Memphis Mayor A C Wharton is a force to be reckoned with. A graduate of Tennessee State University and University of Mississippi,
Wharton has spent much of his life in public service, from the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in Washington, D.C., to Chief Public Defender in Shelby County, Mayor of the Shelby County, and now as Mayor of the City of Memphis.
In 2002 he became the first African-American Mayor of Shelby County riding a wave of broad based support. In his time as Mayor of Shelby County Wharton worked to resolve many issues facing the County, including a mounting debt crisis, a surging infant mortality rate, and a justice system faced with a growing population of individuals suffering from mental illness.
After the surprise retirement of former Memphis Mayor WW Herenton in the summer of 2009, Wharton announced his intention to run for Mayor of the City of Memphis. He won with 60% of the vote and took office in October of 2009.
In an exclusive interview, Speak to Power asked the Mayor about his time in office as Mayor of Memphis and his vision for the city. What follows are his unedited responses.
During your campaign for Mayor of Memphis you developed the “One Memphis” theme. Talk a little bit about what “One Memphis” means to you, and what you’ve been doing, since in office, to help realize that idea.
I think the real beauty of “One Memphis” is that it actually meant so many different things to different people. Some people saw it as a pro-metro government message. Others saw it as a call to racial reconciliation. Still others saw it as a message of unity between people of disparate socio-economic backgrounds.
Whatever the meaning to you, it obviously resonated broadly and deeply with many, many people. I think this was because it acknowledged one of the troubling realities that our city has been grappling with for years: in many ways, we have been two (or more!) cities, often working at cross purposes with one another. This mentality clearly cannot work and must not continue. Reaching across all those barriers – of race, of background, of age, of experience, of location – to come together so that we can truly move forward is the mandate that I place on each and every Memphian, whether they voted for me or not. We’ve got a couple of ideas right now about how we can actually “depoliticize” the One Memphis brand and use that energy in some specific, actionable, grassroots ways. Stay tuned.
One of the first things you did after taking office was institute a City Ethics policy and a Transparency policy, which took effect on January 1st of this year. What steps has your administration taken to administer these policies?
Within two months, we had created a dedicated “transparency page” for Memphis City Government on MemphisTN.gov, which contains a number of documents, including contracts that have been executed, the benefits and salaries of all city employees, the city’s total bonded debt and pension assets, and a public records request form that anybody can download and use. We’re updating this all the time to provide people with as much up-to-date information as we can about how and why their tax dollars are being used.
With regard to ethics, the City Attorney’s office just last week collected the first round of disclosure forms from all Division Directors, Deputy Directors, and members of my staff. These forms will create a public record that will allow us to identify any questionable or inappropriate behavior on the part of city employees.
Signing the executive orders on government transparency and ethical reform was not the end of our work in these areas – it was just the beginning, and it will continue as long as I am in office.
Since taking office, your administration has been faced with several challenges, from the Animal Shelter and the Homelessness problem, to Sanitation Workers. Aside from these issues, what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Certainly the budgetary issues that we’re facing are enormously challenging and will require some more difficult choices in the weeks and months ahead. To the degree that the budget impacts everything on my agenda, including the problems you mention, it is clearly my biggest priority. I have long believed that our municipal governments must work more efficiently and transparently, and our current fiscal situation only underscores that.
I understand that everyone is loathe to raise taxes, particularly in the middle of the year, but the fact is we cannot do what we need to do without some reduction of staff and/or reduction of services. My commitment is to make sure that we do not compromise on the fundamental necessity of public safety. We are making serious headway in our war on crime which will not abate. However, the challenge of finding areas where we can make cuts, while at the same time looking ahead to an equally difficult FY2011 budgeting process, has been a immense for everyone in City Hall.
As County Mayor you advocated for a resolution to explore and return to the voters a Metro, or consolidated, Charter. What led you to decide that this would be a good direction for the County, and what would you personally like to see come out of the Metro Charter process?
It’s not for me to say what I would like to see or not see in a new charter – that’s why we have the Metro Commission and groups like Rebuild Government to provide an array of opinions and ideas about what the future of this region could look like. To me, this is an exhilarating time to be a resident of Memphis or Shelby County. We’re looking at a blank page of paper, so to speak, and we’re able to create a new system of government that will be as responsible, accountable, and representative as we want. It’s up to the people to get involved and tell US what THEY want.
