Political Notes 

Muddying the issue

Muddying the issue

When the news broke last month that the federal government was about to raise Davidson County’s floodplain by two feet, creating potential headaches for developers and causing insurance rates to go up, Metro officials acted like it was out of their control. Meanwhile, others said it could have a profound impact, for example, on the levees around Opryland theme park.

Metro Public Works officials and others said the situation had been initiated by the federal government. Specifically, the Metro officials claimed, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was responsible for the change. A memo from Mayor Phil Bredesen’s office to local construction contractor Ray Bell said as much.

The news left property owners and developers, whose land would suddenly become less valuable, wondering where the idea had come from. Why, they wondered, was the federal government suddenly so interested in the possibility of flooding in Davidson County? Bell, along with others who would be affected by the change, questioned whether there was any real need to raise the floodplain. They began asking who was behind the change.

A month later, more records have been dusted off and reviewed, and it turns out that the proposal to restudy and possibly raise Davidson County’s official 100-year floodplain was initiated by Metro Public Works Director Marlin Keel, not by federal bureaucrats alone.

In a January 1994 letter to FEMA, Keel cited estimates that suggested the floodplain elevations along the Cumberland River had increased “by as much as two feet.”

“The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County,” he continued, “is under constant pressure to allow development in the 100-year floodplain of the Cumberland River.” (According to federal guidelines, land included within a 100-year floodplain is likely to flood at least once during the next 100 years.)

Keel went on to write that Metro might be allowing construction that would be in jeopardy of future flood damage. He concluded that it was “imperative” for the Cumberland River and its major tributaries to be restudied “at once.” He ended the letter by recommending that the project receive “the highest priority.”

If the floodplain is raised in the coming months, Opryland may have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to raise its levees, and other property owners will suffer severe losses on what they had previously thought was developable land.

No doubt, Metro Public Works officials didn’t want to take the criticism for such a controversial move, even if the elevation increase is necessary. But that doesn’t justify misleading the public about where the idea came from.

The floodplain may be rising, but Public Works’ credibility is falling.

The fire chief feels the heat

Judging from recent comments by Mayor Bredesen, the head of one Metro department has fallen from grace.

Bredesen spent most of his time last week in annual hearings with Metro department heads, discussing each department’s needs for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The tone of some of the hearings was upbeat. For example, Bredesen’s meeting with representatives of Metro schools was particularly positive. The mayor has frequently been at loggerheads with local school administrators, but this time around there seemed to be an unprecedented level of mutual respect and admiration. That’s because the school board had just endorsed the mayor’s proposal to implement a new core curriculum for elementary schools in Metro.

But when it was Metro Fire Chief Buck Dozier’s turn to meet face-to-face with the inquisitive mayor, things took a turn for the worse. The fire chief was $300,000 over his $44 million budget. Dozier, who had been Bredesen’s legislative liaison to Metro Council before he was appointed fire chief in 1994, was immediately on the defensive.

Dozier had lobbied hard for the job of fire chief when former Chief Martin Coleman announced his retirement several years ago. Bredesen finally complied, hoping Dozier, a conservative, would bring more fiscal responsibility to the job.

But last week Bredesen wanted to know why Dozier, against the mayor’s wishes, had created a public-information-officer post for the fire department. Bredesen told Dozier it “kind of stuck” in his “craw” that the fire chief would create the post after the mayor had denied the request a year earlier.

What’s more, Bredesen complained that Dozier had taken an employee away from the fire department’s dispatch division, where overtime payments were going through the roof, to create the public-information position. Dozier, a former at-large Metro Council member, defended the move, saying someone needed to be able to respond to media requests while the department was reacting to fires or other tragedies.

For Dozier the grilling must have seemed to last for hours. It was perhaps the toughest interview Bredesen conducted with any of his department heads.

Dozier’s misstep in creating the public-information position would probably not be a factor were it not for the fact that he is over budget and, in Bredesen’s eyes, an ill-performing administrator.

It doesn’t help either that Dozier hasn’t gone out of his way to be supportive of the mayor. When Bredesen was running for governor in 1994, the same year he promoted Dozier to fire chief, the former Council member was conspicuous in his lack of participation in the campaign. While other administration officials were helping their boss in their spare time, Dozier was nowhere to be found.

Going solo

Even when it comes to his hobbies, Mayor Bredesen doesn’t like to waste a lot of time. An avid aviator who’s had a pilot’s license for 25 years, Bredesen is working toward certification as a glider pilot. He’s taking lessons in Eagleville and has his eye on a $250,000 motorized glider.

With a motorized glider, Bredesen could take off and land whenever he wanted. There would be no waiting in line for a tow crew to send him up in the air. It shouldn’t be surprising that Bredesen at play isn’t much different from Bredesen at work.

That is to say, he has expensive tastes, and he doesn’t like a lot of standing around.

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