For Mayor Karl Dean, 2011 began on the losing side of a political tussle.
Just 18 days into the year, fairgrounds and racing enthusiasts by the thousands packed the downtown courthouse to lambaste a proposal to demolish the city-owned Tennessee State Fairgrounds Speedway. By that point, Dean had already retreated on his plans to redevelop the 117-acre fairgrounds to accommodate a corporate campus, but his fairgrounds agenda was under the microscope one last time.
After a marathon public hearing, the racetrack-demolition effort failed by a narrow council vote, and Dean was left with an irrefutable political defeat. In Metro politics, the night’s events amounted to a rare setback for a mayor on a signature issue.
But the loud cries over the fairgrounds, which dominated the first month of 2011, quickly went away. Dean, bruised by the strong pushback, showed no willingness to raise the controversial fairgrounds issue again –– though a public referendum on the future of the fairgrounds, put forth by Dean’s opponents, kept it in the spotlight a little longer. A Metro charter amendment, making it more difficult to redevelop the fairgrounds, passed overwhelmingly on the same August night Dean earned four more years in office.
Despite the fairgrounds defeat, in a broad overview of Metro’s sixth mayor, 2011 will be remembered as Dean’s re-election year. After a spring and summer of campaigning –– in which he reignited his 2007 mantra of “economic development, public safety and public schools” –– Dean easily withstood challenges posed by three no-name candidates, winning more than 85 percent of the vote. Election night also ushered in 17 new Metro council members. Dynamics between the mayor’s office –– which has seen six high-level staff members exit over the past year –– and the new council still aren’t fleshed out.
During the months following his re-election, Dean’s administration offered a few clues on what could emerge as Dean’s major second-term projects. But the future still seems up in the air. If Dean’s first-term political weight was centered on a new $585 million convention center and adjoining hotel, he still hasn’t shown where he’ll focus the same gusto in the coming four years.
It seems likely something could happen on the mass-transit front. After years of making the case that Nashville needs to mirror its peers –– Austin, Texas, Charlotte, N.C., and Denver –– in advancing transit options, Dean this month released a report that recommends installing a $136 million bus rapid-transit line along West End Avenue, to Broadway and across the river to East Nashville. The project, though ambitious, represents a smaller investment than a modern streetcar system, an approach several of Nashville’s sister cities have embraced. If Metro lands highly coveted federal transportation funding, a new BRT line connecting the west and east sides of the city could be a reality by Dean’s final year in office.
Shaping the course of Dean’s second term could be a property tax increase, which Davidson County hasn’t had since 2005. After opting to restructure the city’s debt in 2010 and 2011, Dean may have to increase tax revenue to avoid draconian cuts, many observers believe. In his September inaugural address, Dean alluded to difficult budgets: “Tough decisions lay ahead,” he said.
In 2011, Dean, after careful consideration, took a stand against discrimination. For weeks, he had remained conspicuously mum on a Metro Council proposal to require city contractors to add sexual orientation and gender identity to their company nondiscrimination policies. The mayor eventually said the proposal “makes sense,” and he signed it into law in the spring after it cleared the council. Conservative state lawmakers, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, later passed legislation to nullify Metro’s local nondiscrimination law.
While many will remember the conclusion of the legendary fairgrounds battle at the beginning of 2011, the mayor’s office can point to other more successful items this past year.
Over the past 12 months, Dean showed us he could exercise. Armed with millions in federal stimulus money, Dean launched a new healthy lifestyles initiative aimed at turning around Nashville’s abysmal obesity rate. New events included Dean’s “Walk 100 Miles” and the mayor’s 5K run/walk outing in November.
Dean also continued the recovery efforts following the flood of May 2010, securing FEMA dollars for a buyout program to clear damaged homes. He engineered a land swap with health care giant HCA, which will pave the way for a new public health facility. The mayor kicked off a new open space plan aimed at preserving land that could otherwise be developed. He broke ground on a long-awaited 28th Avenue Connector, a road linking North Nashville and West End. Over the past year, the redevelopment of Nashville’s riverfront advanced through ongoing construction of a new play park on the east bank. Dean also helped organize a new program aimed at ramping up the music programming inside Metro schools.
Five top stories in Metro
Discrimination: Despite pushback from Christian conservatives, the Metro Council in April approved a proposal requiring companies that do business with Metro to include employment protections for gay, lesbian and transgender workers. The bigger story followed. In a move arguably undermining the autonomy of local governments, Republican Rep. Glen Casada of Williamson County successfully pushed through a bill that nullified Metro’s nondiscrimination law.
Teachers: New state teacher evaluations, derided as unreasonable and time-consuming, dominated chatter inside Metro schools this past fall. Evaluations, which subject teachers to a tedious grading scale, are part of the education reform efforts that helped Tennessee land coveted federal Race to the Top funds. They’ve become headaches for some teachers and principals.
Charter schools: Metro’s charter school boom reached new heights in 2011. After this year’s authorization of a new crop of publicly financed, privately run charters, Metro will have 15 charters operating by the 2012-13 school year. The charter approach has picked up steam statewide. As part of the state’s new Achievement School District, low-performing schools across the state could become charters.
Clerks: Davidson County clerks came under fire in 2011. A WSMV-TV report revealing Criminal Clerk David Torrence worked only three days a week led to his resignation. Shortly after, a WTVF-TV report showed that County Clerk John Arriola charged a $40 “gratuity” fee in exchange for conducting marriages, prompting a TBI probe.
Schools: The controversial transfer of beloved former Hillsboro High School teacher Mary Catherine Bradshaw outraged a community and raised questions about The Academies of Nashville, the career-themed model of instruction inside Metro high schools. Backers of The Academies say the approach allows students to gain valuable real world experience. Critics insist career academies are tailored to seed
the workforce, not educate students.