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Capitol View Commentary: Friday, June 12, 2015

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Posted at 4:00 PM, Jun 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-07-09 02:16:04-04

CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company

June 12, 2015

I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT; THE EARLY VOTE REMAINS IN LIMBO; PHIL BREDESEN AND THE MAYOR’S RACE; ONLY A FEW MONTHS AWAY; HOWARD GENTRY ON INSIDE POLITICS; THE GOVERNOR SPEAKS

I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT

I have covered Metro government since the early 1970s. That’s over 40 years.

My time around the Courthouse encompasses all six Metro mayors and all but two Metro Councils (the terms from 1963-66 & 1966-1971).

I’ve never before seen anything like what happened last Tuesday night. That’s when the Council deleted from the city’s Capital Improvements Budget three controversial building projects that Mayor Karl Dean wanted to move towards construction during his final months in office.

Sure, I’ve seen mayors lose key votes, even some pet projects deferred or defeated, but never three major proposals lost in one night, in one budget!

And they were all lost for the same basic reason….a failure to communicate.

It’s just like your mother told you: Haste makes waste, process is important, do your homework.

One of the three now-deleted projects was a downtown flood wall. It was actually approved by the Council last year, but a clerical error got the funding source wrong. So it had to be re-approved. However, the further that re-approval process continued, the more questions arose about costs ($100 million) and other flood control priorities and options. In other words, the flood wall was really never fully explained or sold to Council members and citizens.

Then in April, the stakes got even larger when the Mayor announced he wanted to move ahead immediately with what he called “the largest public safety investment in Nashville history.” That means closing the outdated Criminal Justice Center downtown, moving the Jail to Antioch and the Metro Police Headquarters to Jefferson Street in North Nashville.

Again, community outreach and explanations of the need and urgency for the projects (even to area council members in Antioch) seemed late, incomplete or rushed. Then community opposition began to form (in both Antioch and North Nashville) as the issues and controversy surrounding all three projects began to spiral out of control politically with budget approval deadlines looming.

Council members and community leaders felt uninformed and hurried to get these projects approved before the Dean administration was over. That is a bad combination and it ended in political disaster for the Mayor with all three projects being stripped from the Capital Improvements Budget in unprecedented fashion.

If the Dean Team had taken its time and tried to build understanding, if not community support for these projects, the Mayor might have been able to continue his well-deserved final victory lap as he

ends his term, basking in the glow of the many successes he and Nashville have enjoyed under his leadership.

Instead, much as what happened when the administration made similar errors in its efforts to revitalize the State Fairgrounds and build the AMP mass transit project, a political disaster resulted, leaving all three of these proposals (which even many opponents say are worthy of doing) likely delayed at least until a new mayor and council take office, and maybe left under such a cloud that these proposals (at least in their proposed locations) remain in lingering limbo.

I hope this doesn’t mar the mayor’s legacy. It shouldn’t. If he’s guilty of anything it’s loving Nashville too much and wanting to get as many good things as possible done for our city before he leaves office. Other mayors have pushed the envelope too in that regard. It’s just that you can go too far and too fast for your own (and the city’s) good. Let that be a lesson to the new Mayor and Council as they come into office. In fact, I seeing statements now from almost every one of them pledging to be inclusive and transparent in their work as Mayor. I hope so, but you know about the best intentions some time.

Other lessons to be learned: Citizens who organize and make their concerns and objections known, can and will heard by Council members (especially in an election year). That’s true in spite those who want to decrease the Council’s size and say the body doesn’t function well because of term limits.

Baloney.

This Council with these actions has also raised considerable doubt about the constant claim that they are just a rubber stamp body for the Mayor.

Not this time.

But it was close on some of the votes.

Two of the amendments to delete projects passed narrowly. It was 19-18 on the floodwall and 19-17 on the jail move. You’ll note, as I mentioned in previous columns on this topic, not needing a 21-vote majority to amend the budget turned out to be critical. The move to stop the Police HQ relocation did garner a majority of 22 votes, but I suspect that larger margin was a result of the strong appeal made by District Council member Erica Gilmore who represents the Jefferson Street area. It seems the concept of “councilmanic courtesy” in matters such as these, lives on.

The key to success for those opposing the projects was a core of 13 Council members (particularly from Antioch and other districts south and west of the river). They voted to delete all three proposals from the budget. On the other side, only 8 Council members voted to keep all three projects alive. The rest of the body was divided, voting yes or no (a few abstained) depending on which project was up for a decision.

