On a Wednesday morning in July, a gaggle of Metro officials, business leaders and nonprofit organizers assembled at the Youth Opportunity Center on Charlotte Avenue to engage in all the pageantry of a classic made-for-media event.
With television cameras rolling, speakers revealed some startling findings: Twenty-one percent of all Metro high school students have experienced some type of homelessness; one-third of Nashville students say they lack an adult with whom they can discuss problems; and 6 percent of high-school-aged students don’t attend school at all. There were recommendations to address health issues, increase access to transportation and improve safety among youth. And there was an initiative already in the pipeline: a new center to assist victims of family violence through a collaboration between Metro police, Davidson County Juvenile Court and other agencies.
Findings, desired outcomes and recommended strategies were marked in bullet points and bound together in a bright-yellow, handsome 60-page book, one for each in attendance.
Mayor Karl Dean’s 52-member Youth Master Plan Task Force had completed its work.
In the three-plus years since his inauguration, Dean and his administration have shown a fondness for so-called task forces, advisory groups and new committees. While they take on different names, each has the same basic goal: to rope in outsiders with a stake in the outcomes of policy decisions. Members are typically private citizens and non-Metro workers.
Previous administrations have employed the same approach; it is neither new nor unique, and it is a staple in current administrations in comparable cities, including Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Denver.
Still, based on sheer numbers, the task force concept seems to hold a special place inside Dean’s administration.
The administration has rolled out 18 such groups during 36 months in office. For every two months Dean has spent in office, one new group has emerged. In all, there are 380 people involved in the groups. (See a list of all 18 task forces here.)
Faced with controversy, Dean has tended to reach outside the courthouse for help. Amid the spirited debate over the future of the 117-acre fairgrounds property, for example, the mayor appointed a 10-member task force to deliver suggestions, which it did last month. When the unexpected has put Metro departments under the microscope, like the 2008 Davidson County Election Commission break-in that saw thieves gain access to 337,000 voters’ Social Security numbers, Dean responded by creating the Information Technology Advisory Board, the Information Security Advisory Board and the Information Security Steering Committee.
The task force approach has enabled Dean to leave his stamp on Metro public schools, for instance, something he may otherwise have few opportunities to do given the control that the Metro Nashville Board of Education exercises over school policy. There is Dean’s Project for Student Success, which studied the city’s student dropout rate and led to the unveiling of Metro’s Attendance Center in East Nashville. In addition, Dean created the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Special Education, which monitors the progress of special-needs education inside the school system.
Dean has also been able to keep a steady line of communication with key constituents. The Mayor’s Minority Business Advisory Council and the New Americans Advisory Committee — comprising 15 people between them — are prime examples.
Some groups, such as the Green Ribbon Committee on Environmental Sustainability, were organized and disbanded after producing reports, long lists of recommendations and lofty goals. Those were billed as living documents, per se, there for Metro to pull from and act on over the years. Others, such as the Livable Community Task Force — which studied the “graying,” or aging, of Nashville — produce similar reports but are said to serve an ongoing advisory role with the administration.
Task forces, committees and advisory groups are often viewed negatively. They produce reports that are subsequently ignored, neglected or forgotten over time, critics say. They’re often seen as a way for an administration to recognize a problem without actually addressing it. No doubt, many of Dean’s groups have put forth ambitious goals — some that won’t be addressed for years to come, if at all. Nonetheless, there seems to be a genuine sense across the board that — at least early on — the method of appointing outsiders to study pressing issues has been well received.
“What’s new about what this mayor does is that he actually listens to them and acts upon what they advise,” said At-large Metro Councilman Ronnie Steine, who served as co-chair of Dean’s Youth Master Plan Task Force and is usually seen as one of the mayor’s allies. “You’ve got to be careful what you recommend to this mayor, because he may actually do it.”
There is an element of political shrewdness to this approach. Compare Dean, who has enjoyed enormous popularity during his tenure and still lacks a challenger for his re-election 10 months away, with Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who lost in a Democratic primary last month. Fenty soared to an improbable election victory four years ago, but he soon developed a reputation for overseeing an insular, tone-deaf mayor’s office. With the creation of task forces and other groups, Dean deflects such charges. He creates community buy-in, ownership over major projects and issues. Some people believe they have a direct voice inside the mayor’s office. It would be naive and inaccurate to point to Dean’s various groups as the primary reason for his political success, but creating a line of communication between voters and his office doesn’t hurt.
Councilwoman Emily Evans, a sometime-critic of Dean, said she’s a believer in thoroughly studying a problem and taking a “data-centric approach,” adding that the Metro Parks Master Plan, adopted in 2002, is an example of effective community input to address a problem. Following through is the key, though.
“I think the proof that’s in the pudding is what you do with these studies, what you do with this information,” Evans said of Dean’s task forces, committees and advisory groups. “Does it become a report on pretty glossy paper that sits on everyone’s desk gathering dust, or does it become an action-list of things that you need to do?
“If it never amounts to any initiatives or policy changes or funding priorities, then I think they’re a waste of time,” Evans said.
‘You’ve got to bring people in’
In an interview with The City Paper, Dean said he appoints members to groups to work on areas where he needs help and advice.
“You just can’t go to one person and say, ‘What’s the answer?’ ” Dean said. “There are different points of view, a different focus that each person will have. You really need to hear from a larger group of people. And when that large group of people comes to a consensus and comes with some good recommendations, you probably have a pretty good thing.
