When the Metro Human Relations Commission was revived a couple of years ago, Mayor Phil Bredesen was one of its staunch supporters. Now, however, key members of the commission are alleging that one of their own fellow commission members is a victim of discrimination. And they’re saying that the mayor himself is the victimizer.
The commission is charged with encouraging racial and religious diversity and with checking out complaints of unfair treatment in employment. Some commission members charge that Bruce Barry, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, was unfairly treated when Bredesen decided not to reappoint him for a second term on the commission.
Bredesen says he had no personal agenda in choosing not to reappoint Barry to the 17-member commission. Instead, the mayor says, he wanted to appoint a representative of Nashville’s international community to the board. For some time now, the mayor has been feeling pressure from Nashville’s various international groups, who have urged him to provide them with representation on the commission.
Both of Bredesen’s new appointments to the commissionWilliam Luis, a professor in Vanderbilt’s department of Spanish and Portugese, and Arshi Nasseh, who has worked with international students at Hillsboro High Schoolwere selected from the international community.
But as a result of his decision not to reappoint Barry, Bredesen has come in for some brutal bashing this week. Some members of the Human Relations Commission seem convinced that the mayor passed Barry over because of a series of argumentative columns the Vanderbilt professor has written for the local semi-monthly publication In Review. One of Barry’s recent columns included a vicious criticism of the mayor’s motives in pushing for Metro school reform.
“Successful school reform hinges not on pleasing those who rent sky boxes at the mayor’s temples of athletic capitalism, but rather on effecting real change in the circumstances and prospects of children whose parents clean up afterward,” Barry wrote.
Bredesen says he had not seen any of Barry’s columns before he read the school-reform commentary. And the mayor says the column in question was published after he had already made his decision not to reappoint Barry.
Because of the timing, Bredesen says, it is “just impossible” that there would be any cause-and-effect relationship between his decision and Barry’s column. “The [appointment] alternatives had already been decided weeks before that article came out,” the mayor says.
Apparently, that explanation doesn’t wash with executive committee members of the Human Relations Commission whose recent meeting was dominated by talk about Bredesen. Some commission members made it clear they thought Bredesen was punishing Barry for having been critical.
“If somebody does something or says something that isn’t taken well by the administration, we can be put out,” commission member Shelia Peters said during Monday’s executive committee meeting. “It may not be the battle to take up with the mayor, but this doesn’t forecast well.”
Even one of Bredesen’s supporters and friends, commission member Sue Fort White, took a mild shot at the mayor. “Instead of seeing this body as something to be managed, I would hope he would trust our judgment and our collective commitment to the city,” White said.
Another commission member, Rev. Shirley Majors-Jones, raised the specter of dictatorial oppression. “This is a democracy,” she said. “This is not Latin America.”
In making his decision to replace Barry on the commission, Bredesen’s timing has been unfortunate. The situation was only exacerbated when White confronted him with questions as to why Barry had not been reappointed and the mayor faxed her a copy of the In Review column.
Bredesen admits that he faxed the column. “I think [White] said something about, ‘I’m not sure you guys really think that differently about things,’ and I said let me fax you a copy of an article and see if you still believe that,” Bredesen recalls.
Despite his bad timing, Bredesen makes a convincing argument that members of the commission are not really upset about Barry’s being replaced. Instead, he says, he and some commission members are at loggerheads over the group’s basic mission.
Bredesen says he envisioned the commission as “a forum for discussion of issues in the community that related to human relations and that was essentially constructive in its approach.” Now, the mayor says, the commission has taken a direction that is “confrontational” and has moved too aggressively toward investigative activities. According to Bredesen, “The first thing they did when they came in was to ask for money for investigators and subpoena powers and all these kinds of things.” He adds that such activities might constitute “a legitimate view of what a human relations commission is about. It’s not mine.”
In meetings with commission members, Bredesen has been critical of the board’s intention to implement the same kind of investigative activities that are performed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and by some state agencies.
“I’ve told [commission members] it sounds to me like they want to be the police department, the district attorney’s office, and the state Legislature all rolled up in one,” Bredesen says. “That’s not what I see this commission as.”
The mayor notes that Barry was a strong supporter of the view that the Human Relations Commission should be an investigative body. That, Bredesen says, is another reason Barry wasn’t reappointed.
“I think it’s the prerogative of the mayor to appoint people to boards and commissions who have at least a compatible view of the role of the organization,” Bredesen says.
The mayor says he doesn’t mean that every board member must agree with him all the time. He points to the fact that he has reappointed Woodmont Baptist Church pastor Rev. Bill Sherman to the commission, even though Sherman has been a vocal critic of the mayor. Sherman opposed Bredesen during the debate over beer sales at the Nashville arena.
“Bruce Barry wasn’t thrown off the commission, and I didn’t seek to have him ousted or anything like that,” Bredesen says. “His appointment came up, and I chose to put someone else on.”
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