The “politics of destruction” practiced by elected officials seems tame when compared to public employees themselves.
It’s hard to reach any other conclusion after watching AFSCME’s over-the-top slash and burn campaign relentlessly attacking Memphis City Councilman Kemp Conrad and the internal power struggle inside Memphis Police Department as the old guard tries to wound new Police Director Toney Armstrong with death by a thousand pin pricks.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Armstrong was attacked for getting rid of some upper echelon people in favor of creating his own team, something pretty much standard for someone taking on new leadership responsibilities and implementing his own plans. This week, it’s the unnamed sources’ reports that he was abolishing the undercover unit, a report denied by the Administration. Undoubtedly, next week, it will be something else.
More than anything, it reminds us of a dysfunctional family who attacks the normal person that dares call out the dysfunction. There are hard-core elements in the police department who labor under the opinion that they can mount a barrage of criticism that will soften Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s support for his new director.
We understand it is having just the opposite effect and the Wharton Administration is committed even more fully to changing things and improving operations at Memphis Police Department. We suspect that’s why the most recent complaints about Mr. Armstrong were answered by Chief Administration Officer George Little. It was a way of sending a message.
If there is a developing theme to the drama at MPD, it is that every leak and anonymous story seems to center on an alleged grievance to some ally, friend, or family member of former director Larry Godwin, now deputy commissioner for the State of Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security. The state department is headed up by Commissioner Bill Gibbons of Memphis, former District Attorney General of Shelby County.
We can’t imagine that Mr. Gibbons is pleased that his deputy commissioner is commenting to the media about changes being made by Director Armstrong. After all, it’s essentially now tantamount to state government getting involved in law enforcement of local government. But just as Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Godwin are putting together their own team in Nashville, we think Mr. Armstrong deserves the same opportunity here.
There’s nothing wrong with having a debate about policing in Memphis – and we are excited to hear that Mr. Armstrong is a devotee of community policing – but that’s much different than what is taking place at Memphis Police Department. It’s also why the news media should be much more suspicious of taking information from unnamed MPD sources – such as the report denied by the Administration that the undercover unit is being disbanded – and building a news article that largely parrots these people’s view of the world.
No Sacred Cows
It’s been shown in the past that things can get personal quickly in the Memphis Police Department, but the grumbling and unsourced articles do nothing quite as much as to demonstrate how much change is needed.
Then, there’s the bomb-throwing by AFSCME officials, and even those of us who recognize Memphis sanitation workers as heroes of the civil rights movement know that the campaign against Councilman Conrad made the conversation coarser and relationships weaker.
The thing is that the councilman’s questions about potential savings from managed competition were completely legitimate, and there can’t be any argument that the structural problems of city government complicate the options in the budget processes. In the end, each year’s budget process becomes more and more selecting the best option from a list of poor ones.
As Mayor Wharton said, he has never gone through a budget process more difficult than this one. But this year’s experience will become a yearly event unless serious analysis is done and that there are no sacred cows when it comes to considering ways to save the public’s money. We don’t just mean sanitation services, but every service provided by City of Memphis. We may decide that no one can provide the service better than the current department or we may decide that there is not enough savings or increased productivity to justify it, but we do deserve to see all the facts and figures.
AFSCME’s strategy was to scream the loudest so nobody else could be heard, but that’s not going to work for long. The budgets are getting tougher and tougher and the sanitation workers need to be part of the solutions rather than being seen as part of the problem.
As we’ve written before, we think there are areas as ripe for reevaluation as sanitation services, but it’s hard to defend the present system which makes too little use of more efficient, modern trucks and new ways to reduce manpower.
Eighty percent of U.S. cities outsource services and that includes Memphis, which has done it for years. The godfather of managed competition, deputy mayor of New York and former Indianapolis mayor Steven Goldsmith pointed out some of the ones that worked best: “The city (Indianapolis) outsourced its wastewater treatment functions to achieve cost savings estimated at $65 million, or 42 percent, between 1994 and 1998. In addition, the project improved quality and increased capacity with fewer staff. The city outsourced its airport management as a way to promote economic development. The project reportedly generated $105 million in cost savings or new revenues between 1995 and 2004, representing a 28 percent savings over government provided services.
“In addition, the project increased retail selection and quality for passengers. Indianapolis also outsourced the maintenance of streets and attained cost savings estimated at $700,000, or 30 percent, between 1992 and 1996. Further, the outsourcing led to an increase in crew productivity and in the number of lane miles repaired. In yet another outsourcing venture, the city outsourced its audio-visual and microfilm services which produced approximately $1.5 million in cost savings between 1992 and 1995, representing a 54 percent savings over government provided services.
“In addition, the project eliminated a substantial backlog of service requests and improved service to citizens. Finally, the city chose to outsource vehicle maintenance which saved an estimated $4.2 million, or 21 percent, between 1995 and 1997. In addition, the project led to fewer labor grievances and a decrease in the cost of workers’ compensation claims.”
A Test of Maturity
Managed competition gives public employees, along with private companies, the opportunity to respond to requests for new ways for delivering public services, and in about 70% of the cases, employees win. After all, they know the services best, and often, they know best where to save money – often with the elimination of unnecessary layers of management.
But back to Councilman Conrad, it’s hard to think of a responsibility more important for someone in his position that to challenge conventional thinking, to prod new ideas for old services, and to suggest ways to increase efficiency.
If Councilman Conrad wasn’t reverential enough, we don’t believe it’s because he doesn’t appreciate the historic role of the sanitation workers, but it’s worth remembering that he wasn’t even born in 1968 – and neither was about two-thirds of Memphians. We need to keep the story of courage and sacrifice alive, because at a time when the sanitation workers had everything to lose, they put their lives and their livelihoods on the line for the equality of future generations.
That said, the attacks by AFSCME went beyond the standards of reasonableness, even in the highly charged budget environment. The name-calling, the unsubstantiated rumors, and the threats have no place in a mature city, and hopefully, that’s a description that applies to Memphis.
The press conference called by AFSCME Monday was more demagoguery than anything else, and the resurrection of former Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb in an attempt to tar and feather Councilman Conrad was more comical than controversial.
In the end, AFSCME did its members no favors, because there was never a realistic chance that managed competition for sanitation services would be in the budget. But the shrill outcry won them no friends and may actually have put managed competition on the table in the future.