Abstentions looms large in the flood wall vote. Fabian Bedne did not vote on that issue. He told THE TENNESSEAN (June 10) while he admired the design work proposed (he is an architect), he just could not support the plan because of “the sheer lack of engagement with the community.” So he refrained from casting what could have been a tying or deciding vote to keep the project alive. Bedne voted to scuttle both the jail and police HQ relocation plans.

At-Large member Jerry Maynard voted to keep both the jail and police HQ projects. But he is recorded as abstaining on the flood wall decision. If he had voted in favor of the flood wall instead, the tally would have been a tie leaving it up to Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors to decide. How would she have voted? I don’t know but I lean towards thinking she would have voted for the flood wall.

Maynard told THE TENNESSEAN (June 10) he abstained because he felt conflicted between his long time support of the current Mayor and mayoral candidate Bill Freeman for whom Maynard is a paid staffer. Freeman has been critical of the flood wall project.

The vote to kill the new jail project likely leaves the city in a potentially difficult legal position given the serious and undisputed life-safety issues present in the current jail. So the Council also voted without dissent (36-0) to place a new project in the Capital Budget to renovate the current jail in the Criminal Justice Center. Will that be enough? The price tag in the Budget for renovations is listed at over $100 million but remember, the Capital Budget appropriates no money.

So if there is a lawsuit filed (and that wouldn’t surprise me), will the current or new Council appropriate the funds for renovation? Both Mayor Dean and Sheriff Daron Hall had earlier claimed building a new jail is more cost-effective than renovating. But after the defeat of the jail move to Antioch, the Sheriff seems more open to a renovation now. He says doing nothing is not an option and he’s right.

But will a law suit (or a court order) also jump-start re-consideration of a new jail and its location? To do that before June of next year (when another Capital Budget must be adopted) it will take a 2/3 super majority of the Council (the current body or new one) to move ahead. Jail renovation could be approved more easily. But does that make sense?

Maybe this controversy isn’t over yet and the next Mayor and Council may have to deal with these projects again quicker than you think. In terms of the jail, maybe it will come back so quickly even Mayor Dean and the current Council will have to get involved again.

One last note from reviewing the Council votes which show how strange politics can be. Many would say there has been no greater critic of the Dean administration over the last eight years than Emily Evans. But check the roll calls. She voted with the Mayor on every vote taken Tuesday night to keep the downtown flood wall along with the jail and police HQ relocation projects going. Believe it or not.

THE EARLY VOTE REMAINS IN LIMBO

The Council has still another controversy to settle before it approves the operating budget next Tuesday (June 16). That would be the funding feud between the Dean administration, some Council leaders and the Metro Election Commission. It’s a fight that threatens early voting accessibility next month and in turn could lead to much longer lines on Election Day if voters have to wait to cast their ballots then.

The Commission says it needs 12 extra full-time employees (who now are considered part-time). Without the funding, election officials say they can’t appropriately run the Metro elections this August and September or the Presidential Preference primary next March. In fact the Commission adds if it doesn’t get the money, it has no choice but to cut out all early voting satellite sites that have been planned (10). Instead all early voting will have to done only at the Election Commission offices at Howard School.

Not true says Metro’s Finance Department. Finance Director Rich Riebeling says the Commission has plenty of money to run the elections ($1 million more than last year in part due to having 3 election. Riebeling adds no Metro Department ever gets everything it requests for its budget.

That’s true enough, but Metro does have a habit of expanding its services and facilities without adding to personnel resources (take a look at Metro Parks, Public Works among other departments). That’s prudent use of taxpayers’ money. But there are limits.

Meanwhile, the Commission has been told (by its real boss) House Speaker Beth Harwell that they should find another way to work this out with Metro…that early voting locations should stay in place. Some council members are getting tough too saying that they will seek budget cuts in the Commission’s funding, deleting money for each satellite early voting location not held.

In a way this fight is silly. The amount of money involved is not even a rounding error in the budget. That’s not to say Metro Finance or the Council should just give in. But I know there are bright people involved here. Surely this can (and will) be resolved without endangering voter accessibility to the ballot box. As for the Election Commission a little less all-or-nothing attitude might be better as well as dropping its preemptive actions to cut the early voting sites even before a budget had been finalized. All that makes you wonder if this more about partisan politics (Republicans not the Democrats are the sheriffs in town) rather than administering a process critical to our democracy.

But now the matter remains a standoff. The Election Commission met yesterday (Thursday) and only doubled down on its insistence on full budget funding (about $860,000 more). They’ve even rejected a compromise funding proposal from Council leaders to provide an extra funding of something less than 300,000.

