EDITORIAL: Re-elect David Briley as Nashville’s mayor
The Tennessean Editorial Board assessed Nashville Mayor David Briley on 11 issues. He should be re-elected in order to carry out his vision for four more years.
When the editorial board endorsed Megan Barry for mayor in 2015, some of us envisioned that we might be at the table again four years later to renew that endorsement in the 2019 race.
The vision and the issues presented – with an emphasis on affordable housing, transit, economic development and public education – were right on target for this booming city.
As we all know, things did not work out.
A sex scandal and a guilty plea for felony theft sidelined those plans in 2018, and instead we had the first “accidental” succession of a mayor in Metro Nashville Davidson County Government history.
When former Vice Mayor David Briley assumed the job on March 6, 2018, he was left with a severe set of challenges.
First, he had to restore public trust in government after the scandal.
Second, he had to clean up a financial mess.
This was caused by a serious of choices – stemming from the 2017 quadrennial property value assessment (and massive tax appeals) and his predecessor’s decision not to raise the property tax rate – that made it impossible for Nashville to balance its budget relying only on existing revenue.
That also meant not being able to deliver on the previous administration’s goals or promises. That included not fully funding Metro Nashville Public Schools’ budget request in 2018. MNPS had already lost money from the state due to a drop in enrollment. And promised cost-of-living raises to public employees were nixed.
Briley has had to face in real time two questions on everybody’s mind:
- Why is Nashville booming while the city faces a budget crunch?
- Why is Nashville booming and more and more people are feeling left behind and not reaping the rewards of the prosperity?
Since assuming office, Briley has had to compete twice to keep his job – in the May 24, 2018, special election and now for the Aug. 1 election. Yet, he still had to manage the city and he has done so effectively.
After observing him, meeting with him and studying his work and policy positions, we are convinced that David Briley has not just been a caretaker mayor of Nashville.
He has planted some important seeds that could benefit all of Nashville in time, and he deserves another four years to continue that work.
We, the editorial board of the Tennessean, endorse Briley for reelection, and in this editorial, we lay out the case for why we think voters should allow him to serve another four years.
Among the issues we will discuss are:
- Affordable housing
- Budget and debt
- Economic development
- Health care
- Public education
- Public land
- Public safety
- Sports and tourism
- Transit and transportation
- Trust and transparency
First, we will offer some suggestions for how the mayor can improve in style and direction.
Criticism that the city is rudderless is unfair and inaccurate, in our collective opinion, but perception can sometimes be reality.
Mayor Briley must do a better job of communicating his vision, his intentions, and his ideas more openly and providing plenty of time for people to buy into them.
Let’s be honest, Briley’s first State of Metro was a disaster.
His emotions overwhelmed him and the message of an austerity budget during boom times was head-scratching, especially since cranes are all over the city.
He gave his speech just days after the transit referendum. He had picked up the ball from his predecessor, but the measure failed miserably, with two-thirds of voters rejecting it.
Fast forward one year later, however, and a confident Mayor Briley spoke about accomplishments, challenges and opportunities, especially to aspire to make Nashville the most equitable city in the nation.
That is vision.
He has been doing the work to get Nashville there, and results are just only beginning to show.
One of his greatest challenges in the years ahead, if he is re-elected, is to unite the community around his vision.
He must also listen to the criticism and ideas of his competitors, who are raising legitimate concerns:
- At-large Councilman John Cooper’s charge for a greater focus on neighborhoods
- State Rep. John Ray Clemmons’ progressive call for delivering for public schools and children and for public employees
- Retired Vanderbilt University Professor Carol Swain’s rally cry for transparency and integrity in government We thank them and the six other candidates – Jody Ball, Julia Clark-Johnson, Bernie Cox, Jimmy Lawrence, Jon Sewell, Nolan Starnes – for their sacrifices and commitment to public service.
If Briley is successful, Nashville will be successful, and hopefully, four years from now, the editorial board will endorse him again.
Let’s talk about the issues
Briley’s Under One Roof program is bold and ambitious.
It builds on the “Envision” work begun by the Metropolitan Development Housing Agency (MDHA) and provides needed local investment to see it through.
This plan would build mixed-income rental communities on the site of existing public housing complexes to give thousands of residents a decent, affordable place to live near downtown.
The federal government is not as generous as before in investing in local housing projects, and by Nashville investing in the project, it shows the city has skin in the game.
As we documented in The Tennessean’s 2017 editorial series “The Costs of Growth and Change in Nashville,” rents and home sale prices have skyrocketed over the last decade while wages have not kept up.
