Once again, the mayor stumbles when he needs to build public support for projects

Someday soon, local media outlets will begin sizing up Karl Dean's legacy as the sixth mayor of Metro Nashville, and those assessments will be incomplete without this fact: Time and again, he and his administration have been pounded in political shitstorms of their own making.

The mayor has gotten his way on a great many things. But when items on his agenda have called for some semblance of support outside the courthouse — the public buy-in, as they say — his administration has repeatedly seemed unable to secure it, or even uninterested in doing so.

If that weren't already obvious to local political observers, who saw The Amp and the proposed fairgrounds redevelopment escalate into citywide tempests as the administration watched helplessly, it was reiterated Tuesday night by a Metro Council public hearing that lasted nearly three hours.

At issue were two capital projects proposed along with Dean's eighth and final budget: a $100 million downtown floodwall and protection system, and the relocation of the downtown Criminal Justice Center. The latter has proven especially contentious: a $149 million plan that includes the relocation of Metro Nashville Police Department headquarters to a new $23 million facility on Jefferson Street in North Nashville, and the consolidation of all Davidson County Sheriff's Office operations (including a relocated jail) at a new $110 million facility in Southeast Nashville.

The hearing was brutal. Although downtown business owners and Chamber of Commerce representatives defended the floodwall proposal, and sheriff's office employees expressed support for the CJC relocation, opponents outnumbered them by far, especially on the latter. Critics opposed the projects on their merits, but they also decried the lack of communication before the plans were ceremoniously announced. By night's end, council members Duane Dominy and Phil Claiborne had promised to file amendments that would pull the projects from the mayor's capital improvement budget, and Councilwoman Erica Gilmore, whose district includes the proposed Jefferson Street location for the new police headquarters, had withdrawn her support for the plan that has riled her North Nashville constituents.

That bears repeating: One of the few council members Dean had brought on board before announcing the new police building dropped her support after the administration's minimalist public campaign bombed.

The council will determine the projects' fate at a meeting next week. But whatever the outcome, they already represent bad government, bad political strategy and perhaps the Dean administration's most glaring weakness.

After losing fights over the fairgrounds and The Amp, the mayor's office might have learned that involving the public early and often is not only the right thing to do as public officials, but a great way to increase a project's chances (or at least weaken resistance). Alas, it seems they decided to simply announce their plans and, y'know, see what happened. The results have been predictably terrible.

The administration could have made a reasonable case for these projects. Metro Police Chief Steve Anderson has said that by relocating police headquarters to Jefferson Street, the department could become neighbors to North Nashville's black communities. That argument might have been better received, however, had it been made to those potential neighbors proactively, instead of used to defend a seemingly fast-tracked plan.

The rationale for relocating the downtown jail to Harding Place might be the strongest: Sheriff Daron Hall has noted that two-thirds of the sheriff's office operations, which include housing thousands of inmates, are already on that piece of Metro-owned property. But after the announcement took the area's council members by surprise — on top of the usual objections to placing a jail in any community — that argument hasn't been very effective. 

Fresh off the fifth anniversary of the devastating 2010 flood, it makes perfect sense to talk about flood mitigation. But while the argument over Dean's proposed flood protections system should have focused mostly on engineering and prioritizing various at-risk areas, it instantly became a political fight. And so we see the bizarre weaponization of the "We Are Nashville" slogan, and the mayor dropping ominous references to the recent flooding in Texas.

The flood protection system may still have an OK shot at securing approval. Hell, $3.5 million worth of floodwall has already been constructed, as The Tennessean reported last month. It's worth remembering that the whole thing only requires council approval because the wrong sorts of bonds were assigned to the project.

As for the CJC relocation, the odds are looking long. After immediate and sustained public pressure, the Jefferson Street police headquarters now lacks the support of the district's council representative. Meanwhile, opponents of the sheriff's office relocation submitted a petition Tuesday night with 1,000 signatures opposing the plan, joining opposition from area council members. Who could've seen that coming?

Anyone with a TV, for a start. With the fraught relationship between police and African American communities streaming on national television, and palpable anxiety in Nashville that the city is rapidly changing under residents' feet, the administration opted to announce plans to relocate police headquarters to Nashville's most prominent historically black neighborhood, and a relocated jail in another local community that has felt neglected in the past. What's more, they went ahead without talking to civil rights organizations in North Nashville or council members in southeast Nashville — and with the exception of one community meeting held by Hall, they have not proactively engaged the public since. (Anderson attended a town-hall meeting in North Nashville, but that one was organized by neighborhood leaders.)

Can the mayor's office be surprised when its plans are misunderstood or mistrusted? Can the administration be surprised that its case — whatever merits it might have — has not persuaded constituents who feel they had to force their way into the conversation? Better communication wouldn't erase all the opposition to these projects, fueled in part by substantive objections and community history. But it didn't have to be this rancorous.

The mayor likes baseball, so perhaps this is the simplest way to put it: However great his overall batting average is when he leaves office, his tenure is marked with unforced errors.  

Email editor@nashvillescene.com

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