Maybe there will be some more behind the scenes negotiations over the weekend The Council’s Budget & Finance Committee meets Monday to mark up (amend) the annual spending plan for all of Metro. That’s when and where we are likely to learn what if any compromise might be coming. The full Council votes on Tuesday.

PHIL BREDESEN AND THE MAYOR’S RACE

Before I get into my weekly overview of the mayoral campaign, one late-breaking development (at least in terms of when it came to my attention) leads me to mention it separately and before the others.

Perhaps the biggest remaining unanswered question about the 2015 mayor’s contest, is who (if anyone) former Governor and Mayor Phil Bredesen might support?

So far, he’s said nothing and given no indications about that from what I’ve seen. But Friday morning (June 12) I received a blast e-mail from the Charles Robert Bone campaign that could offer some insight on the matter.

The Bone Team is hosting a major fund-raiser ($1,500 per person) at Jimmy Kelly’s Restaurant on Thursday, June 25. Among the long-list of high profile political, business and community leaders featured on the Host Committee for Bone are two of Bredesen’s top confidants.

One is his long time and perhaps closest personal advisor and friend Bryon Trauger, (some call him Bredesen’s alter-ego). The other is former Deputy Governor Dave Cooley, who also served Mr. Bredesen as Deputy Mayor.

Are the presence of Trauger and Cooley on the Host Committee list proof positive that the former Governor and Mayor is backing Bone? No, Phil Bredesen can and does speak for himself on such matters.

But is the presence of Trauger and Cooley a signal that it’s OK for Bredesen supporters to support Bone (after all Bredesen remains quite popular in Nashville)? I think it could be a signal, or at least it is likely to be interpreted that way.

Isn’t it also likely these two long-time political figures informed Bredesen about their involvement in advance and would they even be on this Host roster list if Bredesen had an issue about it?

This development is also potentially significant because the former Governor and Mayor has had his political disagreements with mayoral candidate Bill Freeman. As Freeman has shown quite a bit of activity in recent weeks with lots of TV ads and endorsements, he’s been talked about an emerging front-runner. That has also led to speculation about efforts to identify an “anybody but Freeman” candidate to stop him, especially if Freeman makes the likely September runoff election.

Finally, is the Bone Host Committee list a sign that a search, and maybe even a choice for an “anybody but Freeman” mayoral candidate, is moving forward?

Stay tuned.

ONLY A FEW MONTHS AWAY

We are now less than two months away from the August 6th Metro election.

And we are just barely over a month away before Early Voting begins (July 17), wherever and how many early voting sites there turns out to be.

As the pace of the campaign continues to increase, so does a more frequent rotation of TV ads by some mayoral candidates.

Nobody’s had more ads than Bill Freeman and this week his campaign produced yet another spot (I’ve lost exact count on how many ads he’s produced so far). This time the ad concerns traffic.

You can see the ad entitled “Traffic Right” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZOQJcvsafuw&feature=player_embedded

The Freeman media team has also produced a longer web ad on the same topic. It’s entitled “On Traffic”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPj-PefB_h4&feature=player_embedded

In both ads the candidate is better and looking more natural when he is talking to small crowds. He’s not reading his lines as much (although that issue and some furrowed eyebrows are still there in some parts of the TV spot).

The web ad is longer on Freeman supporters talking and complaining about traffic, but both spots have the candidate directly offering his solutions saying we need: “regional mass transit for the long term, a better bus system and relief from bad traffic and potholes right now.” In fact the candidate gets even more specific endorsing a “regional light rail system.” The spot closes with the almost bumper sticker tag lines: “It’s time to fix the traffic. Mass transit is the answer.”

Bill Freeman is also recommending one of other step as Mayor concerning traffic (although it’s not mentioned in the TV spot). In a campaign blast e-mail to supporters about the new ads, the last line says: “Bill Freeman is committed to appointing a traffic director on day one” (as Mayor).

Given that the city already has a Public Works Director and a Traffic Parking Commission how a Metro Traffic director (or czar) works into the mix would be interesting to see. The long-term light rail solution could be expensive too.

That’s based on the projected costs of a light rail system connecting Nashville and Murfreesboro via I-24 suggested by some Republican state lawmakers.

The light rail recommendation might also create some awkward moments for Freeman as mayor in terms of dealing with political leaders in surrounding counties. They were not pleased a few months ago when the candidate criticized Nashville Chamber leaders for not being (he claims) more pro-Nashville in attracting jobs and business to Davidson County. Freeman says as mayor he will be a “jealous advocate” for Nashville on that topic.

