Month: August 2017

Recovery Court Audit

The General Sessions Recovery Court was audited in the aftermath of former Judge Casey Moreland’s indictment. As a member of the Metro Audit Committee, I received the audit report when it was issued last Friday. It usually takes several days for Metro to get it posted online. As of this afternoon, it wasn’t posted yet…so I am posting it here.

Among other things, the report found that the Recovery Court paid some travel expense for the staff of non-Metropolitan Nashville Government entities. The report says: “Specifically, airline fares for employees of the Davison County Drug Court Foundation were paid for by the General Sessions Recovery Court. The Davidson County Drug Court Foundation subsequently reimbursed $1,780 to the Metropolitan Nashville Government for these expenditures.” Another $8,868 was not reimbursed until recently.

I have asked Metro Audit if they have a schedule of the names of the people for whom travel was paid, the company/entity with which they were affiliated, the destination, and the dates of travel. Metro Audit is checking with Metro Legal to see if those work papers may be released. I think it is important for Metro to continue to take a lead role in shining a light on how these funds were used, and how the Davidson County Drug Court Foundation interacted financially with the General Sessions Recovery Court while under the watch of Judge Moreland.

Tried to condemn white supremacy this evening…

After the events in Charlottesville over the weekend, I submitted a late-filed resolution condemning white supremacy.  You can see it here.  Multiple additional Council members signed on as co-sponsors.

Under our Council rules, because it was late-filed, I had to move to suspend our rules in order to consider the resolution tonight.  Under the rules, if two members object, the rules cannot be suspended.

When I moved to suspend the rules, Council members Pardue and Vercher objected. So the Council could not consider the resolution tonight. Immediately after this, two other late-filed resolutions were considered — including one to honor the birthday of Jerry Lee Lewis. Both of these other late-filed resolutions were allowed to proceed and they were passed by the Council.

I plan to file the resolution for consideration at our next meeting. I am not going to let this just go away. It is too important.

 

UPDATE (August 24, 2017):

34 of 39 Council members have come together to denounce white supremacy. We issued a press release today, and a matching resolution will be on our September 5 agenda.

 

After Charlottesville…

Words are failing me after Charlottesville. There are too many emotions and thoughts to make sense of. I know this post doesn’t cover it all, but this is where I am today…

A core American strength is our marketplace of ideas. A robust freedom of expression allows room for passionate, open debate with the best ideas rising to the top. A core American weakness is our long history of racism and slavery. The founders of our country couldn’t resolve the tension between these and had to settle on the three-fifths compromise where enslaved people were only counted as three-fifths of a non-enslaved person. Eighty years after that, we fought the Civil War, with the Civil Rights Movement coming another century later. Is America cleansed of our original sin — our history of racism?

The answer is no, and we didn’t need the weekend’s violence in Charlottesville to prove it. Racism and so-called “white supremacy” persist. It is reprehensible. It is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

I remain optimistic, however. Society continues to make progress, even if it is painfully slow. I believe that it is America’s strength — a robust freedom of expression — that keeps the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice for all.

I am bothered by the idea threaded into some of the coverage on the violence in Charlottesville that this is a problem that happened somewhere else. We should be careful with that. Nationalism tinged with racism, and a willingness to overtly threaten people, exists here in Tennessee too.

When I was pursuing immigration-related legislation in June, I experienced some hate firsthand. I decided to not talk publicly about the level of hate then because the legislation wasn’t about me. But I think I should share my experience now.

I received one clear death threat that included my home address, one more generalized threat about having a target on my back, and lots of emails from angry people talking about their rights as citizens and how they think I am a traitor. I know that an immigrant-rights advocate also received a death threat while the bill was pending. In July, I also had someone throw a brick through my office window.  To sleep comfortably without worrying about loved ones and co-workers has required concluding that the email senders would not act on their threats, and that the brick thrower was a random vandal.

