Here’s the real problem with the appointment of the new Shelby County Mayor.

It’s not the alliance between a couple of Republican commissioners to usher in the era of the Joe Ford Administration.

It’s not the parody of leadership that two days of serial voting produced.

It’s not even the laughable criticisms about the Wharton Administration’s financial stewardship by a leading candidate.

Hope Springs Eternal

The real problem is that from the beginning, the appointment of the interim county mayor was an insiders’ game. It was driven by an impulse that one of the commissioners should get the political plum. It was also about the devaluing of the county mayor’s job by suggesting that almost any commissioner could do the job.

The sad part is that there wasn’t anyone on the county legislative body unwilling to game the process in one way or another – either as a potential candidate or in return for political support. It was probably too much to hope that instead of turning to look at each other first, the commissioners would look beyond the county building to consider who in Memphis would be the qualified person to provide the sound management that the $1 billion enterprise needs over the next nine months.

We suspect that FedEx founder and guru Fred Smith may have even been willing to bivouac one of his top managers at Shelby County Government to keep it on sound footing, particularly to continue the debt reduction plan by the Wharton Administration. With little notice, the amount of debt service payments by county government actually went down last year for the first time in about 25 years.

Getting The Message Right

Or, if the Shelby County Board of Commissioners wanted to send a strong message about the future, its members could have chosen one of the talented, young people who are more than capable of setting the right agenda and sticking to it. It was a move that could have sent a dramatic message about the changing of the generational leadership in Memphis.

Instead, the commissioners sent a different message, the unmistakable one that it was politics as usual in county government. At a time when the hopeful attitude unleashed by the election of a new Memphis mayor could have spread to county government, the commissioners elected one of the hoariest names in local politics.

To put it bluntly, at the precise moment with the commissioners should have been sending a message about a new day and new hope, it chose to elect someone with political baggage that immediately makes half of all Shelby Countians instinctively abandon confidence in him and their county government.

Dashed Hope

This is not to say that Mayor-to-be Joe Ford is not a fine person. But that does not change the fact that his family name is anathema to so much of the public. In the end, a majority of the commissioners essentially said they just didn’t care and did it any way.

It was a valuable opportunity squandered, and because of it, the momentum that could have been born from new hope and enthusiasm has been muted, if not derailed completely.

To further complicate things, Commissioner Ford’s stinging and unfounded criticisms of CAO Jim Huntzicker, whose name was submitted at the 11th hour as a compromise candidate, will now require serious fence mending by the interim mayor. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Commissioner Ford succeeding without Mr. Huntzicker’s institutional knowledge and financial advice. We can only hope that the new mayor does not plan to make any changes to the major appointed officials who operate Shelby County Government day to day.

The Fallout

During deliberations about the mayoral appointment, Commissioner Ford exhibited a regrettable tendency to shoot from the hip wide of the mark. That continued after his election with his half-baked idea to eliminate the board of The Med. Hopefully, this behavior is an aberration and the real Ford style has not yet been previewed.

Already, there is speculation that Commissioner Ford – despite protestations to the contrary – is a possible candidate in the May primary for county mayor, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he could be elected. There are just too many barriers.

Fallout from the appointment came quickly. The two Republican commissioners who voted for Commissioner Ford – Wyatt Bunker and Mike Ritz – already have targets painted on their backs by some irate members of their party. It could be problematic for Commissioner Ritz, who already had created some discomfort for some party members with his iconoclastic brand of representation, and Commissioner Bunker’s critics suggest that he has simply taken his conservative constituents for granted with this vote.

Ups And Downs

It remains to be seen what will develop from the current political rumblings, but the political winner at first blush seems to be Commissioner Deidre Malone’s mayoral campaign. Her vote against Commissioner Ford strengthens her credentials with voters outside Memphis, a place where she needs to gain a stronger foothold and be identified as someone who’s not willing to go along to get along.

Speaking of county commissioners, Steve Mulroy continued his quixotic quest to save the rotting Zippin Pippin at the Fairgrounds. All that’s left are the wood and metal from the track and structure of the old roller coaster, because the cars, motors, and everything else were taken away years ago by a company who bought the ride.

It didn’t want to spend the money to move the track, and as Commissioner Mulroy acknowledged, the wood is in such bad shape that it would have to be replaced anyway. In other words, at this point, the controversy is essentially over whether to save the metal track.


It’s reached a point where it’s just Kafkaesque – spending close to half a million dollars to disassemble rotting wood and rusty tracks and to store them until there is some unimaginable time when they are needed again.

It’s enough to make the commissioners’ deliberations about the next county mayor look reasonable.