Nashville is one of the most income-segregated communities in the country, and if the “Envision” projects succeed, it will be transformative.
The plan does not fulfill the need to create 31,000 units of affordable housing in Nashville by 2025, but it is a significant start that can lead to other opportunities.
Another priority for the mayor must be to ensure proper management of the Barnes Affordable Housing Trust Fund. A recent audit found controls and oversight to be weak.
Budget and debt
Briley has chosen over the last two years to build budgets that do not call for a property tax increase and has found himself in opposition to several members of the Metro Council. He prevailed both times because there were not enough votes from councilors.
While members of our editorial board called on him to raise the property tax rate to bring in more revenue, his response was that he did not want to place an additional burden on property owners – many who saw increased taxes after the 2017 property assessment. That is fair and we will not always agree with his decisions but appreciate the thoughtfulness in his responses.
He would do well to start the budget process much earlier in the fiscal year to involve more voices and alleviate concerns.
His first budget was balanced on one-time sales of properties and his second budget was balanced on a parking management privatization plan that has not yet been approved by the Council.
While new revenues and reserves will likely continue to keep Nashville whole, the revenue needs to be real and available.
At the same time, thanks to Council’s audit committee, the mayor has been able to identify new sources of revenue, like using tax increment financing loan funds to pay for a 4.5% raise for teachers.
Critics painted that as an election year ploy, but he pointed out in his recent meeting with the editorial board that he has an obligation to continue searching for solutions for citizens regardless of the timing.
Under Briley’s leadership, key investments have come to fruition in Nashville including the 5,000-job operations center from Amazon or AllianceBernstein relocating its headquarters to the city.
His and past administrations have received criticism for the use of millions of dollars in taxpayer-economic incentives to lure wealthy businesses to town.
These are enterprises that are helping fuel job growth in Nashville, but Briley has also indicated a desire to attract other companies without incentives, including the recent Pilot.com announcement to bring 450 new jobs to town.
While so much of the focus has been on downtown, there have also been key investments in areas like Madison, Antioch and Bellevue.
Briley must be sure to enhance his engagement of neighborhoods, if re-elected.
Mayor Briley has made equal opportunity a key part of his tenure and he has a heart for equity.
In January, the Council passed a measure to ensure equity in city contract opportunities for minority- and women-owned business. The law went into effect on July 1 and will address long-held and documented criticism that Nashville does not have a level playing field.
Nashville, under Briley’s tenure, also became the first Southern city to include LGBT-owned businesses as a category in the city’s procurement process.
Nashville General Hospital’s in-patient services were nearly shuttered in 2017, but the community reaction stopped that plan.
The public safety-net hospital would receive infusions of millions of extra dollars throughout the year to help pay the bills and compensate for losses from providing indigent care.
Under Briley’s tenure, he met the hospital’s request with a $45 million subsidy and committed to funding and protecting this key North Nashville institution.
Briley took a hard line on the elected school board in the spring because of its persistent governance challenges and in-fighting, which eventually led to the board buying out former Director Shawn Joseph’s contract after fewer than three years on the job.
He indicated he would be more involved in helping steward the schools and is working with Interim Director Adrienne Battle to provide money and resources more strategically to deal with inequities in the system.
His decision not to raise the property tax rate left teachers feeling de-valued and he will have to work hard to regain their trust. Their union endorsed Clemmons.
However, as previously mentioned, teachers will be receiving an average 4.5% raise this upcoming fiscal year and Briley funded MNPS beyond the school board’s request in 2019.
On the higher education front, Briley led the creation of the Nashville GRAD program to provide financial assistance and services to full-time students at Nashville State Community College and Tennessee College of Applied Technology Nashville, thus, improving their odds of completing their programs and building better lives for themselves.
Public land and the environment
Briley has made fighting climate change a key priority of his administration and one bold initiative is his plan to plant 500,000 trees in Nashville by 2050.
Nashville over the years has made green space a priority and its parks are among the city’s jewels.
As one of his first acts as mayor, Briley agreed to integrate the former Greer Stadium site next to the hallowed Fort Negley Park into the park, following the controversy over his predecessor’s proposal to allow for a residential development and maker’s space there.
He has learned some valuable lessons about public engagement around public land and green space from controversies during his tenure.
After much debate about swapping Church Street Park in downtown for a piece of land owned by developer Tony Giarratana – who wants to build a luxury high-rise on the park – Briley decided not to proceed with that arrangement.