To be clear, I am not complaining. I signed up to be a public figure. I choose to take positions that I know make some people angry. I choose to keep talking and acting after receiving these few threats. None of this is noteworthy compared to the daily struggle by minority groups in America who live their lives being the “other,” and having to fight, scratch, and claw for success.

In our modern American society, racism and bigotry continue to roil. Issues like poverty, housing segregation, and policing bubble and churn on or just below the surface of our culture. Just a few weeks ago, I wanted to view the few threats I and others experienced as exceptions and not noteworthy. Now I see them as twitching on a seismograph; a warning of what might be coming. Was Charlottesville the eruption, or just a bigger bounce on the seismograph? Will there be a bigger eruption, or will we find our way again and force that arc to keep bending toward justice.

I can’t know for sure. But my faith is in America. My faith is in our freedom of expression, and in our belief that all people are created equal. In all of our major faith traditions, faith without action is meaningless. The same goes for our great American experiment. Each in our own ways, we must act in support of our faith in America. When we exercise our rights, knowledge and ideas and debate beat hate.

 

 

Soccer Stadium

Over the next six months, the Council will be asked to take positions on several important issues. Before these debates come to a head, I want to share my current thoughts about each of them. This post is about the potential soccer stadium. I have also posted separately about the possibility of a transit referendum and the commercial development proposed for Ft. Negley Park.

Here’s what I think I know (all based on second or third hand information I have heard):

  • I think the proposal will be to build the stadium on the hill at the Fairgrounds where most of current buildings are. I think it will have one or two restaurants and build in some conference and office space (that would presumably be operated by the Fairgrounds Board??).
  • I think the MLS bid team would like Vanderbilt to play its football games there. That implies a stadium with seating for at least 35,000 to 40,000. And the project cost amounts I hear range from $150 to 200 million. I hear that Vanderbilt hasn’t decided yet what to do, but I am not confident about that one way or another. If Vanderbilt declines, I assume the stadium will be smaller and I don’t know what that would do to the price.

Here’s what I don’t know:

  • What is the total expected price tag? Does the stated price include any expected infrastructure, parks, greenways, or other improvements that might get folded into the project?
  • How much will Metro pay?
  • When there are overruns (like with the Sounds stadium and most large projects), who will pay for the overruns?
  • What is the source of funding for the Metro part?  In the budget process a few months ago, this project was listed to be supported with revenue bonds. In turn, this suggests using sales tax revenue from tickets and stadium concession sales to pay for Metro’s portion of the cost. The details will matter, but this revenue seems like it might not be enough to pay the cost of the debt. If not, what will the annual losses be, and how will we pay for that?
  • How are nearby neighborhood groups going to interact with the stadium for parking and noise, especially for night games.

My position on Metro contributing to build a soccer stadium will depend largely on the economics of the deal.

Transit Referendum

Over the next six months, the Council will be asked to take positions on several important issues. Before these debates come to a head, I want to share my current thoughts about each of them. This post is about the potential transit referendum. I have also posted separately about the possibility of a soccer stadium and the commercial development proposed for Ft. Negley Park.

Here’s what I think I know:

  • The Mayor has proposed a Gallatin Pike light rail line into downtown.
  • There is talk around the courthouse of a referendum to approve a dedicated funding source for transit-related development and infrastructure as early as the May 1, 2018, local primary election.  That is less than 9 months from now.
  • Any referendum would need to be approved by the Council before going on the ballot. I don’t know what the exact deadline is for getting Council approval, but there is talk around the courthouse that the Council decision could be as late as January 2018 for a May referendum. It is really up the administration to decide when they want to present this to the Council.  I have assumed that the administration will seek approval for funding a soccer stadium before approaching us about the transit referendum…but that’s just a guess.
  • Elements of the business community are organizing a group to lobby the Nashville community to vote yes on the referendum.  I don’t know exactly who is involved, but I hear that the organized private effort to support the referendum will launch after Labor Day. And I imagine there will be an organized campaign against the referendum, but I don’t have any visibility into those efforts.

