Thursday, June 17, 2004

Commercial Appeal Editorial Template #4

Whenever a contentious City issue is decided in a suspicious way that aligns with the Commercial Appeal's editorial pronouncements, which are also aligned with Mayor Herenton's wishes, the Commercial Appeal will trot out an editorial that follows this template: It was ugly. It's over. It's all good now. Sit down. Shut up.

Such is the case with Thursday's lead editorial, "Lee's MLGW chief, so let's move on." They make the good point that the issue is decided and it's time to move on, but in doing so they pass along some real whoppers of elision and revisionism. Let's take a look.
Lee, the city's finance director, was confirmed as the new leader at MLGW by the City Council this week in a 7-5 vote after months of speculation, political infighting and Lee's on-again, off-again candidacy to run the nation's largest three-service pubic utility.

A 7-5 vote is no landslide, and means there were serious misgivings about Lee. But it is in the city's best interest for him to succeed in the job. Considering all the conflict over the appointment, failure is not an option, for the mayor, the council or the ratepayers.
All of which begs the unasked question: how did he get there? The paper certainly never bothered to ask Herenton why. Come to think of it, the announcement of the finalists for the job search was only a Metro section short. Come to think of that, after the finalists were announced, I don't recall seeing any in-depth looks at the finalists in the paper, so that the public could have some idea of what we might be getting. Why didn't they do that? Is it possible they knew what a sham the search was and didn't want to waste time and space?

The search was a sham. It took an opinion column by Wendi Thomas to bring to light that the City never put job ads in any public utility professional magazines until after Councillor Carol "Look at me!" Chumney prodded them to. Before that, the job was only advertised internally with City government! Was no one at the paper aware of this, other than a lifestyle columnist? Were they aware and chose not to advertise this? Why?
It is encouraging that MLGW's top managers have indicated a willingness to work with Lee and to continue to help run the agency's day-to-day business. Such support also will be crucial to Lee's success when he assumes the job early next month.
As some other wags have noted, MLGW seems to be running just fine on auto-pilot! That's a testament to ousted former Director Herman Morris. I have no animus against Lee, but it seems the stated reason he's being brought in -- increasing efficiency -- is something that Morris was already accomplishing. My suspicion remains: Lee may improve the internal functioning of the agency, but he'll damage its effectiveness as a utility company. Herenton will then have good cause to begin re-exploring his former idea of selling MLGW to a private, for-profit utility company. Herenton managed to avoid a tax increase this time, but he'll have to pay for that later. An MLGW sale would give him the money.
The council members who opposed Lee's appointment decry his lack of experience in utility work. One of those was Councilman E. C. Jones. "He's a nice guy and I voted for him for the director of finance for the city," Jones said earlier this week. "But I have some concerns that he has no utility experience whatsoever."
Notice that the paper takes no stand itself, but uses a Councillor to make the point. And now that's it's made, they promptly drop it. Again. As they have all along.
On the plus side, Lee - unlike a candidate from outside Memphis - is familiar with the agency, the city and the managers. He clearly has the full support of Herenton, and that should help soften much of the transition. We hope the council opposition will see the value in accepting and working with Lee.

Given the chance, Lee, 46, should do well. He has distinguished himself as the top financial officer for the city, and he brings to MLGW a wealth of knowledge about finances and administration.

Lee also has ideas on how to improve performance and customer service at the utility, such as a proposed merger of the utility and the city's complaint operations. Herenton wants Lee to make the agency more integrated into city government.
You see? It's all about the performance, which hasn't been discussed since Morris got the boot. If it's so bad, why isn't it a problem right now? Herenton may well be doing as the paper suggests, streamlining and integrating the agency into the City's functioning. Herenton is famously close-mouthed on such things and the paper plays along with that. But I, as always, have suspicions with that crowd.
Experience aside, Lee's salary almost doubles from the $109,064.02 he earns as city finance director to the $215,000 a year he will be paid at MLGW. The jump seems a bit much, considering the new salary is $30,000 a year more than former utility chief Herman Morris received before he left Jan. 1.

When a national search was launched for Morris's replacement, officials set a salary that is competitive in the industry.
Ah, ah, ah. Revisionism. The salary hike was voted on after the search had produced finalists. It was proposed as a way of making salary negotiations more flexible. The $215,000 was considered the high end of a range.

It's nice that an unproven person with no experience in his field of management is getting such an exorbitant salary, isn't it? More, in fact, than the professionals he leap-frogged would have gotten. Is it inducement to do really well, or a pay-off/kickback for a job to be well done?
Some have wondered about Lee's commitment to the job since he twice pulled his name from the running. Herenton said this week he asked Lee to withdraw because of the "media frenzy" surrounding the candidacy. But to blame Lee's actions on the news media seems a bit disingenuous.

A bitter public feud between Herenton and the council in the early weeks of the year was reflected in the council's hesitancy in approving Lee's original nomination to run MLGW in January. The media did not cause the controversy, but merely reported it.

The delay in appointing Lee traveled a convoluted route that resulted in utility customers paying $30,000 more in executive salary than they would have done otherwise. No one should want to see such a process occur again.
Reread that. The CA just blamed the City Council! Lee's about to put his head on the chopping block for real now. He's demonstrated a serious hesitancy in facing brutal situations. He wavers, vacilates. MLGW is a high-profile, low-reward target on your forehead; the butt of too-high expectations. Lee's behavior during this process is not what I'd call confidence inspiring.

While I'm sure the Commercial Appeal was only referring to itself, as they often do in discussing "local media," let's not forget all the hyping on television news about the "Brawl at City Hall." No, wait. It was the Commercial Appeal that put the stories about the fighting on its front page, above the fold and with large headlines, instead of back in Metro somewhere, so we will blame them too.
Obviously, Herenton and council members have done some fence mending in recent months and that is good for the city.
True, but in this case it's been pointed out that nothing happened publicly that would sway anyone to believe anything was different about Lee. Herenton brought nothing new to the public eye; he just waited out the process he played like a DJ with his turntable. It was a few Councillors who changed their minds for no discernable reason. Do you think the Commercial Appeal will be investigating that story, now that they have their desired result? I'm not holding my breath either.
To prevent further see-sawing, the council appointed Lee at its meeting Tuesday, then approved the meeting minutes at the same session. Routinely, council minutes are approved at the next meeting and until that time, the council may reconsider any vote. But after minutes are approved, all actions are considered final.

So that means the council is prevented from revisiting the subject at its next meeting. Lee's appointment is final, and that means it is time to move on.
Or, "Forget all the unanswered questions, bury your doubts, don't look at the man behind the curtain, whistle as you walk past the graveyard, don't wonder what that smell is. It's over, bury the body and all the mysteries with it."

Yeah, that's what I like to here from my local paper.

No comments: