Jamie Hollin tweets away on his laptop during Metro Council meetings.
“Been made clear,” the rookie District 5 council member observed at the recent Metro schools budget hearing. “If council found more money for custodians/bus drivers, board would spend it on something else.”
In a subtle way, Hollin’s use of Twitter sums up his whole approach during the seven months following his successful recall attempt and historic special election victory in November.
On the one hand, his message carries an overt populist tone — with Twitter, he’s delivering news directly to the people, unfiltered. He’s also a council maverick of sorts, one who has bucked tradition and questioned authority — and, after all, Metro Council Attorney Jon Cooper did advise council members against tweeting during council meetings for fear of violating Tennessee’s Open Meetings Act.
But Hollin can’t resist.
An attorney and former lobbyist with a slow, thick Southern drawl, Hollin seems comfortable in his new home. Sure, it took the East Nashville representative until March to finally speak on the council floor, but don’t let the apparent inactivity fool you.
First-year council members often stay far away from controversial issues. But Hollin began his tenure as one of only nine members to vote against Mayor Karl Dean’s new $585 million convention center. Later, Hollin visited the school board and chastised Director of Schools Jesse Register’s decision to outsource custodians and reduce the hours of bus drivers.
After an arson house fire in his district in March, Hollin directed his attention to Metro codes, publicly questioning why the house, which had been scheduled for demolition, hadn’t been torn down. That plea helped spur Dean to request a supplemental appropriation of $114,000 for the demolition of 15 dilapidated buildings throughout the city.
And last month, Hollin became the champion of many East Nashville residents who claimed Metro did not sufficiently respond to the needs of flood victims east of the river. In an email sent to the mayor’s office, with the subject “Left Out,” Hollin suggested that his opposition to Music City Center and his criticism of Metro schools may have been the reasons for the alleged neglect. (The mayor’s office dismissed the letter, and The City Paper found no evidence to suggest Hollin’s claims were accurate.)
“Government works best when there’s a healthy level of skepticism,” said Hollin of his early track record. “Is somebody going to be there to ask the tough questions? There’s one thing that’s clear since I’ve been on the council. You can serve your constituents, whatever it is they want, whether you agree with it or not. You may disagree. Or, two, you can get in there and start serving yourself and your other political aspirations. Well, I choose the former.”
The councilman’s latest battle is just starting. Last week, he submitted legislation that would effectively exempt his council district from East Nashville’s Gallatin Pike Specific Plan, a set of urbanist zoning guidelines adopted for the unsightly corridor in 2007.
It wouldn’t seem so audacious if the plan weren’t the result of a year and a half of meetings, or if it weren’t hailed by the Metro Planning Department as a model for other major city corridors.
The move is sure to ruffle some feathers — just how Hollin likes it.
A Memphis native, Hollin made Metro government history in November when he became the first person to remove a Davidson County elected official through a recall. It took 1,000 signatures to hold a special election, with Hollin emerging as the victor against embattled former Councilwoman Pam Murray by a margin of two votes.
“I tell people all the time that’s twice as many votes as necessary,” said a smiling Hollin, chewing on hash browns at Charlie Bob’s Restaurant on Dickerson Pike.
The old East Nashville eatery happened to be the site of Hollin’s election party months ago, which capped off weeks of mudslinging leading up to Election Day.
Hollin organized the recall to dethrone what he called an unresponsive council member. Murray, who held a job in Detroit, was legendary for not answering phone calls from constituents and for taking positions that ran contrary to the majority-will of her district.
The election took on an immediate racial undertone. Murray, an African-American who has lived in the district since 1983, cast Hollin, who is white, as an intruder to the historically black council district. Things got downright bitter in the waning days of the campaign. Murray accused Hollin of being on drugs and later filed a police report against him for allegedly stalking her 21-year-old son with a video camera.
“It was unfortunate but not unexpected,” Hollin said of the nastiness. “My opponent made it personal.”
Carol McCullough, a resident who supported Hollin in the campaign, declined to compare him with his predecessor, but she said he’s a “responsive council member” and that there’s been a “dramatic improvement.” She’s also noticed Hollin’s willingness to take on big issues.
“He’s been very willing to take positions that a newly elected official normally wouldn’t take,” McCullough said. “But, at the same time, it generally hasn’t been impolitic. It’s been very respectful towards the people he’s worked with.”
Councilman Mike Jameson, whose East Nashville district borders Hollin’s, has a similar take.
“Because the council is made up of wildly different philosophies and political affiliations, you tend to judge council members on more fundamental concepts,” Jameson said. “Is he accessible? Does he return phone calls? And does he at least work hard for his constituents?
“With all due respect toward his predecessor, I got a lot of phone calls that began with, ‘You’re not my councilman, but my council lady won’t return my calls,’ ” Jameson said. “I haven’t gotten one of those in the past seven months.”
Not on my corridor
Nonetheless, Jameson, who said he likes Hollin personally, vehemently opposes his colleague’s latest move, an attempt to effectively shield District 5 (the west side of Gallatin Pike) from the new urbanist plan.
Jameson played a major role in the adoption of the 2007 legislation. The thinking behind the zoning guidelines was to improve the aesthetics of Gallatin Pike, which most perceive to be an eyesore.
After a series of community meetings, the new code was formed, requiring future development to abide by new landscaping, signage and street setback standards, as well as limiting future uses. The hope there was to corral the opening of more auto-repair shops and pawn stores, which are all over
Hollin, who said good intentions went into the plan, said the zoning restrictions are too complicated and have thwarted development. Last week, he filed an ordinance to exempt his district from the restrictions.
“You have to ask the fundamental question: Can a small-businessman navigate the SP to get his business off the ground on Gallatin Road?” Hollin said. “I think the answer to that question, at least from the small-businessmen I’ve talked to, is no.”
The Gallatin Pike plan affects a handful of council districts along the corridor. If Hollin’s exemption is approved, a developer on one side of the street would be required to place parking behind a building, for example, while a developer on the other side wouldn’t be subject to such a regulation.
Said Jameson: “If somebody wants to maintain a street that’s filled with pawn shops, brightly lit fluorescent signs on 20-foot poles, negligible landscaping and little if any design review, then we just live on two different planets.”
Hollin insists he’s simply upholding a campaign promise.
“I made a campaign commitment that I was going to create an environment where businesses would want to come and bring jobs,” he said. “They’re not coming to navigate this Gallatin Road SP.”