Times and Faces Change in Metro 

The operating dynamic of city government in Nashville for years went this way: West Nashville would finance the candidates; East Nashville would elect them.

The West Nashville aristocrats, who worked at the city’s banks and insurance companies, never much cared for the rough-and- tumble of this city’s precinct-by-precinct organizing. But they were interested in having a government that worked reasonably well. To that end, the city’s leading businessmen in the post-World War II era often selected their candidate, got him money and propelled him to office. Richard Fulton, who served three mayoral terms beginning in 1975, was the poster child of this phenomenon.

But when it came to getting voters to the polls, that was the job of the candidates. Others besides the candidates were also adept at turning out the vote, including a short list of political brokers around town and several popular officeholders, such as the late Sheriff Fate Thomas. Then, once a candidate was elected, he rewarded his supporters with just about the only graft he had: jobs.

Over the years, then, Metro Government has been viewed as an employment agency for many of this city’s politicians. It’s even possible to chart entire families—cousins, daughters-in-law, ex-wives and various other relations—at work in Metro, usually owing to the connections of that particular family to some big officeholder. For years, there have been particular departments—usually Water and Sewer—where otherwise worthless people would be transferred to serve out the remaining years of their careers doing not much of anything. It’s common for some of our lesser-elected officials to get jobs for supporters stringing electrical lines at NES or doing grunt work along roadways. At some level, this is just fine. To the victors, after all, go the spoils.

But Bill Purcell, the city’s mayor, has taken a somewhat different tack. “What we’ve tried to do is find the best people in the country and get them to come to work here,” says Patrick Willard, the mayor’s longtime alter ego. The key words in Willard’s comments, to be certain, are “in the country.” He did not say “in the city.”

To date, the mayor has hired a fire chief from Maryland, a planning director from Orlando, a water and sewer director from Louisville, a public works director from Texas and an emergency communications director from Oregon. The public schools director, whose selection the mayor was involved in, hails from California. And now, in the latest hiring, the new police chief, Ronal Serpas, has come from Washington.

There hasn’t been any organized voice of opposition to this sort of trans-global hiring spree, although you hear people grumble about it. Generally speaking, the most public comments about it have been made by WSVM-Channel 4’s own Larry Brinton, whose wildly popular “Word on the Street” is nearly as good for the news he breaks as it is for the glimpse he offers into the mind of a city as it used to be. The fact is, Brinton has been a leading reporter in this city for something on the order of half a century.

For months, Brinton has been bashing Pedro Garcia, the school’s director, and as part of his criticism he has lamented that the city selected someone from out of state. He has made the same argument about the hire of RoxAnn Brown, the director of emergency communications. Recently, however, Brinton appeared to soften his criticism of Purcell’s hiring modus operandi. In a “Word on the Street” segment, he explained that he had recently gone to lunch with Ronal Serpas, the newly selected police chief, and was ready to pronounce a verdict. “Congratulations to Mayor Purcell,” he said. “It’s my impression that he made at least two terrible out-of-state hiring mistakes in the past. But, I believe this time, he picked a winner.”

One of the few things that a top government executive can do to affect the long-term health of a city is to hire good people and keep them. Governments ought not be the resting place for people who are otherwise incapable. They should be the place for people who can add value to our institutions and make government work better, and so we welcome Purcell’s efforts to go beyond our borders to select the best people he can find. That said, if management at Channel 4 were ever to consider replacing Brinton with some slick-haired poof-brained moron from some place far away, we’d have to object.

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