There are bad mayors in every corner of the country.
In Seattle, a seemingly popular two-term mayor, who was actually president of the national league of mayors, lost a bid for re-election because of the city’s poor response to a large snowstorm last winter.
In Kansas City, a mayor elected to clean up corruption at city hall, is now suing the city government for barring his sometimes-vulgar wife from the courthouse grounds.
And in Hoboken, N.J., the FBI arrested a promising young mayor in July on corruption charges.
In Music City, no such problems even remotely exist.
In fact, with a few isolated exceptions, it’s difficult to find public figures who have really opposed Mayor Karl Dean during his first two years in office. Mostly, Dean’s so-called opposition has either been too timid to issue on-the-record criticisms, or has offered such vague critiques that one needs a doctorate in reading between the lines to figure just what, if anything, he’s done wrong his first two years in office.
Dean is now halfway through his first term as mayor of Nashville and so far he’s been true to his campaign promises of 2007.
And, given the opportunity to review his first two years in office, Dean expressed pride in the fact he’s worked on fulfilling the promises he made when running for office.
“We’ve concentrated on what we said we would concentrate on, which is schools, public safety and economic development,” Dean said.
It’s true that the mayor has focused much of his attention on improving Nashville’s public schools, where he’s spent political capital on issues that don’t lend themselves to attention-grabbing, war-font headlines.
Nashville’s special education policies, specifically bus monitoring and inclusion in the classroom, have been updated thanks to a task force Dean appointed.
The city has two new teacher recruitment programs thanks to fund-raising efforts spearheaded by Dean. And charter schools, which have seen clear success at KIPP Academy and LEAD Academy in Nashville, will soon be expanded to accept more poor children from all parts of the county.
The Dean administration also kept its promise on public safety, where the Metro Police Department is fully staffed and crime is down for a sixth straight year.
For better or worse, on the issue of a new convention center for Nashville, Dean has kept his campaign promise, too.
The mayor joined his fellow candidates during the 2007 campaign in supporting a new convention center. Thanks to an incremental approach, the $600 million Music City Center is one Council vote away from becoming a reality. A financing package figures to be presented to Metro Council soon.
As one might suspect would be the case when a city is about to spend nearly $1 billion, the convention center is the issue where Dean has received the most pushback. When the municipal bond market went haywire last year, Dean didn’t send the convention center project back to the drawing board. Instead, his administration chose a slow-walk approach, electing to push the project incrementally, against opposition from Council members like Emily Evans, Mike Jameson and Robert Duvall, among others.
“He had an out, and he didn’t take it when the markets went bad,” Evans said.
Already, Metro has spent $16 million on predevelopment activities for Music City Center and set aside another $62 million to buy the land in SoBro. All this progress has come despite the fact the project has yet to be given the official green light. It’s also come at a time when supply for convention space has grown at a rate much faster than demand for business tourism.
Dean simplifies his continued support for the complicated project to his “believing in Nashville and believing in downtown.”
While Dean has kept the attention on his pre-stated top priorities, other issues were making their way through the mayor’s office no matter who was elected in 2007. One of them was the Nashville Predators’ uncertain future at the Sommet Center. Immediately after taking office, Dean began negotiating an amended lease agreement with the team’s new local ownership group.
The compromise that was eventually reached saw Metro pay out $7.4 million in subsidies annually to help the franchise make ends meet and to help the downtown arena maintain an anchor tenant.
Dean also had to tackle the issue of water reform. The water department had seen its bonding capacity for capital projects evaporate and a rate increase was needed to remedy the problem. Dean instituted increases for water and sewer rates, while also instituting a brand-new stormwater fee in order to create dedicated funding to pay for a backlog of hundreds of stormwater projects across the county.
Despite the complexity of each of these issues, Dean and his staff were able to get Metro Council on board. Pushback did come on the stormwater fee, where Councilman Jason Holleman presented a proposed amendment aimed at discouraging paving by Davidson County’s largest property owners. Holleman’s amendment failed 24-14, making it the closest Dean has come in two years to losing a vote on Metro Council.
“Had we structured the stormwater legislation to really encourage less paving in Nashville, we could have made greater progress in terms of improving our city's water quality and encouraging better infill development,” Holleman said.
Metro veterans like Councilmen Tim Garrett and Walter Hunt say Dean deserves credit for successfully advancing his agenda and for leading the city during a time when the economy took a historic dive.
“There’s only five or six votes during a mayor’s term that are really dramatic, important types of things,” Garrett said. “I think his relationship with Council has been a good one. There are few Council members, less than the fingers on one hand, who seem to be not in agreement with most of what the administration wants to do.”
