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OPINION: Free press, local government oversight of quasi-agencies and nonprofits – or the lack thereof

Curtis Weathers recently wrote a compelling piece on the educational opportunities provided by the tragic events at our nation’s Capitol on Jan. 6. 

While sad, the event offers robust national civic exploratory inquiry into the U.S. Constitution, impeachment process, First Amendment and social media. 

The only advantage to the event is that it was press covered and everyone saw it, which provides the opportunity for deeper analysis. Much harder to see is what goes uncovered by the local press, while perhaps undermining the local community.

So, what about local Memphis history and government? 

It must be stated that the Tennessee State Civics Standards do not even mention such terms as “governmental oversight” or “quasi- governmental agencies.”

Local quasi-government agencies are public board bodies, with staffs and budgets, and that operate outside traditional government.

These agencies include the likes of Memphis Light Gas and Water Division (MLGW), Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) and Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC). 

These organizations have either direct control over local tax dollars or have significant influence over the wellbeing of the local population. These are also agencies that operate under the auspices of local governmental oversight and involve multi-million-dollar questions impacting the local community.  

While not locally reported, the Shelby County Commission made history on Dec. 21  by neglecting their oversight function, which is arguably common, and going further to obstruct requested due diligence on a $62 million funding allocation for public parking made by the Downtown Memphis Commission.

The County Trustee, Assessor and Chief Financial Officer all made requests to perform due diligence on the matter, but were overtly obstructed by the Commission! 

The $62 million request involved the use of taxpayer money, funded through a restricted fund that no one in county government seemed to know about, as expressed through on the public record testimony. 

On Dec. 7, the matter was correctly referred to committee for due diligence, based on a motion made by Commissioner Mark Billingsley. At the next commission meeting, on Dec. 21, Billingsley strangely reversed his position and moved to reconsider the $62 million question, effectively obstructing, requested by county officials, due diligence.

This is a stunning piece of local history. 

The former does not mention that on Dec. 21, the DMC made at least two on-the-record material misrepresentations involving mistaken annual city and county tax dollar contributions to the fund and the understating of parking garage fund financial liabilities by $12 million.

Both misrepresentations greased the skids for not performing due diligence and approving the $62 million public parking allocation. The $62 million approval was for public parking that is not presently needed, based on the DMC downtown parking study. 

Further, due diligence would have revealed $23 million in possibly illegal taxpayer funded loans made to private developers using the fund.

Given this local historical event, if it is somehow possible to be accommodated by the state standards in the local curriculum, these are questions that might arise for local curricular exploration:

How many quasi-governmental agencies, with their own budgets and assets funded by taxpayers, operate outside of local government, where local government has oversight authority?

How have external agencies impacted local budgets for education, public safety, infrastructure, and public health?

How much have quasi-governmental agencies abated in local taxes and how does that compare with other municipalities in the rest of the state?

What is the role of the free press in covering local government oversight of quasi agencies and non-profits or lack thereof?

Needless to say, these quasi-governmental agencies and corresponding local government oversight have significant impact on our local community. 

Are our leaders of tomorrow learning anything at all about this critical area of local public governance?

 

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