With a spread of donuts and coffee to their side, Metro Council members are set to gather Saturday morning in hopes of politely discussing the city’s hot-button issue of the day: the future of the 117-acre Metro-owned fairgrounds.
Whether the meeting actually facilitates genuine dialogue — producing new ideas or even compromise regarding competing fairgrounds legislation — remains to be seen.
The fairgrounds work session, set for 9 a.m. Jan. 8 at the Richard H. Fulton Campus on Second Avenue, originated out of a request from Councilman Mike Jameson, who said he’s detecting “antagonisms and animosities” in discussing the fairgrounds issue in a way he’s never seen during his seven years on the council. He billed the session as a casual “jeans and slacks” meeting to respectfully discuss the issue at hand.
According to the council’s office, 19 council members have formally said they will attend the session and another five have said they might attend. Citizens are welcome, but public input won’t be allowed.
“I can’t really say that the level of rancor is at an all-time high,” Jameson told The City Paper. “Certainly, we’re not screaming at each other on the floor. But there is a level of contempt between council members that I’ve not seen before. And there are quite clearly individual council members and various factions that simply aren’t talking to each other at all.”
The meeting comes 10 days before the council is set to consider on a crucial second of three votes a bill that would move forward with the demolition of the fairgrounds racetrack. The council seems split on the ordinance, which has the backing of Mayor Karl Dean and his administration. In the background, there’s a competing bill filed by Councilman Duane Dominy that would keep the status quo at the fairgrounds. Dominy’s bill has been deferred.
Former Green Hills Councilman Jim Shulman, who helped play facilitator during similar council work sessions in the past, will serve as moderator for the meeting. Shulman said he hasn’t set a formal agenda for the work session.
“I was simply asked to moderate a discussion regarding the fairgrounds,” Shulman said. “I don’t have an opinion on it. Obviously, I don’t have a vote on it. From what I understand, obviously it’s a very hot topic among the council. The people who asked me to do it simply want to have a good, general informal discussion.”
Normally, the council turns to its committee system for in-depth discussion and debate on bills. “This is not an attempt to do any of that,” Shulman said. “Those processes will go on just as they normally will.”
“It may help them with the legislation,” Shulman said of the work session. “But it’s not meant to replace the committee structure or the council meetings themselves.”
Councilwoman Anna Page, who vice chairs the council’s Budget and Finance Committee, has helped take the lead in organizing the work session. She said it’s an opportunity for the council to sit down without formalities.
“It’s not really to discuss the bills so much as it is [about] possible ideas,” Page said, referring to Saturday’s work session. “And if some good amendments, some good positive things, come out of the conversation, then that would be the goal.”
Over the past several months, every public meeting dealing with the fairgrounds has seen huge crowds of citizens wearing red shirts advocating for the preservation of the Metro-owned property.
Darden Copeland, who heads the group Save My Fairgrounds, said his troops are planning to meet at the Fulton campus prior to the work session, but they will be leaving shortly after the meeting commences to knock on doors.
“Some council members have expressed a concern about us having a large crowd there,” Copeland said. “Some individual council members are scared, frankly. We would rather spend our time being more productive and going door to door in some of their [council] districts to make our case.”
Dominy, who has become the council’s most vocal opponent of Dean’s plans to redevelop the fairgrounds, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” something positive can result from the work session.
“My hope is that we can discuss pros and cons of various issues all at one time,” Dominy said. “I’m open-minded to see what can be done.”