Why This Is the Worst Metro Council Ever 

A perfect political storm has created the most graceless batch of city legislators yet

A perfect political storm has created the most graceless batch of city legislators yet

The Metro Council is—and always has been—an easy target. But now they’re just handing us the arrows. And the slings.

It’s never been unusual for headlines of a bizarre, amusing or embarrassing nature to emerge from the legislative assemblies of this 40-person body. But beginning at the founding of Nashville’s Metropolitan Government in 1963 all the way through the Metro Council’s last term in 2003, the city’s legislature was moored by a caucus of wise men who, for better or worse, knew zoning from sewage and could navigate dissent on a bill without alienating their colleagues.

But the full effect of the two-term limit (eight years) for Metro Council members that Nashville voters have overwhelmingly approved by ballot is being felt now more than ever. As a result, a number of seasoned council veterans have been dispatched to early retirement on the golf course. Their learned diplomacy and useful knowledge of just the right person to call about those smelly Dumpsters in the alley are lost to constituents forever.

The group now serving is a completely different beast altogether. It was elected in 2003 following a mind-numbingly irrational—and now notorious—debate about protection for gay city workers, which meant that many district elections proved to be referendums on homosexuality. The litmus test flavor of the election hatched a whole caucus of social reactionaries more suited to door-to-door canvassing for the Eagle Forum than to debating the minutiae of a $1 billion-plus city government. (After all, sometimes a sidewalk is just a sidewalk, and not a heathen footpath that threatens the very foundation of God-fearing society.)

The seething activism of some Metro Council members is palpable and, what’s more, it’s generally so disorganized that, with one or two notable exceptions, these “chuckleheads,” as one city official calls them, can’t even harmonize on what to be disagreeable about.

“Even the anti-Mayor Purcell stuff—hell, they can’t even agree on what’s anti,” one former Metro Council member says, his head shaking wildly.

Larry Snedeker, who served as the council’s generally level-headed attorney and director from 1971 to 1986, says that the downward spiral of the council can be blamed on lack of focus, to put it charitably. “In all candor, in my opinion the quality of the council has gradually deteriorated for a variety of reasons. I think a lot of people now have their own agenda. Members had a better grasp of the big picture in the past.”

As if that weren’t enough, Nashvillians can’t even count on civility from these folks anymore. Decorum has gone out the window because council members know that their service horizon is short. One city official puts it this way: “What do these guys care? They’ve only got two terms, so they don’t mind rezoning each other’s ass to oblivion. They’ll put a liquor store and a whorehouse in someone’s front yard and say, ‘You’ll just have to eat it and like it.’ ”

Harsh? Perhaps. But so is the reality of the current Metro Council, whose members, leaders and even relevance are so limited this time around as to render it arguably the weakest such collection of representatives in Metro history. Asked if that is indeed the case, one council member responds, “If I ever hope to get anything passed by this council, I shouldn’t answer that honestly.”

Time’s not on our side

It may seem minor at first blush, but it’s telling that the Metro Council’s most senior member had his phone number disconnected this week. When we called last week, his voice mailbox was full. So much for accessibility.

That member is Ludye Wallace, who spent 20 years on the council, was defeated in 1995, and then resurrected his legislative career in 1999. Though the two-term limit for Metro Council members has proved disastrous in terms of the quality of the legislative body, it was probably meant for people like Wallace, an irascible character who tends to waste his thorough understanding of legislative procedure on stealth, petty power plays or tired and predictable attempts to cast someone or something—anything!—as racist.

“What we spending with the blacks and other minorities?” he asked during a recent budget hearing for Metro schools, about how much business the system does with minority contractors. Eventually, fellow council member Carolyn Baldwin Tucker, who’s not generally a beacon of rationality, invoked the eight-minute cut-off rule to end Wallace’s rambling. A few days later, Wallace criticized The Tennessean for being a racist newspaper when one of its reporters had the audacity to call him up and ask him a question.

But Wallace has been in the council before, and it’s not his mere presence that threatens the body’s relevance. In fact, it’s not the presence of any single member; it’s more the lack of continuity term limits has wreaked.

Wallace, for example, set the tone for this council when, during its first gathering as a newly elected body last October, he made a seemingly pointless attempt to amend the body’s rules. His gesture was long-winded and exhausting, and he somehow managed to hold the floor long enough without challenge from Vice Mayor Howard Gentry. That, in turn, created early doubts about Gentry’s ability to lead the sheep to productive pastures. Since then, Wallace, with help from a few other particularly thorny members, has not ceased to agitate Gentry at every turn. “Ludye has certainly gone off the deep end in his rudeness to Howard,” one current council member observes.