It’s a matter that has faded a bit from the forefront of the campaign these days, but it hasn’t been forgotten by the leadership in the doughnut counties I assure you.

Meanwhile candidate Megan Barry put up her second TV spot this, rotating out her debut ad that went on the air right after Memorial Day.

You can see the ad entitled “Forward” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvrZkJEdhUw&feature=player_embedded

Like the first campaign commercial, the spot is introductory for the candidate. Also similar to her first TV message, the new Barry ad makes sure you know (perhaps in a contrast to some her opponents?) that when her political involvement in Nashville began” “I didn’t have millions and I wasn’t politically connected.” Barry says she got involved through her neighborhood association and her son’s school PTO, all with the purpose of “making our neighborhoods better.”

She again touts her record in the Council as an At-Large member, adding that as Mayor she will support “a full populist agenda to strengthen the middle class and keep Nashville moving forward.”

She’s not breaking any new ground in this ad. She is speaking to her Democratic-base especially in the West Nashville/ Vanderbilt/ Belmont area. Nashville overall remains a strong Blue part of the state for sure, but will the focus of this ad be enough for Barry? What will this ad do to widen Barry’s appeal in all areas of the county?

Charles Robert Bone is the third mayoral candidate with a new TV spot this week. It’s his sixth of the campaign according to Joey Garrison of THE TENNESSEAN (June 9). The ad is entitled “Feed” and it has a strong biblical tone.

You can see the ad here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ztctYlwF37Q

In an area like Tennessee with our strong Bible Belt roots, I don’t think quoting the Bible ever hurts a candidate. The gravity of the message may also bring some gravitas to Bone, who has gotten the knock from some of looking too baby-faced on camera.

The ad in terms of Bone’s focus on inclusion and the responsibility of government to reach out and help everyone, including “the least among us,” would also seem to echo comments attributed most often on the campaign trail to his opponent, Howard Gentry.

So is this spot an effort seize some the power of that issue for Bone? Does the Bone campaign see Gentry as the major candidate he needs to compete against right now in the race? (And, obviously, Bill Freeman too given the Host Committee developments I reported earlier in this column).

Maybe that’s all my imagination but in terms of Gentry the announcement of the new TV ad by the Bone campaign also contained a news release with strong comments from Bone’s the most prominent supporter in the African American community, the Reverend James “Tex” Thomas of the Jefferson Street Missionary Baptist Church. Coincidence?

There were no other new TV spots this week. David Fox just began his first ad a little over a week ago and I wouldn’t expect his next one to rotate in until next week or the week after. He did unveil a new campaign web site which a campaign e-mail says includes “David’s positions on the big issues” along with ways to “sign up and join the team, download free stuff and play “I-Spy” with video footage of the Fox campaign kickoff event “and when you spot your friends let them know.”

You can visit the web site here: http://www.foxfornashville.com/

Among the other candidates, Linda Eskind Rebovick seems due for an ad rotation soon as well, while I haven’t seen a Jeremy Kane ad on the air for several weeks.

I do see Kane ads on line quite a bit, especially on Facebook. He seems to be focusing on grassroots efforts. That includes a brief story I saw in a local GCA newspaper (June 10). The article says six former presidents of the Sylvan Park Neighborhood Association have endorsed Kane with a letter signed by all of them being sent out to close to 1,000 folks in that part of town.

Howard Gentry remains the one mayoral candidate still not on TV. He’s been sticking with radio. More on Howard Gentry later in the column.

Elsewhere on the never-ending mayoral forum circuit, Bill Freeman seems to the main target when candidates get the rare opportunity to ask each other questions. Joey Garrison at THE TENNESSEAN reported at one recent forum three of his opponents picked Freeman for their inquiries. Does it indicate he is the front runner? Could be. For sure it means his campaign is moving and opponents are noticing.

Freeman also got an endorsement this week from a member (Jill Speering) of the seemingly ever dysfunctional Metro School Board. In a blast e-mail sent out by the Freeman campaign, Speering cited Freeman’s recent endorsement from the teacher’s union, adding: “Bill’s campaign is on fire.” I am not

completely sure, but Speering may be the first of the nine school board member to formally endorse a mayoral candidate.

Finally looking towards next week, the Metro Council is set to consider a 32% pay raise for the next mayor (from $136,500 to $180,000 annually). The beginning of a new term is the only time legally local public officials can get a raise. But the timing of this in the heat of an election season is sure more than awkward for those seeking office.

So what will the mayoral candidates say? Does the next mayor deserve more money (he does make less now than some of his top aides)? Will the candidates accept the raise if elected mayor?

It’s never easy on the campaign trail as we approach the home stretch.

