The Dissidents Assemble 

Mayor Bill Purcell’s first term was a joy ride, but now things are getting bumpy with the council

Mayor Bill Purcell’s first term was a joy ride, but now things are getting bumpy with the council

Last Tuesday, a few hours before Eileen Beehan was seen leaving the Metro Council chambers in tears, members of the council executive committee met to discuss arranging a meeting with Mayor Bill Purcell. The new council hasn’t enjoyed a collegial relationship with the Purcell administration, and the hope was that setting a regular time to chat with him could help ease the simmering tension between the two parties. Vice Mayor Howard Gentry tried to keep the discussion light-hearted, joking that he’s still waiting on the mayor to set the time so he can “buy the donuts.” But council member Ludye Wallace wasn’t amused. “Why don’t we set the date, tell the mayor when it is and that we expect to see him there,” he said.

A few hours later, the council dealt Beehan and the mayor’s office a humiliating blow when its members rejected her appointment to the Metro Traffic and Parking Commission. It was a defining moment for the council, when the rough-and-tumble body made it clear that it was willing—even eager—to play hardball with the mayor. In a telling anecdote, one council member recalls the glee of many colleagues when mayoral aide Jane Alvis’ expression couldn’t hide the shock of Beehan’s rejection.

Most of the members who resisted the mayor’s appointment of Beehan opposed her co-sponsorship of last year’s gay rights ordinance and her participation in a local gay rights parade. But at least some viewed Beehan as a proxy for the mayor and rejected her as more of a challenge to Purcell. They are the ones the mayor will have to contend with if he wants to pursue an ambitious agenda for his second term.

Council member Charlie Tygard says he grew irritated at the mayor’s office when it opposed his resolution to examine alternate uses for the trash-burning thermal plant site, which is now being considered for a new Sounds ballpark. He says the mayor’s office told him that they had no beef with the idea, but he later heard that mayoral staffers told his colleagues the resolution would thwart negotiations with the Sounds. (The mayor’s office says it had no stance on the resolution—only that, if passed, city officials would suspend negotiations with the minor league ball club until alternate uses for the site were recommended.)

“Eileen is a personal friend,” Tygard says. “I struggled with this, but my issue was simply irritation and frustration with the mayor’s office. They nominated this person, they never asked me if I would support her and after what happened with the resolution I saw this as an opportunity to take a stand.”

In his first term, the mayor governed almost as if the council didn’t exist, and, for all practical purposes, it didn’t. While Purcell’s predecessor Phil Bredesen had to contend with at least nominal opposition on all his major initiatives—from the stadium deal to his second tax increase—and at times eke out a compromise with the city’s legislative body, Purcell had a much easier time. Part of that was because of stealth politicking on the part of his office, and part of it was a reflection of a weak council. He pushed through the second highest tax increase in Metro history, the closing of the thermal plant and a far-reaching sidewalk plan. But many new council members, especially Rip Ryman and Buck Dozier, campaigned in part against a naïve council that was a rubber stamp for too many of the mayor’s initiatives. Now, less than six months into this term, the new council is already showing signs that it swapped its rubber stamp for a bulldozer.

“This is an indication that the mayor’s office is going to have a lot more trouble with this council than others,” says at-large member David Briley, whose support for last year’s gay rights measure nearly cost him a second term. Briley says that while the council should take on more of a devil’s advocate role with Purcell, rejecting Beehan wasn’t substantive, just petty. “The last council could have scrutinized things a little better, but this kind of juvenile retribution won’t help that.”

Still, even pro-Purcell council members say that he needs to mend his relationship with the city’s legislative body. They say his leadership style is part of the problem. He introduces an initiative—be it a capital spending plan or the Sounds proposal—and the council takes it from there. Under that approach, the two don’t work together, but rather act as a check and balance. (Of course, this is nothing new. But every time there’s a new council, members complain about this stasis.)

“Basically, he expects us to sit back and wait for a reporter’s phone call asking us what we think about this idea,” says one council dissident. “Then we read about it in the paper.”

With 40 council members, the mayor’s office can’t hold everyone’s hand every day. But council members who have worked under other mayors say that, compared to his predecessors, Purcell does little to keep up with the various subplots that abound in their districts. Nor does he let them know what he’s up to.

Jane Alvis, the mayor’s legislative liaison, recalls a comment from state Sen. Douglas Henry explaining the relationship between mayor and council. “What I’ve always heard Sen. Henry say is that the governor proposes and the legislature disposes, and this form of government is very similar to that,” she says.

Tygard says that there’s still room for the Metro Council to be proactive, but the mayor’s office has no interest in cooperative efforts. “I would say that the mayor’s office is taking a heavy-handed approach in its dealings with the Metro Council and does not seem to be interested in having any kind of working relationship with the city’s legislative body.”

First-term member and attorney Chris Whitson voted for Beehan and would hardly qualify as someone who’s going to be a thorn in Purcell’s side for the next four years. Still, when asked if Purcell or his aides communicate with Whitson about what’s happening in his district and what they’re working on, he offers an unqualified “No.”

Many council members feel that the mayor’s office takes them for granted, a sentiment that fueled the Beehan fiasco. Rip Ryman abstained from the Beehan vote, which assisted in her derailment without having him on the record as a “No.” He says he aided and abetted the dissidents because a few preachers called him to oppose her appointment. But Ryman says that the mayor’s office never tried to convert him. “They didn’t try to lobby me,” he says. Could he have changed his mind? Well, about Beehan, he says, “I thought she was a pretty good council member.”

Council members who supported Beehan say that the mayor’s office should have anticipated her rejection and urged her to step aside rather than endure such a public humiliation. Even Beehan seemed surprise that no one saw this coming.

“I said to the mayor’s office on Tuesday morning to let me know, we don’t have to do this,” Beehan tells the Scene. “But they were sure they had the votes.”

The mayor’s office clearly knew that the usual group of Church-of-Christ supporters—including Buck Dozier and Jim Gotto—would be rejecting Beehan. They could have predicted that Ludye Wallace, who has opposed the mayor’s other nominees in the past, would probably dissent as well. Still, there were several strange dynamics that were difficult to forecast. Eileen Beehan represented a diverse East Nashville district and had an excellent record on minority issues. But overall, only two of the 10 black council members voted for Beehan, illustrating the black delegation’s social conservatism.

There were also members—two in particular—who simply don’t like Beehan for one reason or another. Feller Brown, for example, lamented to The Tennessean that she never talked to him. (Yes, but did he get a date to the dance?) Finally, John Summers, who almost certainly would have voted for Beehan, arrived to the meeting late, while Tygard, as we now know, took out his frustrations with the mayor on Beehan. All in all, it was a perfect storm. Everything that could have happened did.

So what now? There’s a sentiment within the mayor’s office and among a few council members to write off the Beehan rejection as the kind of political folly the council engages in at least once a term. (Remember the bid to change the date of Halloween?) But former at-large council member Chris Ferrell, who co-sponsored last year’s gay rights bill with Beehan, says that last week’s episode was different than past controversies. It was personal.

“It’s hard to judge from a distance, but it will probably be hard for this council to develop a working trust to be effective,” he says. “Most of the time, we were able to keep things from being personal. But when you have the kind of personal attack like they did on Eileen, you have crossed the line, and that’s hard to come back from.”

At-large member Adam Dread, who supported Beehan and last year’s gay rights ordinance, says all the right things about recovering from a polarizing situation and trying to remain collegial. But even he admits that won’t be easy. “I’m still going to try to look at each piece of legislation independently. It’s hard not to hold a grudge, and it’s heavy on the heart, but it’s something it takes to get the job done.”


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