By Bernal E. Smith, II

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” – Luke 12:48.
As chairman of the Memphis City Council and a duly elected official (District 7) you are entrusted with much responsibility and authority. There are high expectations of your decisions and involvements. It is incumbent upon you to reinforce and embolden the public’s trust and not damage it.

Sworn to represent the best interest of the citizens of your district and the city as a whole, it is imperative that you make decisions consistent with that oath and that you do not compromise your ability to do so.

Your decision to contract with the Beale Street Merchants Association absolutely compromises your ability to even weigh in on matters concerning Beale Street that might come before the Council. It disallows you from representing the interests of the constituents that elected you and all those you serve in the city of Memphis.

About two weeks ago, I was casually told that the Beale Street Merchants Association (BSMA) would be contracting with you to provide consulting in marketing and fundraising. My initial thought was that certainly this could not be true given all that has transpired – and is yet to transpire – with the City of Memphis and Beale Street. It had to be just another rumor in the ongoing drama of “As the Street (Beale) Turns.”

So, I asked around. No one I talked with, including a council member I just happened to run into, expressed any awareness of it. I pushed the notion to the side and focused elsewhere.

This week, sources confirmed that you actually have agreed to contract with BSMA. And, I have been made aware of City Council Attorney Allan Wade’s legal opinion. He wrote:

“Under the City’s Ethics ordinance Mr. Boyd is only required to disclose a personal interest that affects or that would lead a reasonable person to infer that it affects his vote on a measure. Recusal is not required, but is within the discretion of the officer voting on the measure. It was my understanding that Councilman Boyd intended to make the requisite disclosure and even recuse himself from the vote even though recusal was not required.

“Finally, it is my opinion, consistent with prior opinions by past City Attorneys, that Mr. Boyd does not have a personal interest as defined by the ordinance that would require disclosure or recusal. He does not have a financial, ownership or employment interest in the subject of a vote by the Council. Management of Beale Street and the City’s leasehold interest in the buildings, as distinguished from the actual right of way, on Beale Street is an administrative matter under the Mayor’s control. The Council is not involved in administrative matters.

“The Council is involved in granting franchises and licenses to third parties to use the rights of way and has only been involved to insure that adequate security is provided to protect the citizens who visit the street on Saturday nights. There is no conflict in any council member using his or her vote to protect the health and safety of citizens. Councilman Boyd has no financial interest in the vendors hired by Downtown Memphis Commission to fulfill this objective.”

While I respect attorney Wade’s legal experience and opinion, I believe the opinion stops woefully short of addressing the greater issues at hand. And one of the primary issues is the trust of the citizens of Memphis, the voters.

Over the past 10 years, voter apathy has been reinforced – if not motivated by – actual and perceived misconduct and corruption by elected officials. Stagnated growth and lack of upward mobility for many also swirl in the voter-apathy mix. Clearly the order of the day is for leaders transparent in their actions and truly intentional about keeping the issues and interests of the community first and foremost – even above personal financial gain.

Councilman Boyd, you have a responsibility to not only maintain the trust of voters but to restore it and set the tone for a new era of leadership. Your decision to contract with the Beale Street Merchants Association creates the perception of impropriety, eroding public trust in elected officials and the system overall and ultimately reinforcing voter apathy and frustrations.

Such frustration is evident in these posts by members of the Facebook group, Memphis Raise Your Expectations:

“This is reimbursement for what he does for them! They have no fear that the citizens will revolt so they continue to perform in this corrupt manner!”

“I want to be annoyed with this……but I can’t because it seems to be the norm with this political landscape. Corruption!”

“He and Trump must be related…..sounds like a conflict of interest to me.”

“Why are our memories so bad? By next election no one will remember this stunt. While it may be legal it certainly sets a stage for impropriety.”

“Now I’m not saying his contract approval is a shady deal but the same scrutiny that Deidre Malone had regarding the body cameras should be applied to this extension to Boyd’s firm. It’s a conflict of interest at minimum.”

Councilman, this is one of the areas where “much is required” kicks in for an elected leader. You simply must take into account public perception, sentiment, potential fallout and broad impact of decisions such as the one you have made.

Go back and review the agenda from each of this year’s council meetings (committee and full council) and count the number of times that Beale Street has been on the agenda. Once you do that, think about those in attendance, the speakers, the controversy, the passion expressed in those meetings and the still unresolved issues regarding the street.

I attended at least four such meetings and spoke at two about the issues specifically facing African-American business owners on Beale Street and the ongoing challenges to bring equity to access, opportunity and marketing of the entire street, including the east end where the majority of the black-owned-businesses are located.

There also are unresolved lawsuits and disputes, specifically Beale Street Development Corporation vs. the City of Memphis. Let’s not forget the plight of the 21 Beale Street Inc. management firm, which won an RFP process (to become the permanent manager of Beale Street) yet – because of the influence of the merchants association – was never given a contract.

These issues speak to the struggles over the years for management and control of the great economic engine that is Beale Street – the potentially great entertainment district that appropriates and economically exploits the history and culture of African Americans yet conspicuously excludes African-American participation in its economic prosperity.

This is what makes your decision such a poor one. You could not have analyzed all of the various elements and issues surrounding Beale Street and decided that it was in anyone’s best interest for your firm to fulfill that role, except your own. It demonstrates a selfish and arrogant thinking that brings into question whether you truly consider the interest of the people first in your role as a city councilman or those of your own personal concern and interest.

Nothing about this deal passes the smell test. Out of all the numerous qualified African-American owned and non-African-American-owned firms in Memphis with the track record and capacity to assist the Beale Street Merchant Association with marketing and fundraising they choose the firm of the current Memphis City Council chairman, who has throughout the year voted on issues that directly impact the entertainment district and its future.

By contracting with him/his firm, it will require a recusal from future votes and potentially sway issues based on the remaining council members in ways that the vote may not have otherwise gone. Essentially, they buy your vote. Or again, at least that is the perception.

I write not to cast broad dispersions but to challenge your thinking and specifically challenge you to rethink this particular decision as it relates to what’s in the best interest of Beale Street, its varied interested parties and, most importantly, the citizens of Memphis.

Understand, you have been entrusted with protecting the public’s best interest and that simply requires more.