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Capitol View commentary: Friday, April 5, 2019

Posted: 12:59 PM, Apr 05, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-05 17:59:48Z
Capitol View

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, NEWSCHANNEL 5 Political Analyst

April 5, 2019

CHERRY TREE POLITICS; MAYORAL CANDIDATE DR. CAROL SWAIN ON INSIDE POLITICS; METRO SCHOOLS’ FUTURE REMAINS IN LIMBO; ; PARENTAL CHOICE IN TENNESSEE MOVES AHEAD BUT PROBLEMS MAY ARISE IN THE SENATE; STILL NOT READY; UPDATES ON OTHER CONTROVERSIAL BILLS ON THE HILL; JOE CARR IS BACK IN STATE GOVERNMENT; ANOTHER LAWMAKER UNDER SCRUTINY; THE DEATH PENALTY; COMING BACK TO BELMONT?

CHERRY TREE POLITICS

Since the beginning of our nation, the cherry tree has played an interesting role in our politics.

It even got the Father of our country, George Washington in trouble. When he was a youth, Washington was faced with what to say when asked if he had cut down his father’s cherry tree. When he fessed up, he earned the reputation in history of having never told a lie.

Both that story, and the claim of Washington’s life-long veracity, are quite likely not true. But ole George sure did a lot better in handling his cherry tree crisis than the administration of Mayor David Briley did this past week with the major controversy now swirling around the city’s cherry trees in Metro’s Riverfront Park downtown.

Surely, there is excitement hosting the prestigious National Football League Draft the end of this month. It will bring tens of thousands of visitors to town and generate millions of dollars in taxes and economic impact. But perhaps in all the haste, and despite months of planning, nobody in city government seemed to raise any concerns when the NFL organizers included a 400 foot- long temporary stage in Riverfront Park at the intersection of 1st Avenue and Broadway. That’s so big, it would have originally required 21 cherry blossom trees to be cut down.

Cutting down trees for an event lasting only a few days? What were they thinking? Nashville over the years has hosted lots of events in that same location and managed to spare those trees. Why did this axing of trees not raise a red flag, especially doing so right at the beginning of spring, when the trees’ beautiful blossoms were in full bloom? The move to chop down the cherry blossoms also came just weeks before the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival to celebrate the original gift of the trees from Japan. In recent years over 1,000 such cherry trees have been planted all over Nashville. Even a Japanese consular official is due to attend this year’s festival. Whoops!

The attitude in city government seemed to be captured in these comments made to Metro Council members during a meeting at the Metro Courthouse early this week. Reports THE TENNESSEAN: “The decision was not relayed to Metro Council or the public (until the weekend before the ax was to fall), because it was "not a major project," according to Randall Lantz, who works for the city's parks and recreation department in landscaping and horticulture.

Lantz also said that no Metro ordinances or codes required a permit approval specifically to remove the trees. “In my world, this is not a major project,” Lantz said, adding that he did not see the need to bring the issue to the public. "This is not out of the scope of my day-to-day job."

Lantz said he did not consult the Cherry Blossom Festival organizers, scheduled for April 13 in Public Square Park, because the group trusts him to make the right decisions.

"I'm the cherry blossom guy," he said.

While tree advocates have said that moving the trees earlier would have made the move less risky, Lantz said officials didn't want to move the trees until after they were done blooming.”

That reasoning and attitude turned disastrous when the news hit late last Friday about the imminent tree cutting, which was then set to begin on Monday. Social media blew up.

Almost 70,000 folks signed an on- line petition opposing the move in just a few hours. Opponents of Mayor David Briley in the August 1 election were quick to pounce and criticize. Why not? Almost 70,000 unhappy citizens, turned into voters, are enough to win the August election and defeat an incumbent Mayor for the first time in Metro’s 56-year history.

It’s not clear how involved or clued in Mayor Briley and his staff were in advance about this tone-deaf move on the cherry. trees That’s certainly no excuse. But THE TENNESSEAN reports: “NFL Draft organizers worked directly with the Nashville Mayor's Office for months to get approval on event plans, Metro Parks officials confirmed Tuesday — and they filed a permit application with the administration in January.” This is not a good sign that the Mayor’s office was on top of things.

