MEMPHIS (MCT) – Two high-level directors in the city of Memphis Public Works division have resigned under pressure from the administration of Mayor A C Wharton.
Wharton's chief administrative officer George Little said he had "candid discussions" Friday afternoon with Onzie Horne, a deputy director overseeing the program that cleared weeds from thousands of overgrown lots, and Andy Ashford, who as deputy director for solid waste oversaw curbside garbage pickup at homes and businesses.
"They were both given the opportunity to resign," Little said. Both were placed on administrative leave in advance of their departure Feb. 7.
In interviews Saturday, both men said they accepted the decision and wished the city well. "I have every confidence going forward even without me that the program will do well and the city will do an even better job in mitigating these weeds," Horne said.
Horne's departure comes as the city's internal financial investigators review the performance of a city-run grass-cutting program that employs many outside companies. Little said the audit won't be complete for some time, but that managers had already concluded that there was a "lack of adequate financial controls and accountability in the program."
"There is nothing to indicate that there's anything criminal or that anybody went out with any ill intent," Little said. "But just that it was difficult to trace the processes all the way through from the assignment of the work to the final payment."
Little said in the case of Ashford, there were no such questions. "There are no audits of solid waste. There are no concerns relative to financial controls or accountability."
Little said the city aims to modernize its waste-collection efforts. "We needed to make sure we had the right team in place to move the solid waste program forward in the face of the kinds of costs and the challenges that we have," he said.
Horne, 65, is the former head of the Beale Street Merchants Association and was hired by the city in 2011. One of his key responsibilities was the "25-square-block" program, which targeted 25-block areas of the city for intense cleanup of weeds, demolition of dilapidated buildings and removal of junk.
The program was tested in 2011 and ramped up the following year. It relied heavily on outside contractors to do the work. Little said some vendors complained that payments came late.
Regarding the slow payments, Horne said that he needed to ensure that the crews were actually doing the work. "I simply refused to sign any check request or any invoice until it was substantiated that the work was done and our department certified the work was done."
Regarding the financial controls, he said, "We had over 100 crews out there working during all those months. But I have data and accounting staff of fewer than six people, and the two highest-ranking of those were temps."
He said he needed more people to manage the program. "Could we could have done better? Of course we could have. That's why I solicited more staff, the right complement, more technology, more software, the things that could help us improve the efficiencies. And I'm inclined to believe that these things will happen."
Horne said that under his watch, the number of lots cleaned up rose from 6,000 per year to 52,000 in 2013. Concentrating on one area at a time was more efficient than the old way of moving crews among lots scattered across the city, he said.
"I'm a devoutly religious person. I'm not some kind of fanatic, but I felt like we got the five loaves and the two fishes and we fed the five thousand," Horne said. "We managed to do quite a bit with what we have."
Ashford, 62, worked for waste company Browning-Ferris Industries before joining the city in 1992 as recycling coordinator. He became deputy director for solid waste in 2009.
The end of his city career came quickly. There was no sign of his departure Friday afternoon, when he gave The Commercial Appeal an interview about a potential "pay-as-you-throw" garbage fee program.
Ashford said Saturday that shortly after the interview ended, he spoke with Little and agreed to retire.
"I've been in the business 35 years, and 22 with the city. And it was just time for me to move on," Ashford said. "Maybe it's best for the city, and I wish them well."
Both Ashford and Horne earned salaries of $103,700 as of last year. Little said the city has not yet decided who will fill their spots.