Thursday, January 27, 2000

Editorial: Park Commission / Citizen Body Still Has Place in City Government

Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIANS are still waiting for the City Council to offer a good reason to abolish the Park Commission. Yet the effort has gathered momentum again, with the likely passage of an ordinance that would shift control of 10 riverfront parks, Mud Island River Park, the cobblestones and the historic promenade from the Park Commission to the mayor and City Council.

A council committee will consider a more ominous proposal next Tuesday: creating a department of city government to handle parks and recreation affairs, eliminating the Park Commission once and for all.

This time the council is launching a strike against the commission over the latter's plan to demolish the old Melrose High School building to make way for a senior citizens' center in Orange Mound. Leaders of the council movement to dump the commission insist it has arisen not from a personality conflict, but from a need to streamline the park system.

Council members also argue that the commission has shown a lack of political sensitivity on issues that usually end up in their laps. In fact, the Park Commission simply made its best judgment of what to do about Melrose and appropriately presented its case to the ultimate authority: the City Council.

The council and the commission have been through this before. The commission recommends a course of action on, say, a proposal to lease some land in Martin Luther King Jr./Riverside Park, or to build a senior citizens' center in Overton Park, or to convert Confederate Park to a monument to cancer survivors. Or perhaps it plays whatever cards it has in its deck to delay something the council wants, such as buying Whitehaven Country Club.

Its tactics occasionally prompt council members to dredge up the hoary proposal to abolish the commission. In 1996 the council created a 10-member advisory panel to study the idea. The group recommended leaving the commission alone. Earlier that year, a City Council funding moratorium on park projects temporarily set park operations on their ear.

This time the council will succeed in dumping the commission, predicts Mayor Willie Herenton, who isn't publicly taking sides on the issue. But the mayor's current agenda, which involves more direct City Hall involvement in schools, day care centers and the Head Start program, would suggest that he wouldn't mind a more direct hand in park operations as well.

An updated legal interpretation of the City Charter holds that the council has the power to get rid of the five-member commission. The Park Commission's defenders, such as Fred Davis, the mayor's nominee to succeed John Malmo as its chairman, hold that only the voters can eliminate the commission because the authority to create it is embedded in the charter.

Whether that interpretation eventually holds up, abolishing the Park Commission is a bad idea. The level of autonomy delegated to the commission to operate city parks provides a necessary buffer between the parks and politics, and a check against their potential degradation as part of a spoils system.

Besides, Park Commission members, who serve without pay, have shown that they can be a useful source of expertise.

COUNCIL members can, and should, continue to make careful and deliberate reviews of Park Commission decisions. And they can support Memphis parks with an adequate budget.

The $20 million annual tax-funded portion of the parks and recreation operating budget has not grown appreciably in 15 years. If council members truly want to do something to improve Memphis parks, a fresh look at the money they allocate to park upkeep would be a better place to start.

Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Plan Would Give Mayor, Council Authority Over 5-Mile Riverfront

Commercial Appeal
by Deborah M. Clubb

City officials will propose an ordinance next month to give the mayor and City Council control of 10 riverfront parks, Mud Island River Park, the cobblestones and the historic promenade.

The council and mayor would then contract with a new nonprofit group - the Riverfront Development Corp. - to develop, promote and operate the city's 5-mile waterfront.

The new ordinance would amend one that gives the Memphis Park Commission control of all parks and end a turf battle stirred up when the riverfront steering committee sought authority over the riverfront parks a few months ago.

The committee, appointed by Mayor Willie Herenton last year, chartered the nonprofit in November in order to raise corporate and foundation funding and speed up riverfront development.

Both the ordinance and contract could have council approval by late March, Public Works director Benny Lendermon told the steering committee Tuesday. Lendermon will retire from city government to become executive director of the RDC later this year.

"We're real happy and plan to keep the council informed and involved, as well as the mayor," said John Stokes, committee chairman. "We're happy about dealing directly with the council."

Committee leaders did not want to seek approval for their ideas from both the Park Commission board and the City Council, Stokes said. "None of us are interested in wasting time."

City Council member John Vergos, a riverfront committee member, said he expects no difficulty among council members about carving the riverfront parks from the park system.

"They still are city parks . . . We can get them back anytime."

Herenton explained his support for the plan last weekend in a council retreat, Lendermon said. The mayor also alerted council members that his city budget proposal will include $250,000 to help pay RDC's operating costs.

At the same planning session, council members told Herenton the Memphis Park Commission has outlived its usefulness and should be dismantled. Council member Tom Marshall pledged to hold hearings within a month to determine the commission's fate.

Lendermon, Stokes and riverfront committee vice chairman Kristi Jernigan have met with a half-dozen council members and will meet with the remainder to discuss the committee's goals.

"There was no disagreement expressed by those (at the retreat) or from those we met with since" about the parks proposal or operating funds, Lendermon said.

Herenton has committed the estimated $1.5 million in city funds used to operate and maintain the riverfront to the RDC. As the new organization identifies and pursues specific projects, its leaders would seek approval and funding for each from the City Council.

Stokes, Lendermon and Jernigan will ask the Plough Foundation board in February for $250,000 a year for three years for administrative costs.

A year ago, the Plough group provided $19,000 to support a series of public sessions to discuss riverfront objectives.

Jernigan is negotiating a possible location for RDC in the Falls Building.

Parkway Properties, which manages the building, also is developing the historic William R. Moore building and a new garage for AutoZone Park, in a deal made by Jernigan and her husband, Dean, co-founders of the Memphis Redbirds and the foundation that is building AutoZone Park.

The company is considering giving the new organization the space at cost.

"They're great people, and even though they're based in Jackson, they want to be part of this community, and I want to give them some credit for that," Jernigan said.

The committee will apply for federal Economic Development Administration funds to support a master plan and public hearing process that will cost $250,000 or more, Lendermon said.

Copyright 2000 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN

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