Hunt pointed out Dean has managed to maintain city services without raising property taxes — which was another campaign promise. Dating back more than 20 years, Nashville mayors have raised the property tax rate in the same year as reappraisals. With the economy in its worst recession since the Great Depression, Dean broke that cycle.
“He came in with a horrible budget,” Hunt said. “I think he’s done a good job in terms of leveling it out and making the city work with the money we had.
“No mayor likes coming in and raising taxes on the first term. Most would have liked to raise taxes during their second year, but he didn’t have that luxury with the economy the way it was.”
Dean called the notion of taking money out of the private sector and putting it in the hands of the government during difficult economic times “fundamentally wrong,” and said he decided early in this past year’s budget process that a property tax increase would not take place.
“He deserves credit for that,” Hunt said.
What about Bells Bend?
But for all of Dean’s legislative successes, he’s frustrated some by choosing to stay out of big picture issues where his bully-pulpit opinion was sought.
Over the last 18 months, developers wanted to turn 500 acres in rural Bells Bend into a massive mixed-use corporate headquarters/retail/residential development.
The notion of transitioning rolling green pastures into a new Cool Springs would seem to run counter to Dean’s goal of making Nashville the greenest city in the south and one of the greenest cities in the nation. However, Dean refused to express a firm opinion on the issue, insisting the zoning process needed to play itself out.
With the proposal seemingly on ice at this time, Dean was asked again what he thought about May Town Center and still maintained his neutral stance.
Although he pointed out his vision for Nashville’s future focuses on downtown and infill development, Dean reiterated “serious zoning proposals deserve to be heard.”
The mayor has remained out of the fray on the schools rezoning issue, even as a lawsuit by the NAACP alleging racism advances through federal court.
“The rezoning issue was something the board was handling and the board handled it,” Dean said. “I think I’ll leave it at that.”
Despite Dean’s preference to stay out of the fight on those issues, he took a firm stand on the most divisive battle to come to Nashville during his term — English Only. When Councilman Eric Crafton first brought the idea of making English the government’s official language, people wondered what role Dean would play in opposing the referendum.
Dean went on record immediately against English Only, but he followed up by conducting national television interviews, filming opposition advertisements and making one of his staffers available to the opposition effort.
English Only failed at the polls 58 percent to 42 percent, giving Dean a critical political win.
Too true to be good
If Dean has been guilty of anything, it might be staying too true to his campaign promises. But some think those promises may not have been as far reaching as they could have, or should have, been.
At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard, while complimenting Dean for keeping his word on his priorities, said that at the same time the mayor has neglected north Nashville and northwest Davidson County.
Hunt agreed with Maynard on this point.
“I see certain parts of the community not getting attention and services they deserve,” he said.
Maynard also called the scope of Dean’s priorities “narrow.”
“He has very narrow priorities, very limited priorities and he has worked on those limited priorities,” Maynard said. “My thing is we need to expand those priorities to include other issues such as job creation, economic development. Affordable housing is another issue that needs to be addressed.”
The mayor pointed out that his capital spending plan calls for a 28th Avenue connector between West End and Jefferson Street, which he said would spur economic development along the corridor.
Looking forward, Dean said he isn’t stopping to admire his accomplishments his first two years, but turning his attention to the new issues that will face his administration between now and when his term ends in 2011.
Besides the pending convention center financing, Dean will have to address potential changes at Nashville’s public safety net health care provider. Metro General Hospital at Meharry is operating with an annual deficit that is no longer sustainable for Metro government.
Dean has led the discussion on expanding mass transit in the Nashville-area, pointing out sister cities like Austin and Charlotte have added light rail in recent years.
“We have to keep up,” Dean said on the future of Nashville’s mass transportation system.
And Dean’s attention figures to stay on Metro Schools, which turned in No Child Left Behind test scores just good enough to avoid a potential mayoral takeover this year. Another reprieve in 2010 is no guarantee.
On top of all that, a property tax increase seems likely for the next fiscal year. Otherwise, it will take a hatchet to balance the budget, instead of the scalpel Dean has used the last two cycles.
“Our focus is going to remain on schools and public safety,” Dean said. “Those are the two areas that are so important to the future of our city.”
• Brought two new teacher recruitment programs to Nashville
• Helped improve special education policies
• Advanced new convention center project
• Negotiated new leases for Predators at Sommet Center and Sounds at Greer Stadium
• Instituted water, sewer rate increases and new stormwater fee to fund capital projects throughout county
• Led coalition against English Only
• Pushed convention center project incrementally instead of one comprehensive package
• Stayed out of controversial issues like May Town Center, schools re-zoning
• Focused too little attention on North Nashville and Whites Creek/Bordeaux area