While many—indeed, most—council members would be loath to claim Wallace as one of their ideological clansmen, they are perpetuating the kind of disorder that Wallace’s behavior breeds.

“The very first meeting started with Ludye Wallace leading them astray,” says one council veteran who’s been out of office for a while now. “There used to be a real code of respect. Even when we fought each other, it was fairly civil. Now, there’s no respect.”

Gentry is generally considered a likeable fellow who doesn’t like to make anyone angry—a liability in this council. By not insisting on more decorum, various councilmanic customs have been left by the wayside. “The kinds of traditions of the council have broken down a lot,” says former at-large council member Leo Waters. “Some of those traditions were there so that a 40-member body could work together.” One plugged-in observer agrees that what’s troubling is the council’s “certain lack of graciousness.”

That circumstance only amplifies the effects of term limits, which gives birth to more than just inexperience. It makes the kind of low-level elected officials in the council harbor thoughts about “what next?” So, instead of just handling the business of their neighborhoods and government, they look to their council time as an opportunity to advance their own stature and—when they really want to feel strong—weaken someone else’s.

Enter council member Charlie Tygard, who, at the last meeting, was finally cornered by Vice Mayor Howard Gentry after months of trying to undermine the council leader. It seems almost silly to report, but the long and the short of the struggle is this: After Tygard initiated the idea and fought for a council task force to develop ideas for the old Thermal site, Gentry didn’t appoint Tygard to the thing. Why? Because Tygard had earlier tried to change council rules allowing the speaker pro tem (that’s Tygard) to appoint council committees (the vice mayor’s job). Tit, tat, tit, tat. You following? So, then, when Tygard was left off the task force, he decided to get a fellow council member to file a resolution naming him, Tygard, the chair of a task force for something else. This, you see, just isn’t done, which council member Rip Ryman pointed out. (In a previous life, Ryman lobbied the council for then-Mayor Phil Bredesen.)

Anyway, this whole affair came to a frothy head at the last council meeting. “Everybody was in everybody’s face,” one observer says. “It wasn’t pretty.”

Your tax dollars—and term limits—at work. Were it not for such rampant inexperience, members such as Wallace and Tygard, who are both dangerously shrewd, wouldn’t have such a stage.

Former Metro Parks director Jim Fyke, now in charge of state parks, says the makeup of the council is almost irrelevant. “Inexperience and lack of continuity creates problems when one-half of the group is coming and the other half of the group is going,” he says. “With term limits, I think you’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

Idle minds are a terrible thing to waste

In times gone by and under other mayors, Metro Council members could feel as if they were doing more. They could do a bit more finagling, more wheeling and dealing, more servicing of their people. They could get someone hired in a city department, order around the chipper service, get an intersection right-of-way mowed. But under Mayor Bill Purcell, perhaps the most skilled city manager Nashville has had to date, everything is centralized. City departments have been exhaustively audited, scrutinized and ordered to play everything by the book. Neighborhood complaints are managed within the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhoods; police and fire employees are hired and promoted by strict rules and procedures. Friends of the council now can’t even play Metro’s public golf courses for free. It’s a whole new world.

In this way, the council is like a beekeeper with no bees, an Italian grandmother with no lasagna. They’ve lost one of their major reasons for being.

“What’s happened is they’ve become very frustrated,” says former council member Waters. “And that frustration sometimes comes out in petty ways.”

Worse, this Metro Council has had very little to consider from Mayor Bill Purcell’s office since they were elected last year because Purcell passed much of his agenda during his first term. As a consequence, they’ve had more time on their hands for infighting and for, well, a staggering lack of accomplishment.

When council member Vivian Wilhoite lost her purse at the airport, ultimately to have it returned minus the cash, she proposed that the airport spend $2 million to install security cameras there. “If she hadn’t been living in Nashville, she wouldn’t have gotten her purse back at all,” one of her colleagues commented about her shockingly “self-serving” resolution, which, to the council’s credit, didn’t go anywhere.

In its defense, one of the council’s more thoughtful members, at-large representative David Briley, notes that while “we certainly are not well disciplined, that’s for sure...a lot of stuff we do is going to seem silly because it’s the minutiae of government. A lot of what government does seems silly.”

