If Mayor Karl Dean is the face of Metro government then Richard Riebeling must be something else.
As Dean carries out all the unwritten duties required of Nashville’s top elected office — the ribbon-cuttings, ceremonial ground-breakings and school appearances — Riebeling, the city’s finance director, pushes forward the agenda, putting himself in the crossfire of almost every Metro decision, debate and controversy.
One minute he’s berated by neighborhood association leaders at a community meeting in west Nashville. The next day he’s with state officials at Legislative Plaza representing the city’s fiscal interests. And the following afternoon he’s a political battering ram, questioning an embattled (now outgoing) Metro parks director and recommending layoffs to ease a departmental budget crisis. He plays antagonist of sorts in this high-stakes game of municipal finance — and, not least, protagonist for any and all matters that have some impact on Metro’s $1.5 billion annual budget.
“It’s the job you get,” Riebeling said of his role. “When everybody says you control the money … you’ve got to be the bad guy. It’s politics. The elected officials give good news, and the finance officials sometimes have to give bad news.”
Packed schedules are the norm for the 55-year-old Riebeling, a fiery veteran of finance who cut his teeth in Metro government as a reporter for the Nashville Banner before working as an aide for former Mayor Richard Fulton. He’s the type who shows up at his office at 6:30 a.m. every day, picks up the paper, skims the sports section and then starts the workday.
Some call him stubborn and temperamental, citing his tendency to turn purple when frustrated. Others — for that matter, some of the same people — say he’s shrewd and knowledgeable, a master at the game. All agree he’s among the most powerful and influential figures in the city, to say nothing of the mayor’s office itself.
But if it’s not enough to be at the nexus of every Metro decision with a fiscal note, Riebeling is also the guy who’s shepherding financing plans for the biggest capital project in the history of the state — the $585 million convention center project the Metro Council is expected to vote on in December or January.
“There’s no end to it,” Riebeling said of the job’s demands. “There’s a lot. As soon as we roll out the convention center stuff, we’ve got to get right into the budget for next year, do the budget kick-off in January and start rolling up our sleeves and looking at that.”
That may explain why the St. Louis native and diehard Cardinals fan, who has a picture of baseball great Stan “The Man” Musial on his office wall, didn’t make his annual trip to hometown Busch Stadium this season. Perhaps he couldn’t find the time.
“My sense of the job is you do what you’ve got to do,” he said. “If that means you’ve got to go make a speech, you make a speech. If that means you pour over spreadsheets to try to figure out some numbers, you just do what you’ve got to do. That’s the part I find emotionally challenging, but fun.”
Demands of the job
As outlined by Metro’s founders 46 years ago in the city’s charter, the finance director is charged with Metro’s fiscal obligations: compiling a budget for the mayor, maintaining accounting systems, examining all Metro contracts, conducting audits and submitting financial reports to the Metro Council, among other duties.
But throughout Metro’s history, the job has become much larger. In the words of former finance director David Manning — known as “Dr. No” when he held the position under former Mayor Bill Purcell — the finance director does whatever it is that “serves the mayor’s needs best.”
On the hierarchal chain of command, Riebeling is situated alongside Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote as Dean’s chief advisers. Hinote, who works down the hall from the mayor inside the mayor’s office, “keeps the train on the track,” Dean said, while Riebeling, located at the other end of the Courthouse, executes the financial agenda.
“The finance director is such a critical role in Metro government that he’s really involved in everything,” Dean said. “Any project that we do has financial implications. … As we work on the budget, his role is to implement our priorities, which I think he does very well.”
While it’s not new for the city’s finance director to earn more than the boss, Riebeling’s paycheck is nevertheless an indication of his influence. He takes home $150,000 annually, a sizable bit more than Dean’s $136,500. (Hinote makes $140,000.) But Riebeling rejects any notion that he calls the shots.
“Karl Dean runs the show,” Riebeling said. “We work for Karl Dean. People would be surprised how much input he has. He knows what’s going on. He cares about what’s going on. But he’s got a job to do to be the mayor, and the mayor’s job is to be the spokesperson for the city.”
Hinote, who, like Riebeling, worked in the Fulton administration, compared Dean to the CEO with Riebeling and himself as the senior management team. “Everybody’s got some limited defined roles, but we pretty much work as a team on most things.”
