When Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency chief Phil Ryan walked into the Feb. 12 meeting, there was an unusual item on the agenda — his contract.
For the past 11 years, Ryan had served as executive director of the agency, but the day before, MDHA put out a statement saying he was leaving. Multiple sources told The City Paper that Ryan chose to resign rather than fight the results of a damning management assessment.
Ryan had survived an embarrassing flap over the amount of money his department had paid a powerhouse local public relations firm, along with losing a lawsuit that puts the cost of the new convention center over budget. But the trouble came when he tried to demote an employee.
According to at least three different people, none of whom would speak on the record because they did not have the authority to, here is what happened:
Ryan decided he was going to demote his director of urban development, Joe Cain, so he placed an ad seeking applications without Cain’s knowledge.
Cain spoke to his father-in-law, attorney and consummate Metro insider George Barrett, and told others that he was about to resign in protest. Barrett convinced Cain to stay put, and after a short time MDHA employees filed complaints against Ryan.
The MDHA board of directors was caught off guard by the dispute and asked an outside attorney to assess the situation. On the attorney’s recommendation, another outside group was hired to evaluate the overall management of the department. The group recommended that both Ryan and Cain be fired.
The MDHA board notified Ryan of the results, and he decided to depart rather than fight a messy battle. Insiders say he wanted to go out with “his head held high” rather than see the complaints go public.
MDHA is holding action on Cain in reserve until Ryan’s replacement is found. It isn’t clear whether Cain will retain his job.
Sources say the action to force Ryan out was led by members of the MDHA board, which who apprised Mayor Karl Dean’s office of what they were doing.
Ryan, whose full career at MDHA spanned 21 years, offered little explanation for the move in the agency release announcing his decision.
“I am fortunate to have worked with the dedicated and proud MDHA team for more than two decades,” Ryan said. “Our focus has been on serving more than 28,000 residents we house, on sustainable downtown and on neighborhood redevelopment. I’ve given my all to the job, seven days a week, and after much thought, I feel now is a good time to pursue other career opportunities.”
The agency highlighted a number of MDHA accomplishments under Ryan’s leadership, including the acquisition of land for the Music City Center, and the creation of redevelopment plans for the banks of the Cumberland River.
“Phil has pursued efficiency and service to our residents and Nashville’s citizens untiringly,” MDHA board chairman Ralph Mosley said in a statement. “We wish him the best. MDHA will continue striving to fulfill its mission to create affordable housing opportunities for Nashvillians, nurture our neighborhoods, and build a greater downtown.”