Oddly enough, Mayor Bill Purcell has something very much in common with Dick Fulton, the guy he drubbed in last summer’s election.
Purcell warned then that the former mayor represented the politics of the past, and he was probably right. But just as Fulton used to take the long way to work, checking out the weeds growing in the medians or making note of stop signs that needed replacement, Purcell is showing a strong interest in the little things. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, it’s refreshing.
Consider this recent Purcell adventure: Cruising around downtown with an aide one day, as the mayor often does, Purcell decided to stop at the Nashville Transfer Thermal plant to check out the controversial trash-burning facility. When he got there, he discovered a smoky blaze in a heap of trash and discarded tires. He didn’t hear any sirens, so he stopped at a nearby fire hall to alert firefighters.
They said something dismissive, to the effect of, ”Oh, mayor, there’s always a fire at the Thermal plant. That’s what they do. They burn stuff.“
Purcell, who has recounted this story humorously many times since it happened, insisted to the firefighters that this particular fire didn’t seem appropriate. After some significant back and forth, the firefighters eventually went to put out what turned out to be a serious blaze, and the mayor was placated.
All of which is to say that, after eight years of Phil Bredesen, Nashville seems to be in for something clearly different. No one can much imagine Bredesen cruising around town calling on firefighters to put out a trash blaze or pulling in to the Thermal plant for an impromptu visit.
It makes people wonder just who Purcell is and what he’ll do as mayor. Metro’s leaders are certainly having a hard time defining the man. While there are more than a few stories like the Thermal one suggesting Purcell’s penchant for micromanaging, he himself insists he’s not out to tighten the bolts on the Public Works salt trucks. And there’s conflicting evidence. He is, for example, delegating some very important duties, which could provide fodder for the opposite argument that he’s a visionary, more of a big-picture guy.
On the one hand, he’s a grandstander, crawling on school rooftops to see for himself just how badly some of them need patchwork, then nodding thoughtfully as teachers offer other concerns.
Such behavior would suggest his is a politics of symbolism over substance. Even his campaign was mostly symbolic. To look back on it, he was all for schools and neighborhoods, something no one could have argued against. But what really won the election was the way he communicated to votersthe desk in the yard, the Jimmy Stewart persona. Perhaps Purcell is still simply adjusting from the largely symbolic campaign mode.
On the other hand, Purcell has acted with genuine leadership in one notable area that has been ignored for years. He has, in a manner of speaking, killed much of the crabgrass in Metro’s lawn, firing or forcing resignations of several top Metro bureaucrats who had long since outlived their usefulness. Almost no one views the absence of those department heads as anything short of progress.
Furthermore, he’s recruited a sort of de facto mayor in Finance Director David Manning, who’s clearly running the show on the all-important budget process. That will determine, among other things, how much money is set aside for educating children and whether the city will make a commitment to funding public art.
In fact, it’s unclear whether Purcell will follow Metro’s longstanding tradition of attending so-called budget hearings with department heads so they can explain how much money they want and why. As it stands now, Manning will run those meetings.
”Manning’s still thinking through the process of it,“ Purcell spokesman Patrick Willard says. ”I think he’ll probably do a first round with [department heads], and then we’ll see.“
The Purcell dichotomy grows more complicated when considering the mayor’s stated philosophy of government. The campaign messageand the one that continues to this daywas one of inclusiveness, public input, and mayoral accessibility.
Again, Purcell swings both ways here. Earlier this week, he hosted one of his periodic ”Mayor’s Night In“ meetings, where he invited citizens to the Metro Courthouse to hear their concerns.
But while Purcell doesn’t like it said about him, his devotion to accessibility has been seriously questioned. Department heads complain that he won’t schedule time with them, his office can be slow to respond to requests for public appearances, and even his political friendssome of them also elected officialsgripe that they can’t get five minutes to talk to him about important issues.
Critics have even questioned whether Purcell actually resents the citizen input provided by members of the city’s dozens and dozens of boards and commissions. Consider what his chief of staff, Bill Phillips, recently told the Scene: ”If there are any board members who are not committed to the mayor’s agenda, they ought to think about whether they want to complete their term.“
On top of that, Purcell’s sidekick Manning may know how to crunch numbers, but he’s considered a heavy-handed bully with tendencies to obstruct public access. Metro Council members have even complained privately that he offers only the numbers he wants them to see. Is that open government?
The optimistic view is that Purcell is merely taking his time settling into office, and that he will follow through on that vision thing. After all, his only experience in government was as a state representative, pushing the red and green buttons on his desk.
The pessimistic view is that Purcell may never move from the symbolism of the campaign to the substance of governing. While all politics and governance contains a certain amount of unnotable machination, voters expect something solid. And the election was more than six months ago.
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