As far as the origins of the process, it should be noted that this is not the first time this issue has come to the fore in our community. Metro resolutions have been considered by the electorate in the past, and for a variety of reasons, the people felt the time was not right. I think this year is different – people are seeing how cities like Jacksonville, Indianapolis, and Nashville are surpassing us economically, and it’s creating a deep sense everywhere that something has to change. The status quo isn’t good enough.
There are so many unfortunate myths about this process. People say it’s been some backroom deal or its all some scheme to destroy people’s way of life in the city and in the county. That’s ridiculous and simply untrue. The entire process is as transparent and public as it can be. The people will decide if what the Metro Commission proposes works for them or not. But let’s be clear: we need to position ourselves so that we can compete for jobs and talent. We need to attract and retain businesses. We need one functional government instead of two duplicative bureaucracies. We need to speak with one voice in our dealings with the Governor’s office, the State Legislature, and the Federal Government. Plain and simple.
Having served on both sides of Main St., what is the biggest difference you’ve observed in the cultures of the two governments?
That’s hard to say. I tend to believe that in any enterprise, whether it’s running a business or running a government, leaders are responsible for creating their own culture. People sometimes give me a hard time because they see me smile so much. I can’t help it – I think I’ve got the best job in the world!
I try to exhibit for the people that are responsible to me a sense of what I expect: friendliness, openness, a willingness to help. That’s what residents want, and I hope that’s what they felt when I was in the County building. Certainly it’s what I want people to feel when they come into City Hall.
The Memphis City Council recently agreed on a plan to fund the Memphis City Schools. Outside of funding, the City government has no real ability to impact the school system due to the way the system is chartered. What can the city do to help create and maintain an environment that supports the mission of the schools, and what, if anything, can the city do to hold the administration and board accountable for the state of the school system?
This is an area where I think we can effect a real culture shift. I can’t speak to the relationship between the City Council and the MCS Board or between the Mayor’s office and the Superintendent before I got here. What I do know now, and what I’ve said since my campaign, is that I am squarely focused on making sure the City of Memphis takes an active role in helping our children. You cannot show me any city in the nation where public education is excelling without the active, personal involvement and interest of the Mayor.
I support Dr. Cash and his team. I have been extensively briefed on their very aggressive reform agenda. I could not be more honored or proud of the work they put into getting the Gates Foundation grant to improve teacher effectiveness. Does this mean we agree on every point and every tactic? Of course not. But the nature of our disagreements will always emanate from a very serious and enthusiastic discussion about what our children need to excel, and what MCS needs to be doing at every level to make that happen. Accountability is a natural by-product of just keeping the lines of communication open and keeping the dialog going between our two institutions. When communication breaks down, trust breaks down, and then we lose sight of our common purpose: the needs of our children. This may have been the case in the past, but it’s not going to be the case moving forward.
On your campaign website you talked about helping build minority owned businesses in the City, noting that less the 1% of businesses are currently minority owned. In these challenging economic times, what can the City do to help entrepreneurs build their business and what steps has your administration done to help build minority owned businesses?
The sharp economic disparity that exists in Memphis has dire implications for our entire region. There is no reason why Memphis cannot be a national capital for African-American talent and commerce. I won’t delve into the many reasons why I think we’ve been held back while other cities, like Atlanta, have moved forward. But I know there are some steps we can take to alter our trajectory.
It starts by developing a cogent strategy for supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs, which our city has never really had. There are some terrific organizations, like the Small Business Chamber and Launch Memphis, that are working this realm, but its long past time for City Government to step up and play a role in this. If we can increase our support and resources for small business and start-up ventures, we can create a brand for our city as a place that welcomes innovative, enterprising individuals. Doing so feeds into our overarching talent retention plans and helps to rebuild our city from the inside.
This means helping entrepreneurs cut through red tape when it comes to starting a business. It means helping them find CPAs and book-keepers and professionals that can help them do any number of things that they may not know how to do when they’re starting out. It means applying some new accountability to existing systems that are meant to support minority businesses and small businesses, like the Renaissance Business Center. If we can succeed in creating a citywide culture that is friendly to small businesses, I know that minority and female business owners and entrepreneurs will increase and prosper.
While we try to grow more businesses from the bottom up, I’m also focusing on better equipping our existing workforce. There are industries that are hoping to move into or expand in Memphis and Shelby County, but need to know that the workers they need are here. Job training is key. Our troubles with the federally-funded Workforce Investment Network are well-known by now. We’ve made some fundamental changes to this program already that will allow for more accountability. We’ll soon have entirely new leadership in place to push forward on some more critical reforms.
