After giving it long, careful, and considerate thought, I will not run for vice mayor this year. I am looking forward to helping my wife run for Metro Nashville School Board District 2, on the August 2 ballot. Her campaign kick-off is this Saturday, June 9, 9:00am-10:30am, at Plaza Mariachi. A former first-grade teacher and employee performance consultant, she has the perfect mix of background, experience, and judgment to be on the Metro School Board. Even if she wasn’t my wife, she’s by far the best candidate of the five in the race. Learn more about her at ElrodForSchools.com.

If anyone wants to read them, I would like to share some thoughts on why I considered running, and what I think about going forward. If it seems a little long, it’s because I’ve been thinking long and hard about the vice mayor position in recent weeks.

I ran for the Metro Council because I wanted to represent the neighborhoods around me and make them better and to help make Nashville better for everyone. Since I was elected to the Metro Council in August/September 2015, I’ve tried to do everything I can to do that. In that time, I’ve seen how many parts of Metro government operates, and I am still trying to learn more about Metro government, about the city as a whole, and how Metro government can better serve all of Nashville. Something that has been clearly apparent to me is that the Metro Council should, and can, work and operate better.

A little background might be helpful here. I have read history books since I was a kid, including lugging around thick biographies from class to class so I could read a few pages in case there was a lull in a class. I watched the news sometimes more often than my parents, I was very active in statewide 4-H leadership, and I even served on a team that competed in an FFA parliamentary procedure competition. Naturally, I got a political science degree and completed an internship at the state legislature in 2002, which was the year the income tax came up for a vote and failed. It was also the last time the state raised the sales tax. After graduating college, I started working there in the House Clerk’s Office, which staffs floor sessions and committee meetings while keeping the official records and bills of the legislature. It was an up-close education on how the academics of studying political science met the practical world of politics. I was on the House floor for two years directly under Speaker Jimmy Naifeh as he presided over the chamber, while I was tasked with helping the Chief Clerk keeping the flow of documents and taking of votes moving smoothly. After that time I spent eight legislative sessions as the staffer for the House Transportation Committee, where I dealt with just about anything the committee and its chairman needed. In countless ways, my time at the state legislature allowed me to get firsthand lessons on how a legislative body can work better. Altogether, I worked for the Tennessee General Assembly for eleven legislative sessions. I served under three speakers, a Democrat (Jimmy Naifeh), an independent (Kent Williams), and a Republican (Beth Harwell). I worked for four different committee chairmen, two Democrats (Phillip Pinion and Bill Harmon) and two Republicans (Phillip Johnson and Vince). I handle state government relations for an association now, and my job still has me talking with legislators and state policymakers. In countless ways, my time at and around the state legislature allowed me to get firsthand lessons on how a legislative body can work better. August of this year will mean I’ve spent three years on the Metro Council, and I’ve been a close observer of how we do business.

With this background, I’ve seen many different ways a legislative body can work, including ways to make it work better. In my time on the Metro Council, I’ve seen areas where we can improve how we do things that ultimately mean we can better represent and respond to our constituents and everyone in the city. Serving as the presiding officer over the Metro Council with administrative duties over the council office, being vice mayor is a position whose ability to affect change can be difficult to bring to bear. It is perhaps a position that could be best utilized by helping others do their jobs better, and by making the processes of government work better for council members and the public. At least that’s been my view of the position, and when a special election came about, I thought with my background and my want to make Metro and the Metro Council work better, I could affect positive and substantial change in that position.

Right now, our Metro Council could be working better, both for the public and for council members as they serve their constituents and the whole city. There are things, both big and small, that could be improved so we can function better individually and collectively as a body. It’s helpful to note being a council member is a part-time position, with part-time pay, and sometimes with responsibilities that can be full-time. For some large cities, being a city council member is a full-time job with full-time pay. There is an argument to have about whether it is better to have a city council who is solely dedicated to the position, or if it’s better for a city council to live and work regular lives to be better informed about how most in the city are impacted by their decisions. The first could lead to either career politicians holding office for long stretches, or regular citizens coming into office bringing a fresh perspective and the means to use it. The second could lead to only people that are retired, independently wealthy, or self-employed since they have the most time to dedicate to the position. It could also lead to regular citizens who won’t get caught up as much in politics and will just make the right decision because their livelihood isn’t based on their political position, and they view things more as a typical citizen would rather than someone that lives, eats and breathes politics.