It is clear no one on the Metro Council knew it was coming and neither did the city’s Parks & Recreation Board. “An oversight” says the Parks Director.

No one in Metro government seemed to remember a previous clear-cutting debacle just a few years ago during the administration of Mayor Megan Barry. That’s when an entire hillside at Ft. Negley was denuded of trees and brush without much thought or warning. Everyone hoped that was a one- time goof, that better lines of communication and notification were in place and working. But they weren’t.

Realizing quickly how bad the political situation was becoming, Mayor Briley issued a statement Saturday afternoon ordering that no trees be cut down. Instead he said they should be uprooted and replanted elsewhere (even though some tree experts believe the trees will not survive). Mayor Briley says if any trees that die will be replaced and paid for by the NFL, while another 200 trees will be planted by the pro league across the community.

On Sunday, Nashville Draft organizers and tourism officials apologized and said they’d made a mistake. They also said only 10 cherry trees would have to go. But it was too late to stop the negative news coverage that went national and world-wide on the web. The coverage has continued non-stop all week. Every media outlet in town is doing stories on the preparation work for the trees to be moved, their actual transplant and probably on -going coverage to document what trees survive and which ones die.

Clearly, this has been and will continue to be much more than a one-day story. And when you are dealing in crisis communications, reputation-management and political campaigns that’s not a good thing for those perceived to be on the “bad guy” side of this story.

Mayor Briley has been working hard to show he is a pro-active, strong leader, offering what supporters say are progressive, unprecedented solutions to our city’s problems in affordable housing, schools, and this week, a way to increase residential recycling in Nashville. https://www.nashville.gov/News-Media/News-Article/ID/8458/Mayor-Briley-Announces-Major-Grants-To-Increase-Recycling-Collection.aspx

Mayor Briley constantly talks about making Nashville and its government more inclusive and transparent. Unfortunately, this cherry tree caper has been anything but that.

Defending trees has long been an area for protest in Nashville. Remember all the hoopla in years past when utility companies wanted to cut down or prune trees encroaching in the right of way before they caused power line outages? Remember times when developers were pressured by neighbors to spare or relocate trees that were in the way of a new project?

Historically, it appears the first environmental protest song was about protecting trees. Back in Victorian times (1830s), the poem, then the song, “Woodsman, Spare That Tree” became a big hit in piano sheet music sales in America. The musical rendition at the link below may lack the pizzazz of modern day best sellers, but the words still ring true. “Woodsman, spare that tree, touch not a single bough.” https://www.contemplator.com/america/woodman.html

Perhaps this poem and song became a hit because America in those days was in the beginning of rapid urbanization. People, as always, were afraid of change and yearned for the peace and serenity of the old days. It is much like what we hear constantly in Nashville today about how the “It City” is losing its special appeal. These critics say city officials are giving in to the quest for growth and the almighty dollar, bringing a crush of bride maid’s parties, pedal taverns, gridlocked traffic, more and more short- term rentals, and out of town companies getting tax dollar incentives to bring jobs and more new people to town.

But our defense of trees may not be absolute. The cherry trees and other vegetation on I-440 are all being ripped out. The green median between the traffic lanes is making way for additional road space and the overall reconstruction of the Parkway by the state. I guess I-440 became so gridlocked and worn out no woodsman will seek spare those trees or vegetation. Drive on.

One other fallout from the cherry blossom controversy. It appears a homeless memorial, a park bench commemorating homeless residents who have lost their lives out on the streets, has also been moved as well for the NFL Draft. There was no notice to homeless advocates, and they are not happy. https://www.newschannel5.com/news/homeless-advocates-call-memorial-move-disrespectful

MAYORAL CANDIDATE DR. CAROL SWAIN ON INSIDE POLITICS

One of Mayor Briley’s challengers in the August 1st election is Dr. Carol Swain, a retired Vanderbilt political science and history professor. She is our guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

Dr. Swain is running for a second time, having finished a distant second (23%) to Briley in the special mayoral election last May.

