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Council sets up vote on national search for next MLGW chief

Seeking to slow down the nomination process, Memphis City Council members cobbled together enough votes to approve a resolution 5-0 calling for a national search for a new MLGW CEO and president.

The council action came during Tuesday’s (Oct. 11) meeting of the Personnel & Governmental Affairs Committee.

The council’s move comes after Mayor Jim Strickland announced the nomination of current City of Memphis’ Chief Operating Officer Doug McGowan last week to replace current MLGW head J.T. Young.

Young is leaving Memphis’ city owned utility for a job with Florida Power & Light, his previous employer. His resignation is effective Friday (Oct. 14).

The resolution will move to the full council for consideration. According to the City Charter, the mayor possesses the responsibility for nominating the position.

“Working with Mr. McGowan over the years, as I have, I found him to be a straight shooter. To be a capable individual with whom I have a great working relationship,” said Council Chairman Martavius Jones, the resolution’s sponsor.

“The fundamental question that I have about this nomination is, four years ago it was necessary to conduct a national search to find the most qualified (to head MLGW). It hasn’t been brought to our attention what’s changed between then and now that we shouldn’t follow the precedent set then.”

The council chairman cited previous hires to city leadership posts that faced a wider field. 

They included current Memphis police Chief C.J. Davis and her predecessor, Mike Rallings. Prior to being hired in 2016, Rallings served as interim chief, until the council voted unanimously to suspend the search.

“Mayor Strickland went on to say, ‘I wanted to be able to look citizens in the eye and be able to say I got the best possible director.’ And how can we do that without a national search?” asked Jones.

Young’s departure comes in the midst of his recommendation that MLGW remain with the Tennessee Valley Authority, the city’s longtime electricity supplier. During a Sept. 7 MLGW board meeting, Young said the relationship should be extended for another 20 years. 

There are fears, from those who think the utility can get a better deal from another supplier, that McGowan shares Young’s sentiment.

For several years, activists have pressed MLGW to seek clean energy-centric providers. Much of the power generated from TVA comes from natural gas-fired power plants. On top of concerns about climate change, there are other worries beyond a clean portfolio. 

“As the MLGW and the council consider alternatives to TVA, if there was ever a need to conduct a national search for an industry professional, it is now,” Jones stressed.

Costs also are a motivator in opening the process. Previously, Young has pointed to a study conducted by Georgia-based GDS Associates, which reflected increased energy costs, if the utility opted to go with a competitor. 

The years’ long assessment also said the status quo would present the “greatest value and least risk.” Through the deal, MLGW would net a 3.1 percent base rate reduction. It could also receive as much as 5 percent of its power from renewables. 

Twenty-four providers took part in a bidding process, which was narrowed to 13.

Critics have accused MLGW of providing faulty analysis to keep the business relationship intact. This includes accusations of highlighting risks and minimizing millions in potential savings. 

The Southern Environmental Law Center is currently suing over legality of the 20-year contracts, alleging the deal TVA is offering Memphis, which 146 other local power companies have signed, violates the TVA Act. 

The environmental nonprofit provides legal help to communities seeking environmental safeguards and improvements such as coal ash removal or resisting pipeline permits.

Still, for some members on the council, there seems to be little appetite for a protracted hiring process, national or not.

“The position definitely needs to be filled as soon as possible,” said Councilmember Cheyenne Johnson.

“There’s a lot of things going on over there that we need to keep up with and have addressed. As long as it’s not a long, drawn-out process, I’d go along with it.”

Voting in favor of the resolution were Councilmembers JB Smiley, Michlyn Easter-Thomas, Patrice Robinson, Johnson, and Jones.

Abstaining were Councilmembers Ford Canale, Teri Dockery, Jeff Warren, Frank Colvett and Edmund Ford Sr.


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