The Chatter Class: Is Kleinfelter controversy real or imagined?

Monday, June 9, 2008 at 3:33am

A mess. That’s the only way to describe what has been happening over one employee’s job at the Metro Planning Department.

And what’s worse, the big, bad developer accused of being the prime executioner trying to behead the guy is a nonprofit that builds housing for people at lower income levels and gives credit counseling to prepare the buyers for homeownership.

The guy is David Kleinfelter, a former councilman from Green Hills and an attorney. The developer is Affordable Housing Resources (AHR).

This whole affair easily could be painted as influence peddling and heavy political arm-twisting on both sides of the mini controversy. Across the board, everyone could be made to look bad because political appointments and elected officials in Nashville mirror the dating scene here. Chances are you know or have a friendship with someone in your date’s prior dating history and conflicts arise.

It’s one big circle.

Builder James McLean is chairman of the Metro Planning Commission and a partner in the development in question. The timing of his appointment to chairman hasn’t helped, particularly as he has let it be known in his role as Commission chair that Kleinfelter’s job is in question.

The issues with the development — sidewalks next to the Rose Monte development in south Nashville and a phase of that project known as Swiss Ridge —took place before he was named chairman.

Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors and her husband Steve were pulled into the public fray largely via media reports because Steve is in management at an affiliated company of AHR and at one time oversaw the Antioch development in question.

Based on the logic used in questioning the conflicts of the Neighbors’ family and of McLean, no one experienced in anything related to development should ever be involved with deciding how the city should develop. Why? Simply for fear that conflicts may arise or that there’s the potential for political influence.

Whether real or perceived with politics in the matter, there seems to be general shock that there’s gambling in the casino.

The issue began in earnest when Councilman Mike Jameson brought it up at a budget hearing recently. The biggest issue for Jameson is potentially losing the main neighborhood advocate in city government in Kleinfelter. If Kleinfelter loses his job, the councilman worries that the next neighborhood advocate to go is Metro Planning Director Rick Bernhardt.

The concern heard from Jameson suggests there is a fear that if one or both are gone developers will ride roughshod over the city. He doesn’t believe there is a single neighborhood advocate in Mayor Karl Dean’s circle.

A lot of this would make more sense if the developer in question was a for-profit company or if the Metro Planning Commission chairman had a bigger name in commercial development or if the commission was loaded up with developers. Nashville attorney Chris Whitson’s appointment to the Metro Board of Zoning Appeals has unnerved neighborhood advocates citywide as well.

In the latest imbroglio, however, it’s a company that has to occasionally scrape for cash to do developments. That’s why AHR is in partnership with McLean.

Not all the housing falls into the “affordable” category. Some of it is market-rate housing, which helps pay for the affordable units. One of its most notable developments, Row 8.9, rose across from the Farmers Market.

AHR’s motto is “creating affordable homes and strong neighborhoods.”

Interestingly, former Mayor Bill Purcell was a strong advocate of affordable housing, so much so that he put in a requirement that all residential projects in redevelopment districts receiving tax-increment financing include a certain level of affordable housing.

This was part of his way of building neighborhoods. A better neighborhood had a mix of incomes and housing.

Affordable Housing Resources has invested in Jameson’s district with housing. Currently, it has the 5th & Main project, a large mixed-used development, under construction.

Does AHR Chief Executive Eddie Latimer really have more power to nix a guy’s job in Metro Planning working through Mayor Dean than he has influence over the councilman in a district in which the organization has invested millions?

It seems that Latimer didn’t go through proper channels, according to those on the Council concerned with this situation. He first should have gone to Councilman Parker Toler, whose district the disputed development is in, who could have intervened with Bernhardt and so on.

So Latimer broke protocol by going to the big boss. Is it a political power play or is it like you getting poor service and bypassing the manager to complain to the owner?

Latimer has said he didn’t call for Kleinfelter to be canned. He just wanted Kleinfelter to do what he said he would do and that was to put the development on the agenda. Jameson’s view is that e-mails between the organization and planning prove the developer caused the delay, not Kleinfelter.

It’s difficult to determine. The e-mails make it all look like a complicated mess with more people at planning involved than just Kleinfelter.

Still, developers have wanted Kleinfelter gone for years. The view is that Purcell planted Kleinfelter in Metro Planning seven years ago to help fulfill his promise of being the Neighborhood Mayor. Prior to Kleinfelter no such position existed in planning.

As a young attorney in the mid-1990s, Kleinfelter fought hard against Metro, which was working to strike a deal to land what would become the Tennessee Titans. He thought the city was growing too quickly.

At the time, he was an attorney with Doramus, Trauger and Ney. Kleinfelter fought against one of the firm’s partners, Byron Trauger, who championed bringing the team to town. Now, Paul Ney is director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development.

Since being in the job, Kleinfelter has been hailed as a great neighborhood advocate. It looks like just ticking off developers is enough to please the neighborhood advocates. He’s been described as abrasive and arrogant to developers. Commissioners have thought that as well as developers.