Of course, we will discuss the issues as she sees them, from cherry trees to affordable housing, to race and more. We will also discuss her past writings about Muslims that have been labeled hateful by some.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include:

7:00 p.m. Friday;

5:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Saturday;

1:30 a.m. & 5:00 a.m. on Sunday.

THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

One option for those who can’t see the show locally or who are out of town, you can watch it live with streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com. Just use your TiVo or DVR, if those live times don't work for you.

This week’s show and previous INSIDE POLITICS interviews are also posted on the NEWSCHANNEL5 website for your viewing under the NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS section. A link to the show is posted as well on the Facebook page of NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Each new show and link are posted the week after the program airs.

METRO SCHOOLS’ FUTURE REMAINS IN LIMBO

After last week’s explosive developments surrounding the leadership and future of Metro schools, the issue continues to fester. School Board members seemed largely non-combative in response to Mayor David Briley’s threat that they had just one more chance “to get their act together.” The Mayor vowed to be more involved in the operations and policies of Metro schools and says he will require the Board to sign a “memorandum of understanding” about how they will operate properly in the future if they want additional funding.

It is not clear if such a move is legal and it brought a sharp rebuke from Metro Councilman Steve Glover who is also a candidate for a Council At Large seat this summer. Glover reminds the Mayor that the Council plays a major role in the school budget process. He told THE TENNESSEAN: that Briley "seems to need another reminder that we have multiple branches of government around here.”

“Any attempts to commandeer control of the school board’s operations or finances are way out of line and out of order," he said.”

Glover also introduced a resolution asking the School Board to “cool it” with efforts to fire Director Dr. Shawn Joseph. It’s a matter set to be considered at the Board’s next meeting April 9. Glover says the Board should wait until after the Tennessee State Board of Education makes a final decision about a one- year suspension of Joseph’s teaching license for repeatedly not reporting employee misconduct allegations to the state.

From THE TENNESSEAN: “With only two months left in the school year, all the urgency to fire the director before the state’s report comes back, seems premature," Glover, a former Metro Schools board member said. "We all need to chill out and figure out which of the allegations actually stick after the investigation is done. It’s called due process.”

But strangely despite the School Board meeting next week to potentially decide Dr. Joseph’s fate, Glover did not seek to move approval of his resolution at this week’s Council meeting, possibly rendering it moot.

There is one other development to watch concerning the fight over Metro Schools. The School Board’s budget committee Tuesday night approved a revised budget that requests tens of millions of additional dollars to “fully fund” Metro schools. That includes a 10% pay raise for all school workers along with other improvements. If ratified by the full School Board next week, the budget request goes to Mayor Briley and the Metro Council. This week Metro teachers at some schools were doing informational picketing before classes begin at their schools to lobby for the extra funds and raises.

The Mayor and Council can’t approve teacher raises or tell the School Board how to spend its money. They can only approve the lump sum educators will receive. But “fully funding” this entire revised Schools budget request would appear to be impossible without a property tax increase or significant funding cuts to the rest of Metro government. With Mayor Briley saying he plans to restore a cancelled 3% pay raise for Metro workers, it is hard to see how he can push for a 10% salary hike for Schools employees, although again that decision is ultimately up to the School Board.

Reading between the lines maybe this is the School Board’s real response to the Mayor’s demands they work with him and get their act together to get more funds. Maybe the Board will do so only if the Mayor (and the Council) support them to “fully fund” their budget request even though doing that in an election year will be very hard to do.

PARENTAL CHOICE IN TENNESSEE MOVES AHEAD BUT PROBLEMS MAY ARISE IN THE SENATE

The push by the Administration of Governor Bill Lee to increase parental choice for public school students and parents in Tennessee continued to move ahead on Capitol Hill in Nashville this week.Next week, who knows?

On Monday, one of the most prominent and controversial proponents of choice, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, came to Nashville to tour a local charter school and praise the state’s leadership for moving ahead in this policy area.

