It caught us by surprise: from Megan Barry’s resignation to a new mayor and a new election date, then an EVEN NEWER election date, which will arrive just a few weeks after a major vote on whether Nashville wants a real mass transit system.
Shortly after the State Supreme Court ruled that we had to have the mayoral election sometime in late May, Mayor David Briley agreed to sit down with O&AN to talk about the future of Nashville and its LGBT community.
So, were you expecting the Supreme Court ruling about the election (being held in May?)
I had not really thought about that much. I have really been just focused on just doing the job and I have to file a public budget soon. We have to file this budget by May 1st and it looks like we will have a public election soon after that. So, I'm going to wrap my head around the election afterward so I can finish the work that I started.
What has it been like for you the last two or three weeks? You look really tired…
I'm a little bit tired today, more so than normal. I did not get home until really late and I got to bed a couple hours later than my normal. It has been incredibly busy. There is a lot to be done. With the transition…a lot of people have been coming to talk to me, so I stay very busy.
You have been called Nashville's first accidental mayor. Do you really want this job?
Well, I guess I'm accidental in a certain sense…I have run for mayor before, a little bit more than 10 years ago, so I have wanted to be mayor previously. When you run for vice mayor, there is always the possibility you could be mayor. Being called “The Accidental Mayor” is a good headline, but I don't quite agree with that. I have always wanted to be mayor.
So why should Nashville's LGBTQ+ community vote for you?
I think the LGBTQ+ community is focused on the same things that most Nashvillians are focused upon. They want a high quality of life, good public education, a safe city to live in, a good economy… generally, I do not look at the LGBTQ+ community any differently as I look at other Nashville communities. Most people basically want the same things. I plan to focus on these core issues and I have the experience to do this. We need continuity right now and that would be my starting point.
But I do know that there are some issues that are close to the LGBTQ+ community. I have always been a supporter going back to my days as a member of the Metro Council. I think I am sensitive to the needs of the LGBTQ+ community and focused on issues of equality in general. It is important for our city to maximize everyone's potential. The way to do that is to provide a fair playing field focusing on access to economic and educational opportunity for everyone. I think that is why over the years I have earned a reputation for being a supporter of equality for all Nashvillians.
Have you ever taken heat for being an open supporter of the LGBTQ+ community?
Not really. I have found in my experience that business leaders especially tend to be very progressive about LGBTQ+ issues. The bigger the business, the more progressive they tend to be. Businesses that operate in a more national or international sense are much more forward-thinking about this community especially.
What about City officials?
No…not really. When we voted on a non-discrimination ordinance in Nashville fifteen years ago, there was more hand-wringing and opposition to the LGBTQ+ community back then. I would say most of that faded away after the ordinance passed. It sort of put a period at the end of that sentence and Nashville, for the most part, has moved on.
What will you do to secure the civil rights of LGBTQ+ Nashvillians?
I will do whatever it takes to protect LGBTQ+ rights. I have worked with the city's lobbyists and we have already had an opportunity to weigh in on that so-called bathroom bill that was up again this year to do what was right for our city and it's residents on that.
So what is your personal opinion on so-called bathroom bill legislation?
I'm totally opposed to that. We don't know what something like this is truly about. I’m opposed to anything like that from a moral perspective and it's also very bad for business on top of that.
What you just told me about securing LGBTQ+ rights…does that also apply to LGBTQ+ kids in Metro schools? Will you support the right of LGBTQ+ teens to live their truth and access proper facilities for the sexual orientation and true gender that they know themselves to be?
Yes. I think it is very important for the public education system to find ways to affirm who they are and help them to reach their fullest potential. I have kids too. It's something I think about a lot. I think it's important to encourage our kids to be the people who they know themselves to be. All teenagers struggle with who they are at this age. We need to be sensitive to that.
Nashville already has anti-discrimination laws on the books covering sexual orientation and gender identity in public employment. Should this apply to the private sector?
Unfortunately, it cannot because of state law. Ultimately that is where our country is headed however. The federal government, and not the state, will be the ones most likely to lead on legislation that would cover this. It is the safe to say that I will be an advocate though.
