The Power of the Pen
By firing off some memos, Wharton can put Memphis on a new path.
The hardest part about being a candidate for change is delivering it when you're elected.
It's even harder when the call for change is delivered in a mandate, because expectations are higher and patience is shorter. That's particularly true here because City Hall has been limping along for eight years with no sense that anyone had the credibility and ability to lead Memphis out of the wilderness.
While new Memphis Mayor A C Wharton doesn't have to play Moses to our wandering tribe, he will have to play Obama for a city demanding change in short order. The inescapable fact is that there is so much that has to be done and it's not possible for all the tasks to be handled one at a time.
Wharton has no choice but for multitasking to be the chief qualification for every appointee in City Hall. And yet, the lessons of the Obama presidency are not lost on Wharton, whose 45 percent victory margin on election day gives him a unique opportunity to use the public mandate to extend his honeymoon long enough to begin a really ambitious agenda to change Memphis' troubling trajectory.
If anything, Wharton's innate cautiousness was deepened during his seven years as Shelby County Mayor. He had little choice, because county government has a "weak mayor" whose power is limited and spans less than one-third of the county workplace.
City Hall is a totally different world, where the "strong mayor" rules. While negotiation and persuasion are the first steps in getting anything done in county government, Wharton can now change the direction of the entire city government with a memo.
That was all it took to change Chicago's image from "hog butcher to the world" to one of the nation's "greenest cities." There was no consensus-building process. There were no public hearings. There was simply a memo from Mayor Richard M. Daley ordering his departments to build hundreds of miles of bike paths, plant hundreds of thousands of flowers along Michigan Avenue, and construct sustainable public buildings.
Back here, major recommendations in Wharton's own Sustainable Shelby plan can be implemented with memos to the city managers now under his control. As chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the regional transportation planning group required by federal law, he had little traction in challenging the asphalt lobby.
That's all changed. MPO adopted years ago a policy — which was made advisory — that bicycle lanes should be part of all road improvement plans. And yet, Bicycling magazine named Memphis the second worst bicycling city in the U.S., writing that "no bike lanes exist within the city limits of Memphis. And the city government, comprised of layers of bureaucracy, has repeatedly ignored or rejected requests from bike clubs."
The magazine is wrong. Memphis actually has a grand total of two miles of bike lanes. Despite this weak showing, the city engineer's office remains recalcitrant about doing more (city government has its own bicycle/pedestrian plan which it also roundly ignores). As a strong mayor, Wharton can change it all with the stroke of a pen (not to mention with his power to appoint city directors).
Meanwhile, other curious policies hurt the city. Despite conventional wisdom and Herenton rhetoric to the contrary, City Hall allowed downtown to deteriorate to an embarrassing point and eventually ordered its forced adoption by the the Center City Commission (CCC). As a result, a government with an annual budget of more than $600 million ordered a city-county agency with a budget of $3.4 million to take over responsibility for crumbling sidewalks, neglected alleys, and lackluster landscaping.
The cost of reversing the indifference and reviving the physical character of downtown is $132 million, and so far, the CCC has scrimped and saved to come up with $6 million for some of the infrastructure, an amount surpassed considerably by city government at FedExForum and AutoZone Park.
To top it off, the Memphis Police Department won't provide walking patrols downtown, so the CCC spends almost $200,000 a year on private security. Four years ago, city government abandoned its responsibility for landscaping downtown — including the Civic Center Plaza in front of City Hall and Court Square.
It makes for selective city services and many downtown residents and businesses often ask what they really get for their property taxes. Hundreds of other policies affecting the quality of life in Memphis are equally implausible.
So many of them can be corrected by simple directives in a memo from the new mayor's office.