Was the Joint Statement Real?

When the Mayor and the Sheriff issued their Joint Statement on June 7, 2016, it was immediately before the Council meeting that evening. In the statement, they urged the Council to support both the new downtown jail and the proposed new administrative center for the Sheriff’s Office. Some of the comments I heard from my colleagues that evening and from others since then wondered whether there was a genuine détente between the Mayor and the Sheriff, or if the joint statement was a superficial cover on a still-smoldering dispute.

Since then, I have talked at length with the Sheriff and with Mayor’s office personnel. I wanted to reach my own conclusion about this question. The short answer is that I think there is a new, positive level of communication and cooperation between the Sheriff and the Mayor.

For background, I previously have proposed two amendments to the capital spending plan – one would remove $20 million for the new downtown Criminal Justice Center, and the other would remove $20 million for a new Sheriff’s Office administrative center. I have written about this here, here, and here.

I have said that the goal of my two proposed amendments would be to address the disagreement between Sheriff and the Mayor. I said:

The citizens of Nashville should demand that the Sheriff be on the same page as the Mayor before we spend another $40 million. The citizens of Nashville don’t want to toss a $40 million log onto a blazing political fire; they deserve better. When everyone is on the same page, the money can be appropriated then.

More about my goals

I am not opposed to these two projects. I only am opposed to the projects if they are going to happen in the context of a Sheriff and Mayor who aren’t speaking to one another. I believe that dysfunction would lead to a dysfunctional downtown jail.

My starting place is that Nashville (all of us collectively) botched the process of planning a location for a new jail. How that happened might be worth talking about some other day. But for purposes of building a new jail now, what’s done is done. The only options in the universe are to (a) completely halt the process, wait a few years, and start over again; (b) keep going with the current process and build a new dysfunctional downtown jail; and (c) keep going with the current process and build a new functional downtown jail.

I don’t think completely stopping the process and waiting a few years to reboot the project is doable. I think the current CJC is a potential significant liability risk and needs to be replaced.  That leaves two choices – build a functional downtown jail, or build a dysfunctional downtown jail.

I choose having a functional downtown jail as my first choice. Stopping the process and rebooting it a few years from now would be deeply flawed; but it would be my second choice. A dysfunctional jail build by a dysfunctional team would be the worst choice.

I proposed my capital spending plan amendments to help me figure whether a functional team was possible.

The Sheriff and Mayor’s Office

I met with Sheriff Hall for about 90 minutes on June 10. He knows that I will be writing this blog post. He has given me permission to repeat the things that I am repeating here.

He told me that he had a good meeting with the Mayor and that he felt that they would be able to work together going forward.

Sheriff Hall was clear that he is 100% in favor of building a new jail downtown on the site of the current CJC. I want to be clear, and I think Sheriff does too, that he still thinks that the Southeast location would have been a better choice for all of Nashville. But in his words, he has moved on.

The new downtown building will have a jail and also will contain other non-Sheriff’s Office functions. The design is ongoing and the exact make-up of the non-Sheriff’s Office functions has not been fully decided. Sheriff Hall was clear with me that he and his team are satisfied with the design of the jail portion of the new building – this is what they care most about. He acknowledges that his team remains very interested to know what other functions will be placed by Metro around the jail portion of the new building. He acknowledges that the overall plans, design, parking facilities, and costs are Metro’s responsibilities and obligations, and not the Sheriff’s.

For my goal to make sure that Nashville ends up with a fully functional and suitable downtown jail, the most important thing is that the Sheriff and his team are satisfied with the design of the jail portion of the building. I was also happy to hear that, despite their discomfort with not being able to fully control what other services will occupy the building or the cost or the overall design, Sheriff Hall told me he is confident that the jail will be suitable for Nashville.

We discussed consolidating all of the Sheriff’s Office administrative functions in one place. He told me that he and the Mayor both agreed that there should be a healthy public engagement process. He told me that he will consider any potential location for a new administrative center so long as the distance is not too far from the jails.

In the Tennessean on June 7, I was quoted as saying that I had “been unable to get the same story from both sides on the project’s planning process.” After talking to the Sheriff, I wanted to see if this had changed. I am happy to say that the Mayor’s Office has confirmed what Sheriff Hall shared with me about the jail and the administrative center.

There are many citizens and Councilmembers who have been asking these questions. I give the Mayor and the Sheriff credit for being able to work through their differences for the good of Nashville.

Where to go from here?

The bottom line is that Sheriff Hall is now confident in the design process for the new jail, and both the Mayor’s Office and the Sheriff are on the same page about all of these issues. That is what I needed to know to be in favor of appropriating money in the capital spending plan for the new CJC and for a new Sheriff’s Office administrative center.

The other concern I have is that Metro be transparent about the total project cost for the new downtown jail. This would include the cost of moving prisoners, the cost of beefing up security at facilities that will house prisoners during construction, the costs of renting extra buses during construction, and – well, everything related to the project. Metro Finance has committed to provide that information to the Council.

With the two main players – the Sheriff and the Mayor – and their teams pulling in the same direction, Nashville should get the best jail and administrative center possible. And I appreciate their commitment to add a layer of transparency that will allow everyone to easily understand the total project costs.

I want to add a quick note to my friends who are deeply opposed to these projects and who have lost trust in the process and some of the elected officials involved: My sense is that to push any harder to slow down the jail or the administrative center would create a significant risk of cratering the projects. I just don’t think that would be a good idea given the new level of cooperation. As I mentioned, since the Sheriff and the Mayor are on the same page about jail design issues and the process for the administrative center, and we will all be able to have visibility into the total project costs, then I am going to support the projects. After balancing everything, I think that’s what is best for the city.

 

Bob Mendes

Bob Mendes represents all of Nashville as a Council-At-Large member of Nashville’s Metro Council. He is Chair of the Council’s Charter Revision Committee, a member of the Metropolitan Audit Committee, and a member of the Council’s Budget & Finance Committee, Rules & Confirmations Committee, and Ad Hoc Affordable Housing Committee. Bob also practices business law at Waypoint Law PLLC. Bob’s complete bio is here. You can follow Bob @mendesbob.