“Certainly, on all of these different topics that we have to deal with, or issues that we’re interested in, we don’t have the staff or the time or the expertise for us to become experts on all these things,” Dean said. “You really are dependent on outsiders.”
As far as the composition of a group, Dean said some are people whom he already knows, but others are contributors he’s never met.
The group that’s received some of the highest praise from Dean, as well as educators, is the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Special Education, a 23-member group — many who are parents to special-needs children or disabled themselves — brought on to assess special education services in Metro schools, historically viewed as woeful throughout the district.
“Part of the reason I did this was because, as I met people during the campaign, I thought the most disaffected or disenchanted group of citizens I met in all of Nashville were parents of children with special needs,” Dean said. “So, probably the worst thing you can do is say, ‘I’m not going to listen to you. Here’s what I think should happen.’ You’ve got to bring people in and hear what they have to say.”
Elise McMillan, senior associate in psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and one of the co-chairs on Dean’s advisory council, points to two big issues she said the council has helped advance. One is increasing the school district’s inclusive practices or assimilating special-needs children into the general education curriculum. The other, addressed last month in the council’s most recent annual report, is to increase the employment opportunities of special-needs children after they graduate high school. McMillan referenced Metro’s new “community-based classroom,” which gives adult students with disabilities the opportunity to work in various Metro offices, including the police department and the county clerk’s office.
“Would I like things to move more quickly? Yes,” McMillan said. “But, I think [special education] is a huge topic for our community, and I think the work of the advisory council has helped us make progress in this area.”
Among the various groups, the ostensible leader in spearheading actual Metro policies is the Mayor’s Green Ribbon Committee on Environmental Sustainability, which is frequently cited in green-minded legislation and is the impetus for Dean’s attempts to transform Nashville into the “greenest city in the Southeast.”
Dean has credited the committee for jump-starting a number of initiatives, including the April announcement of a new Office of Sustainability led by attorney Chris Bowles. The mayor’s office has cited “quick-win” achievements such as establishing green advocacy programs in Metro departments, as well as expanding Metro’s curbside recycling program and upgrading the city’s aging stormwater infrastructure. The city is in the process of retrofitting Metro buildings to attain LEED silver certification. There’s also a recently passed bill to adopt a new pay-as-you-throw program, which aims to divert waste away from landfills and to recycling centers, along with a recently completed tree canopy assessment.
Nonetheless, the mayor’s commitment to the committee’s work could be judged on its long-term success, accomplishing goals like removing all of Davidson County’s streams from the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of waters that do not meet water quality standards, outperforming the national air-quality standards and reducing Metro’s greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2012. And even in the interim, Metro Councilman Jason Holleman has struggled to push forward a proposal to allow drivers of hybrid and other “clean-technology” vehicles to park at Metro meters and lots, a proposal pulled directly from the Green Ribbon Committee.
There’s also the issue of expanding the city’s transportation options, as cited in the report, which has made little progress. Dean has indicated his preference for a better regional transportation system and hinted that he would prefer some sort of light-rail system to complement the Metro Transit Authority’s implementation of Bus Rapid Transit on Gallatin Pike. Time will tell whether that actually happens.
“Obviously, we would have all liked to have seen more happen quicker,” said Diane Miller Mulloy, president of Milagro Biofuels and a member of the Green Ribbon Committee. She added that the budget crisis and flood have prevented some initiatives from happening more immediately.
“I think we’ve made a lot more progress than probably people see, but some of the bigger initiatives probably are going to take more funding,” Mulloy said. “Hopefully, we’ll get to the point soon when we can make some of those budget priorities. No one on the Green Ribbon Committee is going to be truly happy because we want everything now, and that’s not realistic for a city.”
A group getting action of late is the 18-member Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Toks Omishakin was appointed as the mayor’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, a post that did not exist previously. Recent projects include the installation of 12 artist-designed bike racks; new green-colored bike lanes on a few roads with heavy bike traffic; a new bike-share program launched out of Shelby and Riverfront parks; and the implementation of a “complete-streets” policy whereby designs of new streets take into account accessibility to bikers and other pedestrians, not just vehicular traffic. The committee has also helped draft a connectivity study, which is supposed to help prioritize the addition of bikeways and trails in the future.
Of course, Nashville still can’t be confused with Portland, Ore., when it comes to friendliness toward non-automobile commuters, but committee members say it’s a start.
“I think we’re making good progress,” said attorney John Norris, the committee’s chair. When asked what needs to happen next, he said, “More connections. Being able to safely get some place without getting in your car.”
It’s still too early to judge the effectiveness of some of Dean’s other groups.
The Centennial Park Master Plan Committee has been soliciting community input over the past several months in an effort to develop a long-term plan for the renovation and upgrade of Centennial Park off West End Avenue. Working in conjunction with a Seattle-based architecture firm, the committee has released a preliminary conceptual plan, but the city is still waiting on a final draft.
And the youngest of Dean’s groups, the 15-member Early Child Development Advisory, was formed in July. Modeled on the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Special Education, the new group is expected to release recommendations to Dean every year and will report work to the mayor in six-month intervals. Increasing public access and awareness to early childhood development programs are among the areas the group has been assigned to study.
Still, Dean’s strategy — political, pure or some measure of both — seems to have wide-ranging support.
“I’m sure as time has gone along, the city is maybe a little more complicated today than it was 15 years ago, so there’s more people that are involved, the more ideas you can come up with,” said At-large Councilman Tim Garrett, who’s serving his second term on the Metro Council. “I don’t have a problem with it because it gets more people involved in the process.”