds with a laugh, "They say the airport never sleeps, but believe it or not, it sleeps a little more at night than the city does."
She's easy on the eyes, an attribute she dismisses: "Being attractive and not much else would get you massacred in a day."
She's young, a "benefit," she believes, that makes her memorable.
She's also smart and accomplished. At the University of Tennessee, she was the top graduate in the college of liberal arts and was awarded a Chancellor's Citation for Extraordinary Leadership and Service. While at UT, she applied to various law schools, and says she could have had a "full ride" to any one of them. She chose the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill - partly because it had one of the few female law-school deans in the country - and during her first week of attendance there, the local paper ran a photo of the full scholarship students. "We were like the bull's-eyes," she recalls. "Everybody was gunning for us."
She went on to win moot court competitions, start the UNC Trial Law Academy, graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, and land an associate's position with a prestigious Memphis law firm.
During her tenure with the city, Hall again became something of a bull's eye and an oft-seen face on the evening news, as she interpreted various legal issues that reared their heads during Mayor Willie Herenton's fourth term. We got her take on a few scandals and on the mayor himself. We also found out more about Hall's expectations for the Airport Authority, as well as her personal goals and dreams. Hall credits her younger brother, Glen, her only sibling, for bringing her to the Bluff City. In her last year of law school, she had three job offers. She took the one as associate with Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz partly because it was in Memphis, where her brother was enrolled in medical school. "My plan was to stay here two years," she says. "That was in 1995."
After about a year with Baker Donelson, where she primarily researched cases and drafted motions, she knew she needed a change. "I wanted to be in court more, to litigate," she says of her decision to leave the high-powered law firm to accept a job in 1996 as assistant city attorney. "Everybody thought it was the worst career move in the world," she adds, "but I like representing the people, not just a client that's hired you. I wouldn't have made the change to the public sector, if there weren't things more important than money."
Over the next few years, she served in other public positions, including that of primary counsel for UT Bowld Hospital. In 2000 she was named benefits administrator for the city, another move that made colleagues shake their heads.
"People couldn't understand why I'd leave an attorney job to work in benefits," says Hall. But it offered a challenge - eliminating a $15 million deficit in the city's health plan - and as she recalls tackling the fiscal monster, her eyes sparkle with a victor's glee: "Over the next 18 months, I negotiated and revised more than 10 benefit administrator contracts, moved the city from a fully funded to a self-funded managed care health plan, renegotiated all drug and health plan contracts, and took a treadmill with a toggle switch and built it into a wellness and fitness center with double the number of members." Most important, she concludes, "in less than five years, we paid off the debt and now have cash reserves, and the city's health plan hasn't had a premium increase in three years."
Keith L. McGee, the mayor's chief administrative officer to whom Hall reported, gives her high marks in leadership, teamwork, integrity, and legal skills. "She's an asset to the city who served the citizens well in various roles," says McGee. "She's also an excellent lawyer."
Clearly she displayed a knack for managing money and people, and for a year she held the job of interim director of the city's human resources department. But in 2004, the legal field called her back and she took the reins as city attorney and director of the law division. As such, , she has overseen the offices of city prosecutor, intergovernmental relations, claims, risk management, safety, on the job injury, and contract compliance.
Representing the city when legal issues arose, Hall dealt with several that pitted the mayor against the city council, and one that prompted a federal inquiry. We asked her to sum up the most newsworthy in recent years, and how they were resolved.
Memphis: Mayor Herenton and the city council locked horns over his appointment of 300 positions without council approval. (At one point he advised a councilman to "meet me outside.") What did you do to address this problem?
Hall: There is an old, old provision in the city charter that [the council must approve any appointments] made by the administration. But the rule was never really followed. Over the years, in administrations before Mayor Herenton's, mayors would make appointments. Then, during a time when Herenton and the city council were at odds, the council said, "Hey, we want to talk about these." And they basically invoked the provision, which was their right, though it hadn't been invoked in some time.
