It’s always easy in Memphis to know that four years have passed. Willie W. Herenton takes another oath of office as mayor and announces that consolidation is a top priority.
Five oaths of office later and in spite of his periodic attention, Memphis City Government is no closer to merging with Shelby County Government than when he first pressed for it almost a generation ago. Meanwhile, his proposal for consolidating Memphis and Shelby County school systems remains even more volatile although every other metro county in Tennessee has already done it.
Even his most fervent supporters concede that his bully pulpit isn’t strong enough to make it happen now. After all, on election day, 84 percent of Memphis voters either voted for someone else or didn’t bother going to the polls at all.
If voters sent a message, it was this: they didn’t have confidence that anyone could make things better. Because of it, this time around, Mayor Herenton might forego big plans and do what the public wants most – a City Hall that gets the basics right.
Like all mayors beginning a new term, Mayor Herenton’s desk is covered with telephone calls, so here’s a few more for his “call list” that could create the kind of momentum that was noticeably missing during his fourth term:
Call Linda Gibbs, New York Deputy Mayor, (212) 788-3000. She runs an impressive anti-poverty program that’s showing success with disconnected youth, ex-prisoners, and the hard to employ. New York City also issues a report card of city government, service by service, neighborhood by neighborhood.
More Calls To Make
Call Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, (410) 974.3901. As Baltimore mayor, he developed CitiStat which produces exhaustive data about city services. In a warroom setting, he held his managers accountable, eliminated redtape, and fought a culture of excuses.
Call Kip Bergstrom at Rhode Island Economic Policy Council, (401) 521-3120. There’s no one smarter about what makes cities competitive and what a city’s economic development agenda ought to be. He explains why cities must innovate or decline, how low-skill workers become knowledge workers, and how a leader tells stories using data to change a city.
Call Tom Cochran at U.S. Conference of Mayors, (202) 293-7330. It’s time to get reintroduced to other metro mayors tackling common problems. Memphis’ longtime lack of involvement removes it from important national discussions, such as the 728 mayors who’ve signed onto the Kyoto Accords and are talking about ways to create “green jobs” in urban neighborhoods.
Complete And Green
Call Grace Crunican, Director of Department of Transportation in Seattle, (206) 684-4000. Seattle’s “complete streets” program requires all road projects to address the needs of bikers, pedestrians, and transit riders, not just cars.
Call Dana Levenson, Managing Director, North American Infrastructure Finance, Royal Bank of Scotland, (312) 922-5174. While Chicago Chief Financial Officer, he masterminded the $2.5 billion leases of an eight-mile elevated highway and city parking garages. He calls it a way to unlock capital from dead assets and shift future risk to the private sector, which operates the facilities better anyway.
Call San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, (415) 554-6141. He issued a directive to mandate that all city buildings must meet sustainable development standards, he set up an accelerated permit process for “green buildings,” and he appointed a director of greening strategies.
The Final Calls
Call Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, (214) 670-3296. She established a customer service department, a customer service pledge, and a secret shopper program that rates city services. It shows what’s possible when you treat taxpayers as customers.
Call Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton at 545-4500. There’s no more important meeting that Mayor Herenton can have, because it can lead to the elimination of the disincentive that Memphians pay to live inside the city limits. By moving regionally-oriented services – schools, parks, health care, museums, and arenas – to the larger county tax base, the Memphis property tax rate can be reduced until it’s comparable to Germantown’s.
Time For Revival
After these calls are made, there’s one last one – to Rev. Frank McRae, retired St. John’s United Methodist minister. He was by the mayor’s side when he won his historic victory in 1991, and he persuasively described the future in the “language of possibilities” shaped by Mayor Herenton’s strongly held faith.
It’s time for a revival in City Hall. After making these calls to gather information about effective programs working in other cities and reconnecting with his own motivations for running in the first place, the next four years could capture the promise that’s always been just out of reach for the Herenton mayoralty.
* This post was previously published as a City Journal column in Memphis magazine’s January issue.