Here’s what I don’t know:

  • What tax, and in what amount, will be proposed? I am also curious to see exactly which Metro agency will be proposed to spend the money, and to approve specific plans.
  • How will a Gallatin Pike rail line cross the Cumberland River? The word I hear is that it will be on the center, reversible lane on the James Robertson Bridge.  But that’s rumor as far as I can tell.
  • Where will the rail line drop riders off  downtown? Again according to rumor, it will be somewhere on the north side of downtown, but not at the existing MTA bus station.
  • How will riders get around downtown? This is important to me. I would argue that the lack of a circulation system with dedicated lanes for people to get around downtown is what holds back the Music City Star ridership. This is a tough problem because our streets are so narrow downtown. But to me, this issue isn’t going away. No matter how many train lines we run into downtown, if people have to walk a half mile up hill in the heat or the cold, I think we’ll have ridership problems. I am hoping that this first rail line proposes something bold about how to get people around downtown better.  (And for the love of all that is good in the world, don’t say ‘golf carts.’)
  • There is a golden rule with transit systems — the bigger they are, the more money they lose. Sometimes people shy away from saying that. I’m not one of those people. The transit system itself will always lose money and the bigger it gets, the more it will lose. The question is about what other gains will be realized. What level of property tax increases are expected around new train stations, for example? Someone needs to model out what the expected losses will be from our new bigger transit system, talk about how to fund these increased operating losses, and predict what the related revenue gains will be.

I am supportive of building a better transit system. I will need to get reasonably good answers to these questions in order to support putting a transit referendum on the ballot.

Ft. Negley Park (aka “the post you can’t even name without taking sides”)

Over the next six months, the Council will be asked to take positions on several important issues. Before these debates come to a head, I want to share my current thoughts about each of them. This post is about the commercial development proposed for Ft. Negley Park. I have also posted separately about the possibility of a soccer stadium and a transit referendum.

There is ongoing debate about what should happen with Greer Stadium. This is one of those debates where no side is willing to even agree to the language used to describe the problem.

Saying “Ft. Negley Park” instantly suggests that you are opposed to any commercial development on the site of Greer Stadium, which is physically located in Ft. Negley Park. Or, it at least says that you don’t want development to happen as currently proposed.

Using “St. Cloud Hill” or more frequently “Cloud Hill” instantly says you are refusing to use the word “Negley” in an effort to deflect from the historical significance of the fort on top of the hill and/or the encampments and potential graves on the southerly slopes of the hill.

I am using “Ft. Negley Park” because I had to choose one. And, that is the name of the property. And, I do oppose the development happening as proposed.

I have looked at period drawings and photos. I have looked at topographical maps of the hill and surrounding slopes. It seems clear to me that one of two things is true — either the remains of a Civil War-era African American encampment and possibly graves are under some portion of the stadium and its parking lots, or those remains were removed when the stadium and parking lots were first built.

I think figuring this out is too historically and culturally sensitive to outsource. Metro should do the archeology itself to figure out what physical or human remains exist before signing any contracts for what happens with this site.

I am not dead set against any development on the site. It has after all already been a baseball stadium for decades. However, Nashville deserves a clear, complete answer about what is on the site before making any decisions about a planned 99 year lease.

Finally, for your information, here is the letter the five At-Large Council members sent to the Mayor about this issue last month. And here is her response to us.

Knowles Assisted Living Facility Audit

On July 18, 2017, Metro’s Internal Audit department published its report about the Bordeaux LongTerm Care and J. B. Knowles Assisted Living facilities. The audit covered the period after Metro privatized day-to-day operations of these facilities. In 2013, the management of the Knowles facility was taken over by a private operator, Autumn Assisted Living Partners, Inc.  In January 2017, Metro removed Autumn due to poor performance and its inability to pay the operating expenses or maintain the facility. Several Council members asked Metro Internal Audit to examine what happened.