[We studied the situation] and found that about 150 positions were not approved by charter process. We worked closely with the council, examined the positions, and passed a series of resolutions that approved them to be appointed through the end of this term, which expires December 31st this year. At that time, their positions will cease to be appointed, but they'll be civil service employees and can either apply for that same job or another civil service job. So we came up with a mechanism for dealing with appointments not previously approved by the council.
Memphis: Up until November 2005, 24 city division directors were receiving sizable car allowances - $800 a month for 10 directors; $400 for 14 - many of whom rarely left the office. How did you respond to public outrage?
Hall: Car allowances were eliminated and those division directors that were deemed to travel significantly were issued city-funded cars. I think what the public perceives is incredibly important. That said, every city director, including myself, took a $10,000 pay cut as a result of that change - and we didn't get a pay increase the year before because of a budget freeze. So I don't know that taking away the car allowance did anything but reduce the city directors' salaries and make [the jobs] that much less attractive.
Really, I think the uproar was less about car usage and more about compensation for the top 12 positions in city government. My salary as city attorney [was] $115,000, the equivalent of what a third- or fourth-year associate makes at a large law firm. Not only do we take a pay cut when we go into government work, but as appointees, we don't have job security, because there's an election every four years. I don't think people realize the amount of selling we have to do as a government entity to get people to leave a private employer, take a lower salary, then have their whole life on the front page of the paper.
Memphis: Tell us what you think of the city's retirement plan that allows certain appointed individuals to draw a pension after only 12 years in office.
Hall: In 2000, when I was responsible for the pension fund, we saw [the need for an adjustment]. The city had two sets of rules, the original 1948 rules and the 1978 rules, which were devised when there was a dip in the market. New rules were necessary to see that the plan became fully funded. Those rules applied to anybody hired after 1978.
The administration proposed to the council that we go back to the 1948 plan because now the 1978 plan was less generous. That 1948 plan had retirement for appointed employees at 15 years, so we recommended we go to 15 years. A lot of debate and discussion ensued among the council. What the council ultimately approved was a retirement plan at 12 years and out.
If you track retirement, you'll see there's not a significant amount of "12 and out" being used; it's a minute cost within the pension plan. And it might make taxpayers feel better to know that we fund into the pension fund the same as we'd fund for Social Security. In other words, if you're a nonpension participant, we pay in to Social Security. If you're a pension plan participant, we pay into the pension fund in lieu of Social Security - not both.
In 2004, the council passed a provision that said [that plan] would not apply to new hires. It applies to roughly 300 people, and only a handful of those are taking "12 and out."
Memphis: Do you understand the taxpayers' anger directed toward this policy?
Hall: I think I do, and I can see how it's problematic, but I think it attracts good people to government. It has made some people stay at a time when they've been offered other lucrative offers. And now it's being taken away. More should have been put on the table for citizens to understand.
Memphis: In 2002, the city signed an agreement to receive $20 million from the state in federal grant funds for a garage project - termed an intermodal transfer facility - adjacent to FedExForum. A state audit found the garage, as built and operated, didn't meet federal guidelines, one of which was to include a bus terminal to ease downtown traffic. What's the status of that controversy?
Hall: I wasn't involved in this agreement in the beginning. But what you may recall, if you go way back, the state gave Nashville a lot of money for the NFL Titans. Then, when Memphis was trying to attract an NBA team, the state agreed to give us a comparable amount for [an arena]. When we got the Grizzlies, the state was in a budget crisis and they said, "Here's the one place we can provide funding - a parking garage - and we think this will work." And so with the federal, state, and local governments knowing this, that's what was built, and after it was built, [a state audit showed] it wasn't really an intermodal facility. And while in retrospect, I see that things could have been done differently, I can say that all government bodies really did take a situation that we couldn't undo and came up with a good result for the citizens.
The options were these: We could pay back the $20 million from city coffers, or we could work with TDOT [Tennessee Department of Transportation] and the federal government and do something else. TDOT agreed to re-obligate the federal funds expended on this project and replace them with state funds. It will also recover $6.2 million from [air quality] funds previously designated for Memphis. Of that $6.2 million, Memphis had allocated some $3.5 million to an I-40/240 east interchange project; that's now being replaced by state highway work in the area. The remaining $2.7 million will be available to the city in future years. There's no requirement that the city do anything else. But as a result of this issue, we have established a grants compliance office, with the city attorney's office overseeing and monitoring compliance of future grants.