Perhaps the attitude is if the developers are mad and complaining, he must be doing something right. As one observer put it, developers complain about anything and everything anyway.

The real question is whether or not there is any conflict of interest on anyone’s part? Or perception of conflict? Or is perception of conflict enough to constitute conflict?

The Chatter Class appears Mondays in The City Paper. Comments may be sent to

Filed under: City Business
By: tessavanessa on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Now, that's a paragraph.

By: EasyWriter on 12/31/69 at 6:00

My neighborhood has worked with Mr. Kleinfelter on an unusual and difficult situation. He's always been accommodating and reasonable. He sticks to the letter of the law, but he stretches, where possible, for the sake of finding a decent solution to a problem. I think we're fortunate to have someone with his intellect and integrity working for us.

By: Anna3 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I worked on a neighborhood project in the downtown area last year and Kleinfelter came across as a pompous ass and an arrogant petit bureaucrat. Kleinfelter had a "Take it or leave it" attitude and when opposition sprang up...his attitude became a "let them eat cake" mantra. The REAL PROBLEM here is that the Planning Commission is SUPPOSED to be in the role of umpire in the game...but they have this guy ADVOCATING for one side, which crosses the line. Councilman Jameson is WAY OUT OF BOUNDS to be advocating for any single Metro Employees job too! This is micromanaging a department on the part of a councilman and should not be tolerated, it smacks of hack political interference. The Metro Planning Commission should get back to enforcing the laws on the books and stop spending so much of their time and the developers money trying to make the aesthetics of a building suitable to someone's personal tastes in their offices. As for the neighborhoods...they need to play fair too! If the neighborhood activists don't like the system that exists...planting their advocate in the office is wrong...they should work to change our laws and elect a Mayor who will design neighborhood friendly policies for them. Karl Dean took a great deal of money from commercial developers in his campaign...and many, many, many of them verbalized the fact that they were unhappy with the Planning Commission. Ask yourself...Why does it take many weeks to get approvals for building, design, and construction now when many major cities (ie...Atlanta, Charlotte, Birmingham, and Knoxville) can expedite these matters in only a few days? And why was Nashville able to accomplish these same tasks in only a few days just a few short years ago BEFORE Rick Bernhardt took over? No one is well served when ANY particular group puts their agenda ahead of our laws, and its unfair to all others in the process. I believe Kleinfelter has outlived his usefulness and he's damaged goods...its time for him to go.

By: TITAN1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Slimefelter and Crapton, two peas in a pod.

By: girliegirl on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Anna is correct, and every future home owner in Davidson will "bleed" money at the rate things are goning now. Every week of delay adds HUGE COSTS to your future home or school or business. Every minor adjustment adds THOUSANDS of real dollars, not play money, to the total cost of the project. "Mr. Developer" ain't gonna eat that! You, the prospective home buyer, business owner, and future patron are going to pay that added cost. "But hey, you're gonna do what you're gonna do, right Kleinie?" Just jack it up for the little guy so you can fluff up your ego.......

By: EasyWriter on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Anna3, I had just the opposite experience before Bernhardt arrived. Our paperwork to build a house in 1998 moldered for weeks at the Planning Commission until I asked someone I knew to get it onto a burner ... front or rear. There were no problems ... just no one could get around to signing the paper. I can't say Bernhardt's better in this regard, but pre-Bernhardt wasn't as rosy as you suggest.

By: EasyWriter on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Anna, which developer do you work for?

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Anna is a friend of Eric Crafton. 'Nuff said.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

...and Lawson has always taken the realtor/developer point of view in his articles. Even those which are supposedly unbiased.My comfort level with Kleinfelter is alot higher than it is with McLean. McLean is the one who should be under the microscope, this is a clear case of the fox running the henhouse. Dean looked really good at the outset but some of his decisions on these boards and his unwavering cheerleading for the MCC have led me to doubt he really has any interest in what's best for the citizens of Davidson County.

By: EasyWriter on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Yes, but developers are notorious for trying to cut corners, such as on sidewalks. We have a properly adopted standard, and MPC staff is trying to uphold it. That's the way it's supposed to work. Please remember that these developers -- profit or no -- began the controversy by asking for an exception to the rules.I agree that more questions should be asked about McLean.

By: Kosh III on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Developers may also be known for cutting corners by hiring illegal aliens so that they can avoid taxes and pay inferior wages.

By: RIchardLawson on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Easy, interesting... So if you are redoing your house and you cut corners, does that put you in the same category as the developers? And "notorious" is pretty strong. Sure there are some developers who try to cut corners and they don't do very well. Lumping them all in the same category is a bit much. Developers aren't the only ones who seeking exceptions to rules. Regular homeowners seek the same on a regular basis. There are no absolute saints, just as there are no absolute villains. Well, on the latter, there are some who get real close to it.

By: BlueInTn on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Guess Anna is out getting signatures for the english only proposal.

