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Memphis City Council approves nine division heads, but Public Works and Solid Waste on hold

Mayor Paul Young’s administration is slowly taking shape, after Memphis City Council members unanimously voted to appoint nine division heads to city posts during the Tuesday, January 23 meeting.

The group joins Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, who was reappointed as interim Chief of Memphis Police Department by Young, after the council tabled a second vote. Her first failed 6-7 on January 9.

However, Davis isn’t the only reappointment to face opposition from council members.

Public Works Director Robert Knecht’s reappointment vote was postponed until the next meeting on February 6.  Council chairman JB Smiley Jr. called for the delay after consulting with members. It met no objections.

“With this particular director, there’s more issues and more questions than we have answers,” said Smiley.

The pause will provide Young time to address ongoing concerns with Knecht’s reappointment.

“Part of what I’ve attempted to do is get a general pulse of this body. Some of the issues this council has with your [Knecht’s] department, and you in particular, is the responsiveness. When we ask questions of you, we get a very circular answer and it’s always ‘no,” said Smiley.

While alluding to negative aspects of the council’s working relationship with former Mayor Jim Strickland, Smiley referenced recent conversations with Mayor Young about his “vision,” which included discussions of a partnership with the council.

“A partnership goes both ways, it can’t always be ‘no.’ Literally, the only thing this body hears from you is why we cannot do something, as opposed to figuring out how we move forward together,” said Smiley.

He also discussed Knecht’s interactions with council members and public works employees.

“The pushback that I’ve heard from council members is, the pushback I’ve heard from people in your own department is, you’re dismissive. You come off as if you know more than everyone else…and you probably do. You’ve been in the position for a very long time,” said Smiley.

Public works splits duties on issues, like blight and illegal dumping, with other city divisions. The latter are so “prolific,” environmental enforcement officers spend their entire time addressing the issue to the detriment of “other solid waste violations.” The city division also addresses potholes and overgrowth in city-owned lots. Grass cutting relies on minority vendors, which Knecht admits limits the ability to address the problem.

Knecht also addressed an annual problem that plagues many of Memphis’ city divisions.

“Every year, we have to prioritize what is important from a city government perspective with our budget. It’s been very tough to manage those times, because employee wages…I’ve lost so many employees to the marketplace, because we’re not competitive with wages,” said Knecht.

As a result, key positions are left unfilled.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation was also criticized for its stewardship of various state routes that course through Memphis. Knecht agreed the state partner should “be more responsive.”

In addition to Knecht, the reappointment of Solid Waste Division head Philip Davis also received pushback.

First-term council member Pearl Walker made a motion for a six-month delay on Davis’ reappointment vote. The request was made after she related discussions with solid waste employees. They included allegations of preferential service in council members’ districts. Davis denied the accusations.

Smiley promptly objected. The motion failed 10-2. Yolanda Cooper-Sutton and Walker were the two ‘yes’ votes. 

Later, during the council meeting later, Davis netted a 12-0 vote. 

At the close of the interviews, Young provided “context” for his personnel choices, reappointments and all. He also provided his view of the council’s role.

“I am in a position where I am the new CEO of a corporation that has 6,700 employees…Most of the time, when a new CEO comes to an organization, they keep the team intact, so the CEO can understand what’s happening,” said Young. 

He added that, as the “board of directors,” the council not only sets policy…

“You hold me, as the CEO, accountable.”

In addition to chief of police and solid waste, the five other division reappointments passed Tuesday were Nick Walker, Memphis Parks; Manny Belen, City Engineer; Ashley Cash, Housing and Community Development; Keenon McCloy, Memphis Public Libraries; John Zeanah, Memphis-Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.

They will be joined by incoming division heads Ty Coleman, Memphis Animal Services; Penelope Huston, Communications Chief; and Fonda Fouche, Human Resources Chief. 

Nick Walker was the only candidate who received a 11-0 vote. It came after council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas recused herself due to her employment with the Memphis River Parks Partnership. All other candidates received 12-0 votes.

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