For Nashville’s forty member Metro Council, council members serve part-time, and therefore we could benefit greatly from things that help us do our job more efficiently and effectively. Right now, we need more tools and other things to do our jobs better. Some of them seem like simple things to help us day to day, while others are larger things so we can better oversee and help manage Metro government.

  • Email and calendar management. Council members must wade through a lot of correspondence. This includes email, phone calls, text messages, voicemails, comments and messages on our personal Facebook page, comments and messages on our public Facebook page, Twitter replies and direct messages, NextDoor posts and private messages, and even snail mail still on occasion. This is in addition to personal interactions at neighborhood meetings, community meetings, out and about for work or personal time, and others. I greatly enjoy helping and talking with people on an individual basis, but it can be a lot to manage for what is a part-time job. A simple Outlook calendar maintained by the council office we could subscribe to of all Metro Council-related meetings would be a huge timesaver. Right now meetings are announced through email with the council agenda every other Wednesday, a weekly list sent out on Fridays of meetings for the next week, and occasionally as meetings are scheduled. Most of these announcements are only viewed in an attached scanned pdf. For some, it may not sound like much, but each meeting must be manually typed into a calendar by any council member that wants to add it. Simply automating adding meetings to all of our calendars would be a great help. For several years, I, along with other council members, have been asking for this simple tool, but for some reason it hasn’t come about. Also, on a desktop or laptop, we can only access our email through the clumsy Outlook Web App. Adding email to a desktop computer would require a VPN connection, and it’s been discouraged to ask to set one up. “Managing email and calendars” sounds small, I know. However, most council members (like me) do their job almost entirely by phone or tablet, and for those that do the same know small process improvements are giant time savers. I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that there are many small ways Metro Council processes can be improved to just make it easier to do our jobs and serve our constituents.
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  • Constituent services. This is some of the most important, rewarding, and frustrating parts of the position. Most council members manage it on their own, however, the sheer volume sometimes can be difficult to keep up with. We can pass along issues to individual departments or department employees, but most issues require asking for more information and follow-up, sometimes weeks later. Recently nashville.gov was created to automate requests from council members, constituents, and the public, but it’s still a work in progress and doesn’t replace personal follow-up with a constituent. Council members need more assistance in constituent services so we can do our jobs better, and so our constituents can get the information and results they need from Metro government. Even aiding the planning and logistics of a community meeting would allow for even more community meetings if it’s easier to plan them.
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  • Better Oversight. The Metro Council is tasked with oversight over Metro government’s finances and operations. We need more tools, resources, and structure to be better at it. The power in Metro is greatly titled in favor of the mayor and the administration because of staffing levels, daily and institutional knowledge, time to spend on issues, and agenda setting. Each council member has a finite amount of time and bandwidth to deal with all the aspects of the part-time position, while it’s the full-time job of the administration (the mayor and Metro departments) to work on issues. With a part-time Metro Council, most oversight is reactionary to things as they unfold. The Metro Council staff is a ten-member team, and all of them work tirelessly day and night to help the Metro Council work its best. They all are truly dedicated to the Metro Council and helping each council member. However, there simply aren’t enough of them to help the Metro Council provide a proper counterweight and oversight to the administration. Of the ten, we have only one employee that is dedicated look at Metro finances and a $2 billion Metro budget. Sometimes the Metro Council would just benefit from a second look at the mayor’s or the finance department’s numbers. For instance, no one told the Metro Council last year that when property reappraisal cycles occur, typically the property tax rate is raised to prevent a revenue hole in future years. The Metro Council didn’t have a second staff opinion of the Finance Department asserting that Metro’s budget would be able to handle promising Metro employees’ raises for three straight years. Complex economic incentives, TIFs, and PILOTs have a smaller oversight and differing opinions on their impacts because the Metro Council doesn’t have its own experts whose sole job it is to examine complex arrangements. I am not abdicating my responsibility as a council member to learn and evaluate on my own, rather I am thirsting for as much information as possible to make the best decision possible. Also, much of Metro’s work is done by commissions and boards like the Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals. Members of these boards and commissions are nominated by the mayor and approved by the Metro Council. Because of lack of resources and time, it’s difficult to near impossible to thoroughly examine each and every board and commission member’s voting history to see how it aligns with policy and political goals of the Metro Council and the city. I could also write more about the need for oversight regarding policy implementation, ability for deep research on policy and how comparable cities handle similar issues, contracts and procurement, outreach to affected populations and interest groups, and many other areas. Simply, for the Metro Council to provide better and proper oversight, we need more resources. Councilwoman Angie Henderson has some great thoughts on the operation of the Metro Council that I agree with.
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  • Openness and transparency. The operations and policies of Metro government must be open to the public and the Metro Council. No matter what one may think about how much of it is perception or reality, too often deals or programs are put together out of the sunshine. Some of this is required to an extent so Metro can quietly court a corporate relocation or economic investment, however other things we can all think of are done without transparency in mind. Openness and transparency require purposeful effort by Metro’s elected leaders to ingrain it into Metro government’s culture. How things are done matters. Process matters. Openness and transparency lead to more people getting more information, more people providing more feedback, more people with more buy-in, and ultimately a better Metro government made better by more people being involved.
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I could go on, but I’ll summarize that more has to done to make the Metro Council work its best to represent Nashville, to empower council members to help do their jobs, and to collectively keep moving Nashville forward in the way most in our city wants while lifting up those who we haven’t done enough for. To do this, the next vice mayor has to take a very proactive approach to making the Metro Council and Metro government work better to represent the city of Nashville, for each council member and their constituents, and for proper and thorough management and oversight of Metro government. A good vice mayor must be willing to work with everyone, bring people together, and know the right balance of when to get involved on an issue and when to let things play out. There are times to lead from the front, the back, or in the middle of the pack. It’s a tough position that must affect change without the ability to sponsor legislation or even vote on it (except in the case of a tie).

