Salary Envy

Out next mayor will have a lot on his plate. Let's hope money isn't the main course.

By the time this issue of Memphis magazine comes out, Memphis will have a new mayor. And whoever it is, two things are certain.

First, the mayor will be paid $171,500, which is considerably less than the city and county school superintendents, the MLGW president, some of the people who run local foundations and nonprofits, and the private attorneys who do the city's bond business and render opinions from time to time to the Memphis City Council.

Second, galling though this may be, the new mayor will have to deal with it. Taxpayers and city council members are so steamed about former Mayor Willie Herenton padding his salary with $132,000 worth of "vacation pay" for his last nine years in office that there's talk of trying to claw it back somehow.

Mayoral candidate and former council member Carol Chumney put it in blunt terms.

"The idea that an elected official would even be paid for vacation time in the first place is shocking," she said. "That would be like an elected official asking for overtime payments when they put in a late night. It's just part of the job."

The uproar probably won't keep Herenton from keeping the money. He went through channels, such as they are, by running his requests for payments for himself and his chief administrative officer, Keith McGee, past the friendly folks he appointed as city attorney (Sara Hall), finance director (Joseph Lee, Charles Williamson, and Roland McElrath), and human resources director (Hall and later Lorene Essex). Nobody protested, spilled the beans, or notified the city council. Complacency is one problem with having the same mayor for 17 years.

Plus, there was a precedent of sorts. Herenton's predecessor, Dick Hackett, was paid $50,000 for 158 unused vacation days after he left office in 1991. The difference was that Hackett's division directors got the same treatment, and the payments were not made to them retroactively while they were still working for the city. Hackett said in October that he documented his unused vacation days and acted in accordance with the city charter and the opinion of the city attorney.

Why did Herenton start juicing his pay in 2004 after 12 years in office? Maybe because his expenses went up. He fathered a son, now 5 years old, that he will have to support for several years. And he may also have gotten a case of salary envy. As the first elected black mayor of Memphis, Herenton was a rainmaker. He appointed Herman Morris as president of MLGW and made sure that attorneys like Charles Carpenter (also his campaign manager three times) and Ricky Wilkins (his current campaign manager) got a share of the city's lucrative legal business. All of them made more money than the mayor.

And for a while, that was all right. Elected office has rewards like power and attention that are just as important as salary, if not more. As Chris Anderson says in his new book Free: The Future of a Radical Price:

"Doing things we like without pay often makes us happier than the work we do for a salary. No wonder the Web exploded, driven by volunteer labor — it made people happy to be creative, to contribute, to have an impact, and to be recognized as an expert at something."

By 2004, however, the thrill was gone. The mayor was tired of the city council and the media. His other love was real estate development. In his first term, Herenton redefined the concept of "full-time mayor" by codeveloping an upscale subdivision called Banneker Estates. By his fourth term he was personally involved in real estate deals around Beale Street that blurred the lines between private and public activity and prompted an ongoing federal investigation.

The upside to the political upheaval of 2009 is that all this finally came to light. Disclosure goes in cycles. Every candidate in the October election promised to make city government more open and accountable. The new mayor will get a challenging full-time job, a salary, and a time bomb, also known as vacation pay, that begs to be dealt with soon. The solution should be a policy, like Shelby County's, that pays the mayor a salary only. 

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