Wednesday, December 04, 2013

My post-game wrap on the Sulphur Dell second reading

Emotions were certainly running high at last night's Metro Council public hearing on the Mayor's deal cut with the state and two developers, including the wealthy owner of the Nashville Sounds. If you had asked me beforehand where I thought the emotional outpouring would have come I would have bet my entire concession-stand outlay--including my beer money--that it would have been from the gallery, not from the floor of the council itself.

But the fireworks that have gone off during some public hearings--like those that ignited during the debate over the state fairgrounds plan a few years ago--never appeared from the gallery. Most of those who spoke on the question spoke in favor of the ballpark, but most of those seemed to be business interests that the Mayor's Office would have encouraged to come out. Only two association representatives (Buena Vista and Hope Gardens) from the affected neighborhoods spoke in favor. I did not see anyone from either Germantown or Salemtown associations at the podium.

CM Jerry Maynard previously characterized supporters of Sulphur Dell as a movement, which sounds dramatically populist. But where were they all on the most important night that citizens could theoretically have influence in speaking out? The booster group Friends of Sulphur Dell seems more like a gaggle of Facebook friends linking news stories than it does a movement organized for social change, but I was shocked that they did not pack the gallery with their red shirts. I saw a couple of rows of them toward the back, but even fewer at the podium. I kept waiting for dozens of them to start streaming in through the council doors from the mezzanine after Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors invited them to speak, but they never showed.

I fully expected that those speaking against the ballpark bill would be disorganized and ragtag, and not because people did not have questions about the development. Few showed up to speak against the ballpark. My expectations were already low because Mayor Karl Dean strategically pulled off a coup. For years he downplayed his support of Sulphur Dell, and he deked a couple of reporters, who wrote serious stories on Friends of Sulphur Dell. He kept his powder dry for the big push against the community planning process by announcing the ballpark plan with Thanksgiving approaching and demanding that his council stewards shrink the approval process. The genius of this was that any organized opposition, like that he faced on the Fairgrounds, had no chance to get on its feet. It was a brilliant tactical move that assured that anyone with questions or criticism would be picked off base before they had a chance to steal the deal. Opponents never stood a chance.

Red-shirt October
But the timeline and the relative obscurity of the process also may have kept authentic proponents at home, if there are really a large number of proponents out there. I do not believe there are. I'm still convinced that the "movement" under the Sulphur Dell bill is more astroturf than grassroots, and the fact that the red shirts did not show up en mass seems a huge blow to any pretension that the ballpark is a popular cause right now. I understand why run-of-the-mill supporters might not have known about the public hearing in time to respond, but when the red-shirts did not show up in droves it represented a late inning whiff as some council members at least needed the cover of community support even though the Mayor does not.

So, the public hearing portion was not nearly as momentous as it could have been for the Sulphur Dell bill. The real fireworks, the raw emotion was expressed by bill supporters who did not seem convinced during most of the post-hearing debate that they had the votes to pass the Mayor's plan. In fact they seemed desperate in lashing out and lecturing other council members about how they should vote on a concept, a proposition that they treated as fait accompli.

The first CM to make an appeal to emotion was Ronnie Steine, who characterized any legislative regulation of mixed-use ballpark development as a betrayal of trust and a "slap at integrity" (I tend to take Steine's habitual moralistic lectures to the council with a grain of salt given that he was caught stealing and lying in 2002 while Vice Mayor). Apparently, the CM did not get the memo that this is a dispassionate business agreement between competing interests. Some of those interests are the affected communities themselves who do not enjoy the privilege of sitting at the negotiating table when the Mayor, the State, the Sounds, and the developers meet. We rely on the council to represent us. Apparently, CM Steine would rather represent the Nashville Sounds, whom he also seemed to defend as having the right to cash in on past philanthropy in Nashville by getting a ballpark from Metro at minimal risk. Maybe charity is not its own reward after all.

There was also melodramatic CM Jerry Maynard, who claimed not to be resorting to hyperbole when he resorted to hyperbole: any attempt to regulate or otherwise mitigate the risk of a massive transfer of public wealth to private developers would "kill the deal" for a new ballpark. Not necessarily known for keeping a poker face or staying stoic in tense situations, CM Maynard not only appealed to fear and panic, but he practically tipped developers to our signs. Much of baseball is built on deception. CM Maynard showed no grasp of that fact. We rely on CMs to stand up for us, to represent us in these negotiating process. He totally abdicated to developers, who had to be very pleased with his frantic performance. What is worse, he insinuated that the role of the council is simply to rubber stamp the Mayor's decisions without any recourse to the community's informed consent. Why did we elect him if he is simply going to be a bat boy for the Mayor's Office?

CM Erica Gilmore seemed visibly shaken by finance questions on the council, and she lashed out at those who loved baseball, but who questioned the terms of the development outside the ballpark. She called their love of baseball "a strange kind of love". Oddly enough not a week ago at the community meeting CM Gilmore organized, I listened to Rich Riebeling say that the question of a ballpark should be kept separate from the question of ownership's stake in the development outside the ballpark. But last night she lumped baseball with everything else in the plan. And after losing her composure, CM Gilmore said that she had never brought up fiduciary responsibility or questioned the use of taxpayer money on past projects. Is that supposed to be a badge of honor or a moment of candor where she let slip that service on the council is more about trading favors and abdicating oversight of our resources than it is representing constituents?

One of the most effective agents in major league baseball is Scott Boras. He plays the long game, getting the most return for the players he represents against baseball owners who are wealthy enough to pay just about anything to anyone. The citizens of Nashville needed a few Scott Borases on the council to represent us in this decision. We needed CMs who would stick negotiations out, call ownership and mayoral bluffs, test how far to go in order to get the best finance deal from the Sounds (whose decisions at this point are down to Sulphur Dell and nothing else short of packing up and finding another city waiting around to hand them a ballpark). These CMs did not serve us well by gushing about how the Sounds are like loved vital family members we could not lose.

That is no way to do business. And it's not good baseball.

None of these council supporters of the Mayor's plan put forth any effort to be a Boras-style negotiator for us. They impulsively bashed those who did not simply go along and they ushered developers to a sense of relief that they would dominate this deal. And this deal, which only requires one more council reading, is utter domination without any protections for the community.

Here is the video from yesterday's entire council business meeting (public hearing on the Phillips-Jackson/ballpark bill starts after 41:00):

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