Spate of Retro 

Purcell draws on Nashville's past to report on its present

Purcell draws on Nashville's past to report on its present

If Mayor Bill Purcell were to begin a discussion of World War I, it wouldn’t be at all surprising for him to find a way to cover the War of 1812.

A conversation about the troubles that plague black inner-city children might find him reaching all the way back to chattel slavery. And any mention of public funding for capital projects might send him all the way back to the construction of Fort Nashborough on the banks of the Cumberland.

It was fitting, then, that during Purcell’s first State of Metro address this week, he couldn’t address the city’s present status without citing chapter and verse from its past.

The first State of Metro address, he pointed out, was offered by Mayor Beverly Briley in 1964. ”Like an iceberg, only about one-tenth of what we have done is apparent,“ said Purcell, quoting Briley, ”while nine-tenths is beneath the surface.“ Purcell being Purcell, the reference might simply have been the new mayor’s invocation of history. Then again, it may have been his subtle way of answering lingering questions about his still-unclear agenda.

Like Briley, who described the first year after the consolidation of city and county governments into Metro as a year ”of adjustments, of organization, of fact-finding, of engineering financial policies,“ Purcell may view his first year in office—and perhaps his entire tenure—as a time for management. But while the conventional wisdom is that his goals remain elusive, and that he has yet to become a visionary leader, Purcell seemed to be saying that he makes no apologies. Perhaps that’s why he invoked the very first State of Metro in support of his own.

Purcell’s message was just the opposite of what Chamber of Commerce members, elected officials, and political writers alike expected to hear. They saw the speech as a potential milestone for Purcell—an opportunity for him to offer a complete airing of what’s on his mind, what he plans to do, what’s in store for Nashville.

But if that’s what the audience expected, that’s not what it got.

There were a few specifics: plans to create a gun court in Davidson County to consolidate cases involving illegal weapons; plans to turn city land in Bell’s Bend, originally intended for a landfill, into a public greenway; and Purcell’s intention to install tornado sirens for Nashville.

Overall, though, the message was less about specific plans and more about the general notion of managing the government. For those who have been scratching their heads trying to figure out just who Purcell is, ”manager“ is what came back loud and clear.

Ironically, Purcell is the mayor Nashvillians thought his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, would be. That is, he’s a managing mayor, if not so much a visionary one.

For those who followed Bredesen’s first days in office, the comparison is striking. His first State of Metro in 1992, titled ”Making Democracy Work,“ focused on the process of government. Bredesen promised to reinvent government, to make it more efficient, more responsive—all the things Purcell seems to be trying to communicate now.

But Bredesen eventually found such managing a constant struggle. He evolved into more of a visionary who was willing to expend his popularity raising taxes for projects that reflected his vision. Bredesen’s second State of Metro was perhaps his most memorable one. In the speech, he took his audience on an imaginary, futuristic helicopter ride featuring large projects to come in Nashville.

Facing slowing growth in revenues and a tight upcoming budget year, there’s no flying high for Purcell just now. To his credit, his feet seem to be firmly planted on the ground, and it looks as if they’re not made of clay when it comes to management issues.

On the other hand, you don’t become a great mayor by cleaning up the messes your predecessor considered too trivial for his time.

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