Maybe her appearance worked. Bills to create education savings accounts (ESAs or vouchers) and increase the availability and strengthen the appeals process for charter schools, passed through a couple of legislative committees this week. That could draw the legislation ever closer to floor votes soon, at least in the House. But in terms of the charter legislation, questions and concerns continue to arise. h ttps://www.timesfreepress.com/news/breakingnews/story/2019/apr/03/gov-bill-lees-proposal-create-new-tennessee-charter-commission-clears-another-legislative-hurdle/491896/

So far, the approval votes in committee remain somewhat close. This seems to reflect the continued uncertainty and remaining questions among lawmakers, including Republicans. Home school students and parents have been dropped from the program to guard against fraud concerns. To further bolster support for his ESA legislation, Governor Lee, when I interviewed him last week on INSIDE POLITICS, indicated a willingness to go along with also changing income eligibility standards to participate in the education savings account program.

This week new lower income standards were proposed. We will see what impact that has. You can read more at the link below about the income changes, including the opinions of the blog trolls on THE TENNESSEE JOURNAL ON THE HILL site. http://onthehill.tnjournal.net/here-are-the-revised-income-limits-for-lees-school-voucher-plan/

One other emerging area of controversy over the ESA voucher program is an insistence by Governor Lee that the program be for “legal residents only.” Given past federal court rulings that seems likely to mean a lawsuit if the education savings plan becomes law.

That issue and others are leading one Senate leader, Senator Delores Gresham to indicate the voucher proposal may be in trouble next week when it comes up for debate in the Senate Education Committee.

Reports WPLN, Nashville Public Radio. https://www.nashvillepublicradio.org/post/gov-lee-s-school-voucher-plan-faces-questions-tennessee-senate

Here is another article (via the Chalkbeat publication) offering additional reaction by lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the vouchers/ parental choice controversy on the Hill. https://www.chalkbeat.org/posts/tn/2019/04/03/lawmakers-lower-income-limit-for-tennessee-vouchers-eligibility/

Opponents are also maintaining that the passage of parental choice legislation will mean a decrease in the new Basic Education funding being doled out by the state this year. This article by an anti-voucher publication, THE TENNESSEE EDUCATION REPORT (sent to me by a reader) shows the alleged impact for loss of extra BEP funds in Knox County. What might it be for Nashville? The article doesn’t say. http://tnedreport.com/2019/04/vouchers-and-the-bep/

STILL NOT READY

The Lee administration also announced this week that the TNREADY achievement tests will be administered on paper for students in the 2019-2020 school year. This spring that is how elementary and middle school students will take the exam, while Tennessee high school students will take it on line one more year before the state hires a new vendor to handle the troubled program.

The hope is all testing will go back on line as early as 2020-2021, but for now, TN READY remains as it always has been, not ready.

UPDATES ON OTHER CONTROVERSIAL BILLS ON THE HILL

The bill to allow Tennessee adoption and foster care agencies to decline to assist same-sex couples passed the full State House this week by a wide margin. It’s legislation that seems likely to be passed by the Senate and signed into law by Governor Lee.

The measure is bound to challenged in the courts, and says this article moved nationally by the Associated Press, it is part a national effort by conservative groups. https://www.northcentralpa.com/news/state/tennessee-adoption-bill-would-let-agencies-deny-same-sex-couples/article_230c8080-37c9-5db5-8ee3-3c772033b995.html

In addition to LGBT organizations, some religious groups are concerned the bill would legalize discrimination. https://www.nashvillepublicradio.org/post/tennessee-faith-leaders-say-new-adoption-bill-would-open-gates-religious-discrimination

The “nationalization” effort on this adoption bill is also happening with the “heart beat” legislation that would ban abortions as soon as a heartbeat can be detected. That can occur about six weeks into a pregnancy which is significantly sooner than current court restrictions set out by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.