The Purcell centralization, however, has certainly had its costs. Even some of his top staffers might concede as much. Trying to lobby this council has been as difficult as herding cats. On several occasions, Purcell’s top lobbyist—the well-connected Jane Alvis—has been knocked off stride by rampant duplicity, secretive maneuvering and outright dishonesty. Pushing Purcell’s agenda to these “40 jealous whores,” as former Mayor Beverly Briley once described them, has been anything but easy.

As a result, the mayor’s office has had to bring in reinforcements from time to time.

Hate the sin and the sinners

When this group of Metro Council members was elected, Nashville was an ideologically divided place—perhaps more polarized than it had been since the NFL referendum nearly 10 years before. People were up in arms over the debate about a nondiscrimination bill for gays during the waning days of the previous council. One group, Nashvillians For a Brighter Future, was formed for the express purpose of educating voters so they could oust the bill’s supporters (even though, mind you, the gay-rights legislation never went anywhere).

In the end, the anger of anti-gay voters was undeniable. The churchy Buck Dozier, who ran for an at-large council seat in part on opposition to gay rights, won more popular votes than incumbent at-large members Adam Dread and David Briley, who were both bumped into a runoff before finally winning a second term. Both had supported the nondiscrimination measure.

So, when the new council came in, many of its members had been launched to their seats on this issue alone. And it wasn’t long before they wanted to flex their muscles.

First-term Metro Council member Harold White will never live down his first and most significant contribution to date to this council: He led an informal movement to block the sponsor of last year’s gay-rights bill, former council member Eileen Beehan, from an otherwise innocuous appointment to the city’s Traffic and Parking Commission.

But the worst part is that White didn’t actually vote against Beehan. Instead, back in January, he and 16 others simply abstained from the vote, leaving the council without sufficient support to approve her appointment. No one saw it coming—not the mayor’s office, not the vice mayor, not Beehan, not her supporters. The move effectively denied her a chance to serve on a volunteer citizen’s committee. Beehan, publicly humiliated, left the meeting in tears.

Beehan’s rejection was a watershed moment for this council; it was an act that helped define it as a petty, dysfunctional body, a reputation that it will have to work hard to shed. Council members are used to tricks, stealth, a bit of petty payback, but this was something else entirely. This was mean-spirited—revenge against a hard-working former colleague with a record of public service.

“I’m appalled at the hate in Harold White,” says one Beehan supporter, who still clenches his jaw over the episode.

A million here, a million there

As the Scene was going to press this week, a host of different council factions were hammering out alternative ideas to Mayor Bill Purcell’s proposed $1.35 billion budget. Brenda Gilmore, the council’s Budget and Finance Committee chairwoman, had been peddling a plan to slash as much as $1 million of the Metro Arts Commission’s $2 million annual funding so that the city could distribute the money elsewhere.

According to several members, this idea was spawned at the behest of at-large member Carolyn Baldwin Tucker, a raging spitfire of a woman best known prior to her election in 1999 for singing to voters at the polls and, after election, for her vitriol toward homosexuals during the gay-rights debate.

Tucker has made no secret that she resents the presence of the “Musica” statues at the Music Row Roundabout. (They are—gasp—nude, after all.) Even though the art was privately funded, the Metro Arts Commission technically approved the design. Reasonably minded council colleagues, aware of Tucker’s agenda, even had to be vague about what the city was accepting when the resolution came before the council during the last term; as such, “Musica” was characterized only as “the Work” on the council’s agenda.

Correspondence Tucker sent to the Metro Arts Commission when “Musica” was being erected illustrate that her contemporaries’ gut feeling was correct: “Recently, I have received numerous calls regarding the ‘Musica’ statutes that are being placed in the Music Row Roundabout. The concerns have a common theme, which is the nudeness of the art forms.

“Although [the resolution] was passed by the Metro Council regarding the positioning of statues in the Roundabout.... there was no mention of the fact that the sculpture, identified as ‘the Work,’ would be composed of NUDE dancing figures.

“If I had been apprised that ‘the Work’ would have been a display of NUDE dances, I would not have voted for the statues to be placed in public view.”

As the $1 million in cuts were being proposed, some council members were saying they were embarrassed at this turn of events and were plotting ways to prevent the draconian reductions. By the time the week is through, council member Briley says, he hopes the council will distinguish itself—perhaps redeem itself, even—during this tight budget year. “In the sense that this council has more people asserting themselves, even if it’s awkward sometimes...I hope that we can show with this budget that we are more conscientious than the last council.”

Perhaps they’ll surprise us. In this council’s favor, one observer told the Scene: “While it has been really ugly, they have yet to screw up anything really serious.”

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