Some may argue the next vice mayor needs to be a countywide elected official with “an established countywide perspective to help guide the Council and the city through these chaotic times.” Looking at all of Nashville is certainly important and vital, however, Metro government and Nashville would be also be well-served by a vice mayor that will significantly improve the big and small things of the body he or she will preside over. There are thirty-five district council members that are in tune daily with Nashvillians. When council members are empowered individually and collectively as a body, the overall governance of Metro government is greatly improved. When it’s easier for a council member to do the small parts of their job, it’s easier for them to tackle the bigger parts of the job. As I saw in my time at the state legislature, with the speaker of the house similar to vice mayor, the presiding officer can do a lot to make the small things just work so the body can best deal with the big things. I hope the next vice mayor has policy positions I agree with, but almost equally important I want him or her to make the Metro Council and Metro government just work better. It’s important for council members, but most importantly it’s to the benefit all of Nashville and its citizens when the city’s legislative body works its best.

While thinking about whether to run for vice mayor, I brainstormed a few ideas. In the coming weeks, likely after the city’s budget is acted on, I’ll be seeing how to implement the following ideas, most of which will require legislation through the Metro Council:

– Require anyone appearing before the Metro Council and any other Metro board or commission to disclose who their client is and/or who is paying them to appear on their behalf.

– Require those asking for property to be rezoned to provide proof to the Metro Council and other boards and commissions of the outreach they have done to the community, including the community meetings held.

– Create a subcommittee of Metro Council Rules Committee that is able to more closely evaluate the nominees of the most important boards and commissions such as the Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals, etc. This subcommittee can make recommendations to the full Rules Committee after they examine the voting records of current members up for reappointment. I’m not sure if this would have to be done my vice mayoral appointment or through the Metro Council rules.

– Create an Ad Hoc Transit Committee to determine a possible way forward on improving transit. The committee would be co-chaired by two council members, one that supported the May 1 referendum and another that opposed it. Both would desirous of working toward a new transit plan, if feasible. Members of the committee would be council members, Metro employees, experts, community members, leaders of the most impacted interest groups, and members of the general public. By mid-September, anyone wanting to be on the committee would apply to be appointed, with the mayor and vice mayor appointing an equal number of committee members. I know of two council members that would be great co-chairs.

The position I hold as a Metro councilman is an honor and a privilege, and I’m lucky and blessed to have it. Going forward, today and every day, I’m going to keep representing my district to the best of my ability, and I’ll keep fighting to make Metro government work better for everyone in Nashville. I welcome any ideas you might have to do that.