Nashville's homeless population has a shockingly high number of teenagers living on the streets. Many of whom are there because they are openly LGBTQ+ and have been turned out of their homes. What will you do to help this population as mayor?
I'm committed to do as much as we possibly can within our financial means to build more housing for the homeless, and to build more affordable housing in general. Hopefully, in the next coming days, we are going to announce a project that will create one hundred units of permanent housing for the homeless with support services as well. I think that just building housing on its own would not be sufficient because I think that those are kids who have obviously been traumatized. When the people who are supposed to love them unconditionally perhaps has not, resulting in their homelessness, I think we have to be very intentional about that housing coming with support services. I think that's also a place where you have to work with the private not-for-profit sector to build that kind of stuff. I know that there are Metro agencies already working on that.
The housing project that you just told me about. Is this going to be a one-time thing or an ongoing project?
The city in recent years has dedicated about ten million dollars a year… that helps with some stuff. They also did a twenty-five million dollar bond issue that will be used for the project I was talking about. Over time, we will be able to go back and do that more often as more money becomes available to make these types of commitments for the homeless in particular. The folks who are on the very bottom of the spectrum economically…that housing really has to be built by the city. There is no way realistically to get a developer to do it. And we can do this in partnership with some not-for-profits, but we are going to have to dedicate more resources for that.
The city of Chattanooga recently passed an ordinance restricting homeless people from soliciting on public thoroughfares. Should Nashville consider such an ordinance?
We know that you are your own person, however many in the LGBTQ+ community especially loved Mayor Barry. What will you do to keep Barry's progressive legacy going as mayor?
Well, Mayor Barry and I agreed on a fair number of things. I can't say that we agreed on everything, but I think that I have a progressive reputation as well. So I will stay focused on that and make sure we keep making progress for everybody in town…especially on issues like transit, housing affordability and equality in general. From an economic point of view, I know that people are being left behind as we grow so quickly, so we will be focusing on that issue pretty closely.
Is there anything Mayor Barry advocated that you would like to take a new look at?
Well, I think people know that I wasn't completely aligned with her on the Metro General Hospital issue. So, I have taken a fresh look at that already. The Fort Negley – Greer Stadium thing…I took a different approach to that too.
What about Metro General Hospital? What do you think is going to happen there?
Well, the first thing to do was to make sure that the hospital was going to stay open with an inpatient facility, which I have already done. We're working on the budget to see how much money this year they will need to do that. It should be less than last year because a big part of that was getting them caught up on some unpaid invoices. Beyond that, I have been in some conversations with them and with Meharry Medical College about trying to use the resources we are sending over there more efficiently, just to make sure we're not spending money there that could be better spent in other ways that could provide access to healthcare for the indigent population.
Nashville's growth has been quite rosy until recently. is the news about a slowdown in growth and a drop in tax revenues something to worry about?
No. The fundamentals are still very strong. The bottom line is we have a very low tax rate on property – the lowest we have ever had. Because of that very low rate, we're just going to have to live within our means with a status quo budget and it is going to put pressure on some departments to look closely at what they are doing and to be creative…to cut costs where they can, but nobody will see a change in the amount of services provided to the community. Most people will not recognize any differences whatsoever, but it is a year where we will have to go back and look closely at everything we are doing to make sure we are spending money as wisely as possible.
Are your budget people telling you what the budget situation might look like two to three years out?
We met earlier this week and talked about this year. The next meeting we will talk about next year and expected revenue. For us, it's not a question of revenue going down it is a question of how much will the revenue go up. We've had a one hundred million and one hundred twenty million dollar increases over the last couple of years in revenue without raising taxes, and so, we will not have that much this year. That's the issue. Next year and the year after are still to be determined, and some of that depends upon the overall economic conditions of the country. We have not had a recession in the last ten years, so we have to be somewhat cautious about projections just because there is a natural risk of (a recession) going forward.
Are you personally concerned about Nashville's bond rating?