But unlike Dean and Hinote, Riebeling is a constant presence inside the Metro Council’s chambers, where he often clashes with elected representatives who say he too frequently displays his displeasure.
“Rich sometimes gets frustrated with the Council,” At-large Councilman Jerry Maynard said. “I don’t want to say he has a temper. Lets just say he wears his feelings on his sleeve and lets us know sometimes that he’s irritated by us.”
When Council members speak, Riebeling often fidgets in his chair, shakes his head or mutters to himself in disagreement. Even longtime friends acknowledge his legendary tendency toward openly expressing aggravation.
“I probably stand accused,” Riebeling said. “I can get a little riled on occasion, to say the least. I do my best to control it. As some of my older friends would say, you should have known me 20 years ago.”
It’s a stark comparison to his predecessor Manning, who Councilman Mike Jameson characterizes as “cool as a cucumber.”
“A Council person could almost accuse Manning of stealing from little old ladies’ purses and he’d sit there and calmly calculate the value of parks,” Jameson said. “He was detached in an effective way. That’s not Rich’s style.”
Criticism doesn’t end there. Maynard, who usually votes with the Dean administration and considers Riebeling a friend, said the mayor’s office too often makes decisions without communicating them to Metro’s legislative body.
“In almost every initiative, there has been a failure to communicate on behalf of the mayor’s office and administration with the Council,” Maynard said. “All they have to do is pick up the phone and discuss with us certain decisions they want to make.”
Riebeling, who called his relationship with Council members generally pretty good, said he would “respectfully disagree,” with that charge. “I think we’ve been very open in everything we’ve done and tried to make the Council understand the issues and have opportunity for input and thought.”
Perhaps the one Council member who seems to stir Riebeling the most is Emily Evans, who represents parts of Belle Meade. Similar to Riebeling, who previously worked at Fifth Third Securities and Morgan Keegan Co., Evans also has a background in finance.
She contends Riebeling’s decisions are too often based on opinion instead of quantitative facts, and said she “sort of ends up in the mix” because Riebeling’s professional field overlaps her own area of expertise. “I tend to know enough about it to ask questions,” she said.
According to Evans, a “pattern” of financial trouble has emerged in recent years. “When you look at the seven or eight front-page stories that the administration has weathered the last two years, they all have to do with financing,” Evans said. “They all have to do with the management of the financial part of our city — budgets and things like that.”
Riebeling countered the assertion, saying, “Everything in the government involves finance. It’s hard not to be involved in a lot of different situations.”
And with slightly more than two years under their belt, he said the administration has actually produced solid achievements, financial successes such as adopting a new stormwater and sewer management program, lowering the budget over the previous figure and fighting for fiscal management and stewardship.
Riebeling, who characterizes Evans as talented and bright, said the back and forth between the two is “unfortunate.”
“She’s dedicated to her thoughts and her beliefs,” Riebeling said. “We’ve butted heads and disagreed on a couple of things, and it’s unfortunate. Maybe we just see things differently sometimes — lots of times, as the case may be. We’re both going to do what we think is right.”
How he got here
Though Riebeling’s appointment to finance director in 2007 was possible because of his financial pedigree, he also appealed to Dean because of his wealth of experience in Metro and media, combined with his background as head of the state Department of Economic and Community Development under Gov. Ned McWherter.
“He brings in all those different qualities, that experience and intellectual preparation,” Dean said. “He’s a pretty good package of the skills you need in a finance director.”
As Riebeling puts it, “I grew up in Metro government,” a period that began in 1976 when he landed a job as the Metro beat reporter
for the Nashville Banner after working for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss.
A graduate of the distinguished Missouri School of Journalism, Riebeling had dreamed of reporting for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I loved the idea of writing. I liked government, I liked politics, I liked sports. It just seemed like a good vehicle.”
His greatest claim to fame as a journalist came after a call from then-Mayor Fulton before Riebeling had joined his office. Strip clubs and massage parlors had lined Broadway for years. The mayor thought Riebeling would be interested to know who owned those properties.
