Photo: Michael W. Bunch / Metro photographer
Mayor David Briley’s ascent to Metro’s top job following Megan Barry’s resignation in March 2018 was unexpected. But what’s truly surprising is the way he has governed by accident ever since.
Briley served two terms as an at-large Metro Council member, as well as a couple years as vice mayor — and he shares blood with Metro’s first mayor, his grandfather Beverly Briley. But the mayor’s short tenure has been mostly aimless, a plodding 15-month exercise punctuated by self-inflicted controversies. He’s running for a full term as mayor, but does David Briley really want to be the mayor?
Last year, Briley ended up on the losing side of two citywide referendums. The multibillion-dollar transit plan, which he inherited from Barry and supported, was overwhelmingly rejected by voters in a May 2018 election. Briley then opposed a charter amendment that created a Community Oversight Board for the Metro Nashville Police Department. He opposed it despite the fact that two fleeing black men had been shot and killed by police in less than 18 months, and in the face of evidence that black Nashvillians were facing disproportionate scrutiny from police all around the city. But the voters approved the amendment, which passed with 58 percent of the vote. (Briley has recently faced criticism for touting the COB as an accomplishment on his campaign website even though he opposed its creation.)
That makes two significant defeats for a mayor already lacking any kind of serious mandate from the voters, but they could also be spun. The mayor had a position on transit and on the COB proposal; he shared it with the public honestly, and they voted the other way. So be it.
In recent months, though, the Briley administration seems to have slipped into the patterns that have tempted those before it, eschewing transparency and calling a clumsy retreat when the public reacts poorly.
Who could forget the cherry trees? In a perfect metaphor for post-boom Nashville as a whole, the administration made a secret agreement with the NFL to remove blooming cherry trees near Riverfront Park to make way for the NFL draft — killing something alive and beautiful (and free) to allow for a short-term money-grab that looks great on TV. This all blew up in the mayor’s face, of course, forcing him to backtrack.
Beautiful as the trees were, a more substantive hubbub is the one surrounding the mayor’s plan to privatize parking enforcement in the city. The proposed deal would have brought in $30 million up front and some $300 million in revenue over the next 30 years. The plan has attracted criticism as a major example of the administration’s reliance on nonrecurring revenues to plug holes in the budget — a stop-gap measure, it seems, for an administration resisting a property tax hike in an election year.
The same pattern seen in the cherry tree controversy appeared in this case. The mayor’s office did not seem eager to discuss the plan openly. Once it became public, Briley did little to sell Nashvillians on his vision for it. And now, having pissed a lot of people off and given competing mayoral candidates more press-release fodder, Briley announced on May 31 that he is “hitting the pause button on this proposal.”
“It is clear to me that residents still have questions about the merits of this proposal,” Briley said in a statement announcing the decision. “Residents need more time — and it is unfair to the public and to Council to rush this process. Worse yet, others are using misinformation to further confuse and scare people. It’s politics at its worst.”
Perhaps. Where Briley is concerned, though, it’s also politics at its most incompetent. Watching the mayor navigate these controversies is like watching a man step on a series of rakes he carefully laid in his own path.
When the administration is not clumsily retreating from a failed gambit, it can sometimes appear to be making a half-hearted attempt at pandering. Take the mayor’s recent letter to e-scooter companies warning them of a possible ban on the devices following the death of a rider named Brady Gaulke last month. Gaulke’s death is a tragedy, but it does not appear to have been the result of a flaw in the scooter technology or in the regulations that govern them. Gaulke was riding on a sidewalk before he turned into the road and the path of an oncoming SUV, according to police. Threatening to ban scooters from the city might be popular — a lot of people do find them annoying. And it’s true that the sidewalk-blocking devices are a nightmare when it comes to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the timing of Briley’s threat appears to be as much of an election-season tactic as a real vision for how the city should be.
Briley got his office by accident, and he can’t be blamed for those circumstances. But if he wants to keep the job, he should probably start showing voters he can lead the city on purpose.