I am not concerned about the bond rating right now. I think the bond rating agencies in the past have expressed some concern about a couple of things. One was Metro General Hospital and I am working on that to try and get it resolved favorably for us. The other one is that we have a charter amendment that caps the property tax rate… and the agencies were concerned that we would run up against that cap number and not be able to raise revenues to cover our debts. Well, now we have (a property tax) rate that is the lowest rate ever, so that concern will dissipate. They won't be concerned about our having a prohibition on raising the money necessary to pay the debt service if that comes to pass.
In your opinion, can we compete with Williamson County as a place to do business?
I think the better question is can they compete with us? *Laughs*
What will you do to show businesses and entrepreneurs that they can grow and succeed here?
Well, I don't think I need to harp on this, but the transit issue is a big part of that. When I talk to folks who are considering either expanding or bringing their business to Nashville, one of the big issues we discuss is how are people going to be able to move around? So, that is a big part of entrepreneurial activity in Nashville. Yeah, there has to be high quality of life because you really do need a fun place to live in order for young, smart, ambitious, aggressive people to move here. That's just part of the spirit overall.
Are you willing to Grant tax breaks or other incentives for new businesses to come here?
Under the right circumstances.
How do you feel Metro Police is doing these days?
I think that they are generally doing a fine job. I do think that there are some concerns that need to be addressed, and I think that the police would agree that there are some things they could do better. My perspective on policing generally is that we need to make sure the community has a high level of trust and confidence in the police department and how they are enforcing the law. I see some areas where we could have a better community conversation about that, where there could be a more participatory approach to how we decide to police our city…so I have been talking to both community leaders and the police about how to have that conversation.
Are you in favor of a citizen-led police accountability board?
Well, I think that is part of the conversation. I think we have got to talk through that and reach consensus in the community about what makes sense…what will have the greatest impact on the communities who put their trust in the police and on the police department as well.
Do you have any ideas for how to make housing affordable for Nashvillians priced out of the current market?
Well, on top of what we discussed earlier, the transit-oriented development districts along the projected transit corridors will be an important tool that the city needs. I've been talking to some banks in town about trying to pool money to lend… to sort of double that effort up. I think that promoting density along the transit corridors is going to be an important part of bringing housing prices down. A big part of the inflation in housing costs is just more demand than we have supply, so we just have to find ways to build that out.
This is going to get published after the transit vote. I have to ask…do you have a back-up plan in case the transit vote fails?
*The mayor shakes his head no*
Your grandfather help shape Metro Nashville’s structure. Is there anything you feel we should take a new look at fifty years after Metro Nashville was created? For example, the size of the Metro Council…
Well, I think the people have looked at the Metro Council size over and over and over again…and the voters seem to reject the idea (of shrinking it) every time. So, I'm not interested in looking at that right now. I think that the charter provision related to special elections is confusing and needs to be clarified. The Supreme Court has ruled upon it, but I'm not sure it's necessarily what the people who wrote it back then intended it to do. I'm pretty sure people do not want to be paying for special elections all the time If there is a better way to do it.
So I think it warrants a new look at it just to see if there is a better way to write it so we can avoid any confusion about what it actually means.
Do you like Metro's governing structure that we have now?
I think the system we have now has worked pretty well. I don't see a need to change it radically. I think there might be some tweaking that needs to take place, but I think it's been pretty good for the city. If you look at Nashville economically over the last fifty years compared to other cities in the state or in the region, I think you will see why most people consider Nashville's form of government to be quite successful.
If elected, what will you have want to have accomplished as mayor?
Well, I would like to see our public education system ranked as one of the best systems in the country. I think that is crucially important. I would like to see us have added significantly to our transportation network both in terms of mass transit, greenways, bike lanes, sidewalks…because that will be an indication that we have built out a more healthy, sustainable community. If I could do those two things, that would be plenty!
Do you have a message for LGBTQ+ Nashvillians?
Nashville wouldn't be the place it is…the welcoming, productive, exciting place to live without the LGBTQ+ community. I will do everything within my power to open up doors and make this a great place for all to live.
So, when you showed up at Play for the transit forum last month…was that your first time in a gay bar?
No! *laughs* That was not even my first time at Play…