Similar heart beat laws in other states have already been struck down in the federal courts. But with a new, more conservative High Court in place in Washington, several states, including Tennessee, seem poised to pass heart beat bills. Georgia has just done so, despite threats of a national backlash. https://www.redandblack.com/athensnews/breaking-heartbeat-abortion-bill-passes-georgia-general-assembly-heads-to/article_709f49dc-525f-11e9-bb0a-eb1d6b644157.html

Could Tennessee be next? The ‘heart beat” bill has already passed the State House. With Governor Lee likely to sign the bill if it reaches his desk, that means only State Senate approval is needed.

Perhaps to hedge their bets, as I told you might happen, another bill to ban abortion as soon as Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court may be brought back to life in committee next week. It was killed last week in a sub-committee.

So what will it be on abortion? A “trigger” bill or the “heart beat” measure? Or both?

JOE CARR IS BACK IN STATE GOVERNMENT

You might recall back late last year and in early 2019, Governor Lee’s cabinet and staff choices came under intense criticism by some in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Using THE TENNESSEE STAR on-line media outlet, the Governor’s choices were called Democrats and RHINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

Now the appointment of a new Deputy Commissioner in the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation might be seen a peace offering in that regard. The new Deputy Commissioner is former State Representative, perennial candidate and Tea Party stalwart Joe Carr. Here’s a TENNESSEE JOURNAL summary of media reports on the Carr appointment. http://onthehill.tnjournal.net/carr-cleans-up-perennial-candidate-lands-135k-job-with-lee-adminstration/

ANOTHER LAWMAKER UNDER SCRUTINY

For the fourth time in recent years, a state lawmaker is facing allegations of sexual misconduct, some of which are under investigation on the Hill.

This time the charges involve Democratic Representative Rick Staples of Knoxville. Here is what the USA TODAY—TENNESSEE NETWORK is reporting. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/03/tennessee-politics-democratic-rep-rick-staples-faces-allegations-investigation-sexual-misconduct/3352580002/

On Thursday, Representative Staples apologized if his actions “were misinterpreted.” He adds he is a victim of ‘political character assassination.” https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2019/04/04/rick-staples-apologizes-calls-harassment-accusation-character-assassination/3365195002/

THE DEATH PENALTY

Next month, convicted murderer Donnie Edward Johnson is scheduled to be executed here in Tennessee. It will mark an early first test for Governor Bill Lee about what he will do in handling appeals for mercy or clemency in capital cases.

I raised that subject with Governor Lee when he was on INSIDE POLITICS last week. We didn’t discuss the Johnson case itself, but the details surrounding Johnson may raise some difficult choices for the Governor. While Mr. Lee made it clear he is sworn to uphold the laws of the state, including the death penalty, the Governor is also a strong advocate for criminal justice reform and helping those convicted of crime rehabilitate their lives.

The Governor say those who commit violent crimes should receive swift and sure justice. But Donnie Edward Johnson is someone who even the daughter of the woman he murdered says has gone from “being a liar, a cheat, a con man and a murderer” to an ordained elder in the Seventh Day Adventist Church with a flock inside the walls of the prison.

Cynthia Vaughn wants to meet with the Governor about mercy in this case. Execution day is May 16.

If you like to see and hear the Governor’s comments about capital punishment, and the other issues we discussed on INSIDE POLITICS last week, you can do so at this link. The capital punishment discussion is in the third segment of the program. https://www.newschannel5.com/plus/inside-politics/inside-politics-governor-bill-lee

COMING BACK TO BELMONT?

In the fall of 2008, Belmont University did a stellar job hosting a nationally-televised presidential town hall debate between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. Now Belmont wants to do it again in 2020. While nobody knows for sure if there will be presidential debates next year, or how many, Belmont’s bid is among the announced finalists. https://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2019/04/03/belmont-one-six-contenders-2020-presidential-debate/3351918002/

I have no inside information of which sites are most likely to be picked. But among the finalists, Hartford, Conn., Creighton University in Omaha Nebraska, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind. and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Belmont is the only one in the South, while several others are in Midwestern states. Some of those Midwest sites might be more appealing since they are in potential battleground states while Tennessee will not be. Just how many debates are scheduled will also play a role in which of the six finalists are selected. The debate in Salt Lake City is the only potential debate site out west if geography is a selection factor.