Memphis: Mayor Herenton is often perceived as arrogant. That attitude alienates citizens. Do you think public perception is fair?
Hall: A city is a corporation that needs the skill of a leader and a strategic thinker who is extremely thick-skinned and can make decisions that are ultimately in the Best interests of the city. Mayor Herenton is a very proud man and a very humble man. I have watched him give 30-minute speeches that are incredibly detailed and informative and strategic. And in the middle, he’ll make a go-getter comment—and that’s how he makes the headlines. And people at home hear that and think that’s what he’s all about. If people fault him, they should fault him for substance, not appearances.
Memphis: As this magazine goes to press, MLGW is embroiled in controversy over special treatment of certain elected and appointed officials, including Edmund Ford. The mayor is refusing to accept the resignation of MLGW president and CEO Joseph Lee; instead he’s accusing Lee’s opponents of a witch hunt and sabotage. Your comments?
Hall: The public has a right to be angry when they hear that the rules may not be applied equally to all. Likewise, government leaders have a responsibility to fully investigate the facts of a situation, provide the public with all the facts, and then make an informed decision. Not making an employment decision until all the facts are brought to light is sometimes difficult when the public is demanding action. However, one wrong decision does not justify another. And if it is important to treat people equally, then it is important to expect employers to fully investigate and ascertain the facts before making an adverse employment decisions. Waiting on the results of the independent council’s investigation, which was already under way, is a fair and prudent course of action because it will provide all decision makers the opportunity to consider facts and not just allegations before determining what action may be appropriate. Looking ahead to her new $165,000-a-year position—for which she was recruited by Airport Authority President Larry Cox—Hall happily anticipates it’s challenges. “ I take the beginner’s approach to anything new and learn all I can about it from the ground up,” she says. “The airport is a very legal environment, with regulations, contracts, vendors, and certainly passengers who are impacted by how we treat them.”
She views her new employer as a key hub in the transportation center that drives the Memphis-area economy, and its leaders as “ever-vigilant and forward-thinking.” She also sees imminent changes in the industry nationwide. “Two major carriers are emerging from bankruptcy,” she explains, referring to Delta and Northwest, “and new restructured airlines will likely appear on the horizon.”
While she expects demanding days, she adds, “I hope to have more time with my family at night and that means a lot to me.” Regarding her husband of 11 years—Ken McCown, senior counsel at FedEx, who is 13 years older than his wife—Hall says,” He’s so excited about being married and having kids [Allison, 7, and Colin, 4]. And Ken totally knows who he is: he’s not out there having to prove himself.”
Like the schoolgirl who once tried something new every year, Hall keeps a list of “things I want to do before I die.” Started when she was in college, the list currently includes such goals as “learning all about aviation and the airport, hiking the rainforest in Costa Rica, living somewhere outside my comfort zone and helping people there, tackling and mastering [obstacles] I may come up against.”
She periodically adds to the list, and likes to look back each year at a few goals she’s actually achieved, such as earning her yoga teacher-training certification and teaching classes.
”I will never get to the end of all I want to do,” says Hall, who in 2006 was named to the Memphis Business Journal’s “Top 40 Under 40.” “But I’ll always work from the list and keep those lifelong values I cherish.”
She’ll also stay involved in civic and charitable work and is especially committed to the Memphis Business Group on Health, a coalition of companies concerned about healthcare awareness, quality, and trends.
But right this minute, in the here and now, she wants to manage her family time better, not forever operate in crisis mode: “I won’t always have a 4-year-old, so I want to make the most of this time. But I also want a job where I can make a difference. I think this new position will allow me to do both.”
Will she miss the uproars at City Hall and the mayor who often sets them off? “I respect and admire the mayor,” she says. “Hiring me as city attorney at age 34 was a gamble. He gave me the opportunity and let me do my job.”
Referring to herself as a “maverick,” she says she learned from every hot topic that’s come up. “ So I don’t mind controversy. I’m used to it.”