The idea was to create more affordable housing, but green space is scarce in downtown. While the park is not functioning as it should, more public discussion is needed to figure out its future and Briley has provided that opportunity.
The so-called #CherryGate controversy dogged Briley before the start of Nashville’s first NFL Draft. A proposal to remove and/or destroy 21 trees eventually became a plan to remove and replant 10, and the NFL and the Nashville Visitor and Convention Corp. agreed to donate 200 trees to be planted across Davidson County.
The public furor showed that Briley was willing to listen and act.
In several public forums, mayoral candidates have been asked if they intend to retain Police Chief Steve Anderson. Briley said he stands by Anderson.
The police force and the chief have been under fire because of the shootings of two black men by white officers in 2017 and 2018, because body cameras have not been rolled out when they were supposed to, and because of the chief’s early dismissal of Gideon Army’s “Driving While Black” report.
This angst led to the push for a community oversight board, which made it to the ballot and passed by three-fifths of the voters.
Briley did not support the ballot initiative as written, but he said he backed the concept of the board. Calls for such a board have been made for at least five decades when Briley’s grandfather, Beverly Briley, was mayor.
When the measure did pass, however, David Briley moved to make sure that it had room to succeed by swiftly making appointments of qualified board members.
He will have to continue working to build better relations between the police and the public and while building trust between him and police officers. Their union endorsed Cooper.
Sports and tourism
On this front, Nashville has seen extraordinary success.
More than 15 million visitors came to Nashville in 2018 – a new record. Given Tennessee’s tax structure – which prohibits an income tax – and the historically low property tax, sales and hotel-tax revenue from tourists is important to the city.
The city’s famed hospitality has also attracted new sports opportunities like Major League Soccer bringing the Nashville SC to town. Barry had secured that, but Briley was able to finish the deal and persuade the Council to provide the funding to build the new stadium at the Nashville Fairgrounds.
The NFL Draft in Nashville drew 600,000 visitors and $132.8 million in spending – breaking records from much larger cities that had hosted it in the past.
Recently, the Nashville Predators announced a 30year lease extension with the city and an end to the taxpayer subsidy.
The SEC Media Days event is coming to Nashville in 2021 and many more opportunities lie ahead.
Transit and transportation
The failure of the transit referendum on May 1, 2018, put a wrench in future big projects for now.
While Briley said he will not commit to a new referendum in his first term, he has presented the idea for a new transit line that would take people from the airport to downtown via Murfreesboro Road.
WeGo, formerly known as the Metropolitan Transit Authority, saw a reduction in funding this budget year. A focus on alternatives to single-occupant car rides is a must for a better environment, to alleviate traffic congestion and create a better quality of life.
One part of the solution, which took Briley and the city by surprise, is potentially scooters, if the policy improves because of safety concerns and reckless rider habits.
Some riders have treated them as toys, but scooters have become an affordable and efficient mode of transportation for some people to get to work, buy groceries or get to a bus stop.
Briley has pushed to end the “failed experiment” if the scooter companies do not come up with a better solution, and their fate will be determined this summer.
Trust and transparency
This is one of the most pressing challenges for Nashville. Only half the people polled by a recent Vanderbilt poll think the city is headed in the right direction.
Citizens need to feel they can trust their leaders and need to know what government is doing with their tax dollars.
Briley showed he is willing to lead on this issue after a city audit showed that a key engineering contractor, Collier Engineering, was improperly entertaining Metro Public Works employees.
This led to Briley naming retired appeals court judge Patricia Cottrell as chief compliance officer, an important role to ensure government is acting in the best interest of citizens.
The commercials and flyers around the election could create the impression, especially among new residents, that Briley has served in office for the last four years.
He hasn’t. He has only been mayor for 15 months where he had to figure out how to keep the city whole following a scandal, continue supporting key priorities and run the day-to-day operations of the city.
Briley has been successful at creating new, valuable programs; bringing to completion key projects and initiatives; and working diligently to provide the services citizens want and expect every day.
He is not flashy, and he is not a celebrity mayor, but he has the smarts, heart and battle-hardened experience to lead Nashville to a better place in the future.
David Plazas is the director of opinion and engagement for the USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee and an editorial board member of The Tennessean. He wrote this editorial on behalf of the editorial board, which also include Editor Michael A. Anastasi and Executive Editor Maria De Varenne. Call him at (615) 259-8063, email him at email@example.com or tweet to him at @davidplazas. Subscribe and support local journalism.