HOWARD GENTRY ON INSIDE POLITICS

Again this week on INSIDE POLITICS, we continue our one-on-one, in-depth interviews with Nashville’s mayoral candidates.

Our guest is Howard Gentry.

We are trying to keep the shows similar by letting each of the candidates respond on the key issues, while also probing them about items in the news each week impacting Nashville, Metro government and their campaigns. We will also discuss their unique individual backgrounds and why they are running for mayor.

Watch us!

INSIDE POLITICS can be seen several times each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS. Those times include 7:00 p.m. Friday; 5:00 a.m. & 5:30 p.m., Saturday; and 5:00 a.m. & 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. THE PLUS is on Comcast Cable channel 250, Charter Cable channel 182 (note new channel) and on NEWSCHANNEL5’s over-the-air digital channel 5.2.

For those who can’t see the show locally or watch with live streaming video on NEWSCHANNEL5.com., all of the mayoral candidate interviews will be posted in full on the NEWSCHANNEL PLUS portion of the station’s website the week after they air on the PLUS (under the INSIDE POLITICS tab).

Next weekend (June 19-22) on INSIDE POLITICS our mayoral candidate guest will be David Fox.

THE GOVERNOR SPEAKS

I found several comments Governor Bill Haslam made to the media this past week most fascinating.

First, he told reporters and members of the Tennessee Municipal League he needs the help of local officials from across the state to influence what Mr. Haslam says is a “changing State Legislature.” The Governor says state lawmakers no longer pay as much attention as they once did to traditional groups such as contract lobbyists, the media, chambers of commerce and hospitals.

The mention of health care organizations sure sounds like a plea from the Governor for assistance by local leaders to help him revive his INSURE TENNESSEE proposal. The Governor also directly mentioned the growing problem Tennessee and other states (even the federal government) face to fund ongoing road construction and repair. The gas tax has not been increased for many years and lawmakers are increasingly resistant to anything that even resembles a tax increase of any kind, for any purpose.

Increasingly our lawmakers seem to pay the most attention to direct input from their constituents, especially in terms of the Republican Super Majority, that would be GOP primary voters who can re-elect them. Special interest groups on key issues (guns, taxes, social issues) also play a larger role now for lawmakers, including to help generate campaign contributions.

There’s one other thing missing. There was a time some years ago when Governors were more direct and shall we say “hands on” with lawmakers. I remember a story back in Governor Frank Clement’s day when lawmakers were summoned individually to the governor’s office for a chat about key pending legislation.

The story goes the Governor’s assistant (in this case his sister, later State Senator Annabelle Clement O’Brien) would begin the meeting staring at a large map of Tennessee hung behind her desk. The map was filled with a variety of brightly colored pins outlining the various state programs, services and facilities in each legislative district.

Then lawmakers were told if they wanted to keep those pins in their district they needed to think about it and vote right on key administration bills.

There’s another story I remember. I won’t directly mention the governor’s name. But he would bring lawmakers in for a chat and he would pull out from a drawer in his desk and a miniature road grader. The lawmaker was then asked to take a close look at the toy and remember he might never see a real one in his district again if he didn’t vote a certain way.

Such tactics are rather out of fashion these days and I doubt in particular they fit the style of this governor. But they used to work to get things done. With a “changing legislature” would they help again?

Another comment by the Governor also caught my ear. He told reporters he didn’t have a goal in mind for how many longtime state workers he would like to see take a proposed buyout. It’s been offered to over 2,000 workers with at least five years of experience.

Mr. Haslam says a reduction in force is needed to properly streamline state government. Operations. It what he said next that caught my attention. When asked if layoffs might ensue if not enough workers take the buyout, the Governor didn’t say yes, but he didn’t take the opportunity to rule out layoffs either.

Interesting.

Finally, Governor Haslam took the opportunity in speaking to reporters to defend that controversial new state logo which has been criticized for an allegedly oversimplified design and a price tag of $46,000. The Governor says the key is that the new logo helps convey a simplified consistent message and brand for the state.

Tennessee state government now has 172 different logos in use by various state agencies. That’s obviously way too many and so over time the use of a single consistent logo will build a consistent brand image.

That’s true but then the Governor added according to a TENNESSEAN article (June 10) there “might be some situations” where exemptions might be provided to some state departments and agencies. The Governor even some exemptions have already been requested although he didn’t say how many or where the requests generated.

OK. But obviously if the goal for the state is a consistent image or graphic look over time, the more exceptions granted, the less effective the new logo will be. Just something to keep in mind as this branding image by the state continues.