You can see the full report here.

It is worth reading, but the important takeaways are:

  • Internal Audit forwarded the report to the DA and to the State Comptroller. I’ve been on the Metro Audit Committee for almost two years and this is the first referral like this that I recall.
  • The report summarizes: “Management of Autumn Assisted Living Partners, Inc. mismanaged the fiscal affairs of the former J. B. Knowles Assisted Living facility. Vendors were not paid timely, financial reports were not prepared, resident trust fund accounts were not maintained, and corporate and 1099 tax returns were not filed.”
  • The summary continues: “Contract performance oversight was lacking by the Metropolitan Nashville Hospital Authority and Metropolitan Nashville Government.”

I think it was a reasonable decision to privatize the day-to-day management of these facilities, but the execution went really, really badly for the Knowles facility. The private operator wasn’t up to the task, and Metro didn’t maintain enough oversight.

I have no idea whether the poor management by Autumn rises to the level of criminal activity. But it is noteworthy that the Metro Auditor Mark Swann felt required to provide a copy of the report to the DA and to the Comptroller. Regardless of how this shakes out, Metro must do better if it is going to outsource a job that impacts the health and lives of our citizens.

“City Heights”

There was an article today in the Tennessean about gentrification inside of 440 and north of Charlotte.  The addresses in the article are a few minutes walk from Swett’s and barely a mile from Meharry and Nashville General Hospital.

I have written before about the hospital. From the perspective of my day job as a lawyer where I often help companies and non-profits work their way through financial distress, I have long-thought there are three basic possible solutions for the hospital’s financial problems — go big, go home, or kick the can down the road.  For at least a decade, Nashville has chosen to “kick the can down the road” by chronically under-capitalizing the hospital both for day-to-day operations and long-term improvements. The “go home” solution would be to close the hospital. I’m definitely not arguing for that; I’m just saying that’s what the “go home” solution would be.

The “go big” solution, in my mind, would be to team up with Meharry and leverage the inevitable development coming out along Charlotte from one direction and out Jefferson from Germantown from another direction.

The collective needs (NOT in order of importance) as I see them include: helping to preserve the cultural importance of Meharry and it medical school for Nashville, the practical need for Meharry to have a teaching hospital, honoring and respecting the unique historical importance of North Nashville as an African American community, the need to act now to make sure that current residents can afford to stay in the neighborhood as the inevitable development gets closer, and help find a way to put a cap on Metro’s annual investment in the hospital.

If Nashville goes forward with no meaningful plan in place for the area, the neighborhoods surrounding Meharry and Fisk will gentrify. And I mean “gentrify” in the worst sense of the word. A grievous sin was committed against North Nashville when the interstate cut the Jefferson Street corridor in half. I think there is a moral obligation for Nashville to preserve this historically African American neighborhood.

So what would the “go big” solution actually look like? First, I think Meharry (and Fisk) need to be put in a position to get as much benefit as possible from the coming increase in real estate values. Maybe this means a redevelopment district and tax increment financing around the universities. If done right, the hospital would become better and more competitive. That would shore up Meharry’s long term need for a teaching hospital. The objective would be to help Meharry capture some of the economic value of its neighborhood the way Vanderbilt does the same in its neighborhood.

The “go big” solution also would certainly mean comprehensively canvasing the area and having a rock solid commitment to making sure that every version of the future has as much or more “workforce” and “affordable” housing as there is now. The area is already getting more diverse (i.e., less African American). There has to be a firm commitment to maintaining or better yet growing the African American population in the area. Neighbors who live there now deserve the opportunity to stay, and have their families stay, there for the very long term.

Some will say that I am dreaming an impossible dream. But here’s the deal — right now, the market is transforming the Charlotte corridor out to 440. It is happening before our eyes. The time to help Meharry, help the hospital, preserve North Nashville’s African American heritage, and protect the ability of long-time to residents stay in their neighborhood is now.