Interim Mayor Joe Ford’s billboards say that he is the “People’s Voice” and that may indeed be the case judging from his apparent lack of basic information about government and public policy.

Once upon a time, one of Memphis’s original characters, Cliff Tuck, ran Shelby County Intergovernmental Coordination Office.  He was a policy wonk before there were policy wonks.  His thinking was always provocative and his approach combative when it came to the issues that matter most to Memphis. 

Mr. Tuck was given to prescient observations, one of which was that government is about a seventh level interest for most people.  After they’ve thought about their family, church, job, neighborhood, hobbies, and a couple of others, then, people think about government.  Because it’s so far down on the list, their information is sketchy, knowledge is superficial, and they have opinions that are often not based on even a basic understanding of the public sector. 

It Matters What the Voice Is Saying                                         

When Mr. Ford talks about government, we often think of Mr. Tuck, because if the interim county mayor is the “people’s voice,” it is the voice of the person described by Mr. Tuck, someone with a minor grasp on government, its realities and the forces at work in our community.

That’s the only explanation that we have for the mishmash of ideas and opinions expressed by Mr. Ford without a political thread holding them all together.  On their best day, they are naïve.  On their worst, they are simply dim.

It’s as if Mr. Ford and his political strategists assume that Democrats will reflexively pull the lever for the Democratic candidate for Shelby County Mayor.  It’s a race that his opponent, Sheriff Mark Luttrell, would like to become a referendum on a single issue – trust.  Mr. Ford wants it to be about getting Democratic to vote reflexively.

We are regularly some of those votes, but voting “D” more and more in this race seems to stand for “dumb.” 

We’re not particularly interested in Mr. Ford’s personal financial failings.  We’re not particularly interested that the family business is politics, for good and bad.  We’re not interested that he moved to a $400,000 house in Bartlett and left behind the supportive district that put him on Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners.  We’re even less interested that he didn’t tell the truth when he promised that if appointed interim mayor, he would not run for a full term.

Bad Policies

What matters to us is someone whose positions and policies have a coherency that suggests that he understands the challenges facing our community and has a realistic plan shaped more by policy realism than political expediency.

When it comes to bad policy, it’s hard to know even where to start with Mr. Ford.

He is on record in support of double taxation for Memphians and against single source funding for schools.  OK, you know where we stand on this model of tax inequity, so we won’t go into it all again, but lost in his continuing pandering to suburban white voters is any answer to the question of why the residents of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Millington, Arlington, and Lakeland pay nothing from their property taxes (of course the faux city Lakeland doesn’t even have a property tax) to support the schools that they tout so loudly as one of their greatest assets.

To underscore his belief in double taxation, he says petulantly that City of Memphis stopped its $5 million funding for the health department.  Then again, if he feels so strongly that Memphians should pay twice for health services, he has a floor full of lawyers in the county building who can surely find some grounds to sue a courageous City Council fighting more more equitable taxation. 


Meanwhile, he dismisses the consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County – two governments  doing the job of one – by saying that he’s unaware of any duplication in city and county governments.  Of course, he ensured that there is duplication when he blew up the overdue merger of city and county fire departments, a move that would have brought higher professionalism and better service to firefighting operations in unincorporated Shelby County. 

As for duplication, here are just a few for the mayor’s edification:

Information technology – City and county governments together spend $30 million a year for technology that’s always a couple of generations behind and websites that would be embarrassing to Podunk, U.S.A.  Shelby County itself has multiple information technology systems that remain to be centralized.

Fleet services – The two governments have multiple mechanics and repair services that prevent clear accountability and maximum cost savings.  Shelby County has multiple garages itself.

Human resources – The governments operate bureaucratic personnel systems that are almost mirror images of each other.

Noah’s Ark of Government

In addition, there are other duplications, such as Purchasing, Engineering, General Services, Code Enforcement, road construction, tax collections, business permitting, Public Works, and these are just the ones that come quickly to mind.

Even Mr. Ford’s own administrators estimate conservatively that there are more than 200 duplicative management positions and about $15-20 million in excess costs that he said don’t exist.

Mr. Ford did trip up in his passion for white votes.  He said Memphians don’t want consolidation; they want annexation.  What he didn’t realize is that many people of the 60,000 people in the Memphis annexation reserve areas would prefer a totally new government to being annexed by Memphis.  And he’s been an advocate in the past for annexation although they are short-term financial infusions that in the long-term do nothing to improve  neighborhoods in the urban core.

In the end, it’s not personal or family issues that worry us most deeply about Mr. Ford.  It is the absence – after 12 years as member of City Council or County Board of Commissioners – of anything more than a perfunctory understanding of the complexities of government and the interlocking nature of city and county government policies.

Waiting for Answers

If Mr. Ford has a vision of how government will work better, he should let us know, because at this point, it is the consensus inside county government that it is at its dysfunctional worse, that the proposed Ford Administration budget is a ticking bomb, special task forces are tripping over each other and politics is seeping into operational decisions

Here’s the most cynical thing of all: There is no one in Shelby County who suffers more from government waste and high taxes than Mr. Ford’s traditional political base.  Every dollar wasted on inefficient government is a dollar that can’t be spent on the kind of urban intervention programs that are needed to make our community competitive again.  Poor families pay a disproportionate tax burden because of Tennessee’s regressive and archaic tax system, and that should be reason enough for the interim mayor to put better government ahead of continuing his government paycheck.