Crime is consistently mentioned as one of the biggest problems facing the City. Yet statistics show that crime has been falling over the past 12 months. What can your administration do to help continue this downward trend and what do you think needs to be done to repair public perception?
There is a limit as to what can be accomplished with statistics. Serious crime dropped by 16% in 2009 compared to 2008; we saw especially strong gains in bringing down violent crimes and crimes against property. But try telling that to somebody that just got held up at gun point in their driveway, or who had their small business broken into. They don’t feel safe, and all the stats in the world won’t make them feel safe.
So we’ve got to do a number of things simultaneously: we’ve got to keep pushing the smart, data-driven strategies that MPD and the Sheriff’s office have been employing to track crime and crack down on neighborhoods where we know criminal activity is occurring. We’ve got to advance the use of sophisticated tools like the sky towers and the license-plate reading cameras on patrol cars.
And quite simply, people have to make a choice not to let the criminals win. Get out and walk around your neighborhoods. Organize a neighborhood watch and develop a relationship with the officers in your precinct. If you see something suspicious going on in your community, say something about it. Take the extra time and effort to keep your block clean and looking nice. When criminals can see that somebody cares about where they live, they have a much, much harder time.
I applaud the MPD every day for the work that they do, but it’s the people that are our best crime-fighting agents. We need you.
By now the plight of the Regional Medical Center at Memphis, The MED is well known. What can the city do to help stabilize this institution that is vital for so many Memphians?
I cannot yet comment publicly on some of the local intergovernmental negotiations that are currently being held about the future of the MED. There is no question that the MED’s current difficulties underscore the need for a long-term solution in addition to a short-term fix, and that I am in conversation with Mayor Ford, Congressman Cohen, and Governor Bredesen about this almost every single day.
I’ve stated publicly in the past that I’m not so sure we don’t need an entirely new hospital– one that’s smaller and more efficiently-built – and if the stimulus funds could be located to build one, I think it should be seriously considered.
Memphis has been romanticized in music and pop culture since before the rise of Elvis Presley, making it a brand that many cities would kill for. What can your administration do to take that brand identification and use it to help build Memphis into a destination?
It’s funny how “creative class” and “talent retention” have become such academic buzzwords. Memphis was a creative class city before the term even existed!
I’m supportive of the efforts of the Chamber and the CVB in all that they do to promote Memphis and the many unique, wonderful attractions that make us so special. Everywhere you turn in our city, you’re going to bump into a piece of genuine American history, from the Stax Museum in South Memphis to Beale Street downtown to the Pink Palace in East Memphis. Other cities spend millions of dollars and many years trying to manufacture the culture and sense of authenticity that we sometimes take for granted.
We owe it to ourselves to capitalize on our culture even as we work to preserve it. I am excited about the expansions and improvements that are coming to Memphis International Airport. The amount of investment that the owners of Graceland are planning to put into the Whitehaven area will be utterly transformational. One of the reasons we have pursued Bass Pro Shops coming into the Pyramid so vigorously for so long is because they have proven that they can draw so many thousands and thousands of people to their stores from such a wide radius; again, this project will not merely be beneficial for the Pinch district or for downtown, it will impact this entire region.
While we do all that however, the best thing we can do to promote Memphis goes back to some of the things I’ve said about crime and about small businesses – we need to promote Memphis to ourselves. It’s not going to take monumental steps – it’s just going to take some determination. We need to patronize our local restaurants and shop at our local boutiques. We need to take the time to discover new neighborhoods and use the power of word-of-mouth to get our friends excited about everything this city has to offer. We need to enjoy our community and spread that joy around. Nothing will be a better commercial for the City of Memphis than the pride and good feelings of its citizens. That’s what other cities will take note of – not the size of our buildings or the variety of our brand-name stores, but the generosity and happiness of our people.
There is nothing we are dealing with right now, be it crime, blight, schools, or anything else, that cannot be overcome if we agree, as a city, that our future is worth fighting for and investing in. Memphis is the city that gave the world FedEx, St. Jude, Holiday Inn, AutoZone, the modern grocery store, rock music, soul music, and so many other world-changing contributions. We’ve proven over and over and over again the strength of our resolve, our resilience, our creativity, our compassion, and our faith. This is our brand. This is who we are.
Memphis, Tennessee is at a turning point – and I know that our best days are still ahead of us.