Nashville Mayor David Briley wants to make the case to voters that he navigated the city through a turbulent year and that he has fresh ideas for what he would do in a full term in office.
That’s part of the message that Briley shared in an in-depth interview with WPLN. A series of stories will publish this week on the four leading candidates.
Briley vaulted into the mayor’s office following the sudden resignation of his popular predecessor, Megan Barry. Then Briley won a special election last May to finish the term.
His time in many ways has been a transition. He’s overseeing the completion of projects started by other mayors — from the new MLS soccer stadium to the family justice center.
But Briley says he is charting his own path in the city where he grew up. He is the first city native in the mayor’s office in a quarter-century. And his grandfather was Metro’s first mayor after consolidation.
Since returning to town 20 years ago, Briley has served 8 years as a councilman and as vice mayor. Professionally, he’s a civil attorney. He is married to criminal defense lawyer Jodie Bell, and they have a teen son.
“The vision that we need for the city going forward is one where we do continue to bring new jobs to Nashville, because it’s an important part of being a prosperous place — giving everybody a chance to find a pathway to prosperity in the coming years,” Briley said. “But I think we do have to balance it.”
What follows is an edited version of a 28-minute conversation.
What would the Briley administration be — how would that be similar or different from what we’ve seen the last few years?
“What my administration is going to be about is about acknowledging that we’ve made investments in our city and taking advantage of those when it comes to the future of the city,” Briley said.
He points to the newly negotiated contract with the Predators franchise that governs Bridgestone Arena. After a decade of Metro subsidizing it with millions of dollars per year, the new deal ends those payments.
Briley says his team is pursuing an “unprecedented” spending level on affordable housing, and putting more money toward the Nashville GRAD scholarship program for local students attending local community colleges.
“I look at the prosperity the city is having at this moment as both a challenge and an opportunity. And we will have plenty of opportunities from this moment of prosperity to make lives in Nashville better,” Briley said.
Talk about your platform and your priorities.
“It’s clear to me from my exposure to Metro, and just following the city and being engaged with government for … more than 20 years now, that public education and improving the quality of public education in Nashville is critical to the community’s success,” Briley said.
Briley points to education, transportation, affordable housing and neighborhood quality of life as his priority issues.
“I think folks are nervous — myself included — that the pace of growth is not consistent with maintaining the high quality of life we have,” Briley said. “So … we’re planting a lot of trees. It’s investing more in traffic calming … it means investing in transit and transportation. It means doing things like investing in the Morris Memorial Building which is a historic structure downtown that’s under the threat of destruction…
“It’s complicated. It’s not easy work. I think those days are over for the city. I think we have hard work ahead of us to maintain the quality of life,” Briley said. “But I’ve demonstrated the leadership necessary and the vision necessary to move our city forward over the last year.”
For Metro Schools, what would the mayor do in the future that’s not being done now?
“I know when it comes to the day-to-day operation of a big, billion-dollar enterprise we are not up to par,” he said.
Briley contrasts himself with past mayors when it comes to Metro Schools. He’s openly concerned and seeking more involvement. A memorandum of understanding is being negotiated with the district to increase the role of his office.
“One of the reasons that the mayor has to do it right now is because there is such low confidence in the Board of Ed … the mayor has to convince the city that additional investments are necessary and will be we’ll be fruitful.”
Briley worries about the district’s HR department, its management of facilities and a lack of adherence to legal obligations.
He also points out that the district’s budget request include a 10% pay raise for teachers, but no additional funding to make up for state losses going toward Nashville’s struggling priority schools.
“To me, that underscores that the board needs help in terms of coming up with a programmatic way to address all of the issues,” Briley said.
Metro finances have been a key challenge. Is this the kind of budget we should expect every year?
“When I walked into the mayor's office I inherited a budget situation that was … difficult,” Briley said. “And it was difficult because frankly some mistakes had been made and said in terms of setting the tax rate and some assumptions about expenditures that the city was going to have.”
Briley notes that Metro has very little revenue growth a year ago, “associated primarily with the tax rate having been set at the wrong level.”
“This year we have revenue growth … $100 million dollars more or less in revenue growth. ... We’ll continue to have revenue growth. One indicator of that is that in the first quarter of this year we issued about $1.4 billion worth of building permits.”
He says that Metro needed to manage through last year’s budget shortfall. In a decisive (and controversial) moment, Briley asked city departments to slash spending and he cancelled raises for city employees.
He chose not to pull the other lever, of raising taxes.
“We didn't just precipitously raise tax rates. I think people had a legitimate question of like, ‘OK, we’ve got 20 whatever cranes going up and we’re growing like crazy, why don't we have enough money?’ And I think it would have been a fundamental mistake for the city in both the short and long-term just to raise revenue just to meet a short-term issue without identifying the programmatic changes that would be coming with the with the increased revenue.”
This path has not been easy. Several council members and the local unions for police, firefighters and city employees are still pushing for an increased property tax.
“We’re not raising the tax rate this year … and we'll just have to wait and see what the what the revenue growth looks like next year and I’ll do my absolute best to make sure that we can continue to do what’s important as a city — and that’s invest in education and transit and transportation and infrastructure and housing without raising the rate.”
What do you like about being mayor of Nashville?
“I love the whole job. And I have never had as good a job as this and it’s never been more fun to go to work than it is to go and be the mayor of Nashville,” Briley said. “But the best thing that you do as mayor, for me at least, is to go to a classroom of elementary school students and to see the faces of those young folks who … are full of potential and optimism and ambition and to think, ‘Wow, I am in a position to try and help them do better.’”
On the flipside, what is the part that you’re least comfortable in?
“What I was most surprised about was the number of times in a day that I would have to speak publicly … so there was a steep learning curve for me in terms of getting out there and getting more comfortable on my feet and more comfortable with the grind of public speaking,” Briley said.
“What I like doing the least is asking people to be patient, because I think we all clearly identify things where we could be doing better. And sometimes it takes us a little while to get a good plan in place and the resources necessary to implement the plan dedicated, and so too often I feel like I’m asking folks to be patient.”
Editor's note: WPLN is conducting in-depth interviews with candidates who meet at least one of the following criteria: hold or have held an elected office; raised at least $25,000; or have the support of at least 10% of voters in a credible, scientific poll.