After searching property records, Riebeling discovered most of the buildings were owned by a group of prominent Nashvillians, including country legend Roy Acuff. He called the singer, wrote the story and soon those seedy establishments began to disappear.
“In a small sense, I’ve always liked to think that story helped the city kind of turn around downtown,” Riebeling said.
An admirer of Fulton’s civil rights’ record, Riebeling signed on to his gubernatorial campaign in 1978, which saw Democratic primary defeat. Later, as a student at Vanderbilt School of Law, he found himself working in the mayor’s office in a communications role that evolved into policy coordination.
“I always reflected that the happiest times were those years,” Riebeling said of his six-year run with Fulton. “You’d wake up each day and generally not know what to expect.”
Stakes are at an all-time high right now as Riebeling fights for approval of the proposed $585 million Music City Center, a project Dean first championed during his run for mayor.
“It’s going to be fun,” Riebeling said of the potentially definitive Council vote expected late this year or early next. “Put on your seats belts.”
The push is a familiar one for Riebeling, who worked with Fulton when, after much public consternation, the city decided to build its first convention center. The project -— now with a 25-year patina --— naturally became the topic of conversation at a recent lunch with Riebeling, Fulton and civil rights attorney George Barrett, a longtime ally of the former mayor and congressman. As the trio sat eating at Stoney River on West End, they came to a conclusion.
“It was a lot harder back then,” Fulton put it.
“It probably was,” Riebeling agreed, “because there wasn’t any precedent for it. You were going out on a limb. Downtown was not the downtown it is today. All the investments hadn’t been made. … It was a harder a sell.”
The struggle wasn’t helped by the days of two well-funded daily newspapers, Barrett recalled. “If one said it was daylight, the other would say it was dark. It didn’t make any difference where the truth was.”
What began as “Fulton’s folly” — there was a hole in the ground, untouched for two years — eventually became a successful convention space in 1987 once a hotel deal was sealed. The project’s initial $39.5 million in bonds -were finally paid off three years ago.
Though Riebeling isn’t counting his chickens before they hatch — at least publicly — today’s convention center proposal has enjoyed votes from two-thirds of the Metro Council throughout the process. But some Council members have taken exception with the incremental strategy employed by the Dean administration.
“It paints the Council into a corner,” Jameson said. “When we’re asked to approve minor, incremental elements to the convention center, it forces our hand later on. …You can call that a lot of things, but you can’t call that deliberation or good government.”
Because of the project’s scale, Riebeling has insisted the administration didn’t really have any other choice.
“I don’t think you could do it any other way,” Riebeling said. “I think you had to do it in baby steps. Some Council members say it ties their hands, others say it doesn’t tie their hands. In retrospect, we’ll look back and think about it, but I think you had to do it in a successive manner of incremental steps.”
With eminent domain proceedings under way, Tower Investments, owner of the largest parcel the Metro Development and Housing Agency needs to build the center, sued the agency for allegedly failing to share appraisal records. Landowners of smaller properties south of Broadway have expressed similar frustrations. Jameson and Councilwoman Erica Gilmore filed a resolution to postpone all land acquisitions until the Council finalizes a finance plan.
Another crucial component to the survival of the Music City Center could be an adjoining hotel, estimated at $300 million, which would fill a lot south of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Riebeling has said it doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the project’s initial financial package.
“The ideal world is you do them simultaneous and they come up from the ground and they open simultaneous,” Riebeling said. “But if you look around the country, not a lot them get done that way, and it’s because they’re hard. Until we have the right hotel deal, we won’t present it.”
Critics have maintained the convention project could force the city into debt for years once it begins paying back bonds through revenues generated from a special hotel-motel tax, a special tourism development zone and other taxes that target visitors.
“The revenues are going to pay for this project,” Riebeling said. “If we don’t think the revenues are going to be sufficient to pay for the project, then we shouldn’t do it. It’s just that simple.”
Asked if he’s concerned about the Council waging one last attempt to stop the convention’s center’s momentum, Riebeling said “It’s politics. You worry about everything.
“At the end of the day I’m optimistic the Council’s going to say it’s in the best interest of the city,” he said. “We’ve studied it, we’ve thought about it a long time, and I hope they think we’ve come with a reasonable plan, a good plan.”