By: EasyWriter on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I didn't cut corners in the construction of my house. I appreciate high-quality work. I appreciated every inspector who found a problem and the high standards of the Health Department in designing my sewage system.Yes, in every field, there are good and bad. I don't believe all are bad. I was speaking as a class, as you were in your first post under this thread.

By: EasyWriter on 12/31/69 at 6:00

And, just to further clarify my original post ... I worked with Mr. Kleinfelter in a role somewhat akin to a developer ... trying to establish applicable standards for people who want to build homes in an unusual situation ... and never seeking any exception. I once praised the staff in a public hearing for fair and reasonable application of the rules in our very odd situation.

By: JohnBirch on 12/31/69 at 6:00

No offense, Richard but this column is totally incomprehensible except to maybe the dozen or so folks involved in the debate. Did Weaver write it?

By: RIchardLawson on 12/31/69 at 6:00

JohnBirch: Weaver seems to get blamed for a lot. From what I've heard today, the column today wasn't terribly incomprehensible. I guess if I had written it in the vein of say the Scene, then well it wouldn't have been as incomprehensible for many more. I didn't make the developers out to be demons.

By: JeffF on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I am surprised by the bile that gets up toward developers. Apparently too many people take the West Coast view that development and growth are good everywhere but near me. Economic and community growth does not occur in neighborhoods with people closing the door behind them. Developers are the PEOPLE who create things, build things, employ people. "Neighborhood Advocates" as they are defined in Nashville-speak are the zero-growth members of our society. The economy does not ebb and flow on the sales and remodeling of existing properties. It MOVES when new buildings are built from nothing. I would hope someone in the Hysteric Planning Commission would figure this out some day.

By: howelln on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Altho I have not agreed with every move he's made, David Kleinfelter is an honest, stand-up guy. His children attend Metro schools. He cares abouts neighborhoods. If you thought him pompous, it is probably because you did not like/understand the answer you were given. We need him on the planning commission.

By: cayr01 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

It is comical to me to hear hand wringing about every home owner "bleeding money" if developers aren't treated better and claptrap about developers getting "beat up pretty good." If a developer bothers to approach a Council Member and a community and ask them their opinions, encourage feedback and is willing to revise plans in reasonable compromise, his or her project will almost always sail through the process. Unfortunately, that rarely happens.Instead unscrupulous developers CREATE conflict by:1) proposing zone changes that are clearly not in the interest of neighborhoods because the infrastructure is inadequate to support them and the system does not require the developers to provide adequate infrastructure (many parts of Antioch are a case study in this, check out Pin Hook Rd, for example)2) avoiding community meetings and providing inadequate notice of public hearings by playing tricks with the required signs to impair visibility3) scheduling meetings and public hearings on zone changes during the holidays when neighbors are distracted (just go back through the Metro Council agenda history and look at the items scheduled for public hearing right around Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and sometimes the 4th of July for some choice examples)4) Holding faux meetings with outsiders literally bussed in to give the impression of neighborhood support and choosing to have the developer's lawyer (Tom White) run the meeting (this happened with the Ravenwood development in Hermitage)5) Holding community meetings, but suggesting that they are doing the neighbors a great favor by proposing their development because they could put in...(insert idle threat here: Section 8 housing, trailer park, etc) [this has happened more times than I can count in the short 5 years I have lived here; it is straight out of the developer's playbook:]I make no specific claims about Affordable Housing Resources here. I don't have enough experience with them to know how they operate. What I and many neighborhood leaders do have is enough experience with unscrupulous developers to make us leery of all of them until they demonstrate that they are responsible. They can do that very easily by attending neighborhood meetings, having productive discussions with residents about their community and bringing back proposals that show that they actually listened. It ain't rocket science, but for some reason, it is rare.Finally, on the subject of Kleinfelter, neighborhood-friendly simply means upholding current zoning code, recognizing why it is in place and advocating that it remain in place so the exceptions ARE difficult to get. They are called exceptions for a reason and they should be hard to get. I can't speak to his tenor, but my guess is that he is not giving developers any more flack, pomposity, arrogance, etc. than he receives from them. To suggest that he is biased for trying to uphold the rules that are in place, which I believe is his JOB, is pretty bizarre.

By: Time for Truth on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Jeff is for any development that doesn't ask for an up-front tax break and against anything that does. I am against development that is inappropriate or poorly conceived. As a result we sometimes agree, as on the new convention center being a massive mistake. But 'bad development' costs the taxpayers money even without tax incentives, and even if they throw in tiny concessions like, say, a turn lane. I am guessing that cayr01 lives in Antioch, where sprawl is a major issue. Former Antioch councilperson and current perennial candidate 'Sprawletta' Holloway is partly responsible for this. I have watched her in long past Council meetings making the case for ill-advised subdivision development. As this type of development continues, placing great burdens on infrastructure and schools, I am in complete agreement with cayr01. Mr. Lawson, I understand that you need to keep lines of communication open to the development community to pursue your craft but I stand on my comment.