Sometimes, a predictable "job interview" question yields interesting answers.
In the third of three questions, WPLN asked the candidates for the at-large Metro Council seats to share a specific example of their past work.
The question stems from observing the Metro Council and how it navigates complicated policy matters, as well as the role of the at-large members, whose positions are designed to represent the entire county (not individual council districts).
For this article, the question was: The Metro Council must deal with complicated policy matters and conflicting opinions. What’s an example from your life of a time you handled a difficult project when people were disagreeing?
Candidate answers follow below in alphabetical order.
I was lead sponsor on a bill to require building projects to provide a safe path of travel for bikes and pedestrians when the construction footprint extended into the existing sidewalk or bike lane. Contractors were resistant to the original version of the bill because it would slow down or add cost to their project. By convening a task group of stake holders from both construction and bike/pedestrian advocates, we were able to modify the bill so that it met the needs of both groups, and now many construction projects have covered walkways included as part of the design.
I was the lead designer for the Howard Office Building, a very complex project with multiple stakeholders and requirements. The client (Metro) told me that we should use the old school building footprint to guide the design of the new building. I felt that it was a bad idea because the site felt as if buildings have been thrown up together randomly and that we should use the opportunity to create a new face for the campus that tied it all together and uncovered the beautiful neo-Gothic building now used by General Services. I made my case to the client and everyone involved and was able to change it to what is there today.
Having previously served two terms in the Metro Council I have experienced many zoning issues and ideas that were not popular. As a district councilmember I always differed to the neighborhood. As an at-large member of the council I will always listen to the people before making a decision before deciding important issues.
Compromise and balance are the keys to making fair policy. I have a background in live music performance. I have worked with some very difficult people, I once had a drummer detoxing involuntarily in the back of my van coming back from a tour that ended in Nevada. That takes real crisis management skills. I love my colleagues, be them club owners, booking agents, musicians and bandmates. The secret is relationships. I built trust with people in that arena by delivering what I promised. In all other areas of life, I have tried to understand the motivations of the parties in need of a compromise and steer the dialogue in that direction. Or take a more active role and engage the parties directly, mediating and offering solutions that satisfy everyone. I am often the person who sees the solution while others are arguing about it and acts on it. I am by no means a perfect practitioner of this, but I believe it takes balance, compromise, and action.
Perfect example was in 1995, when elected as a district member, the first major issue we worked on was deciding if our city would approve and build the football stadium to bring the then Houston Oilers to Nashville. I was supportive of this personally but as an elected official I took the time to meet one on one, with small groups, and fielding phone calls with constituents to get a consensus of how I should vote as their representative. They said, overwhelmingly, yes to the stadium and that's how I voted. Later, there was a referendum for the voters of Davidson County and when you look at how my district voted I knew I had done the right thing. GO TITANS...
In 2008 I was a member of a 10-member committee (Students for Success), which was a part of a 40-member Education Taskforce, impaneled by former Mayor Karl Dean to offer suggestions on how to improve the quality of education in Metro Nashville Public Schools. The committee was comprised of members from various professional backgrounds. All of us brought expertise to the table, but also diverse approaches to problem solving. As a non-profit executive and an educator, I used my problem-solving skills to merge seemingly conflicting ideals into on collective strategy to be submitted to the mayor for public review. The latter is the same approach I will use to negotiate legislation on the 40-member city council. See my interview with The Tennessean https://www.constituentadvocacy.com/meet-rueben-dockery.
In 2009, I was one of the team of attorneys who filed a lawsuit against the state for allowing guns in bars. In my opinion, one of the dumbest laws ever passed. That being said, I am a gun owner. Many of my friends assumed this was a Second Amendment issue, which it clearly was not. I stood up for the safety of restaurant workers (over 85% against guns in bars), while attempting to get cooler heads to prevail as to why this was bad law.
This is almost a daily occurrence as a Metro Council member, it is impossible to just name one.
I presented legislation to change Charlotte Avenue from 12th Avenue to 3rd Avenue to be renamed Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. Boulevard. People disagreed and spoke candidly and in some cases harshly, for doing so. I felt strongly about the legislation, I went to the historic commission, got information and a recommendation, worked with fellow councilmembers, the Metro Council legal staff and made sure that I had facts and data to support the legislation and built a compelling argument on why this legislation needed to be approved. After receiving blessings from citizens in the community and Gov. Bill Haslam, I moved forward and succeeded unanimously. The mayor signed the resolution on the 50thanniversary of Dr. King’s death.
The church where I serve as senior pastor, Fairfield M. B. Church, purchased the building that formerly housed Harper's Restaurant on Historic Jefferson Street and renamed it Kingdom Cafe & Grill. It was a major experience for the church. While it offered economic salvation and helped to grow Jefferson Street, some congregants felt it was a huge endeavor. The purchase has proven to be a great opportunity for the church as a good partner in the community, offering jobs to former incarcerated individuals and a good business.
We juggled attitudes, finances, spirituality and community involvement. We made a leap of faith and it was good for the ministry involving the membership and the community. This ministry provided jobs, economic development, a safe and uplifting place for the community and good food, as well as good fellowship. All this happened because of faith.
My community work with our youth is definitely one of my most difficult projects. Advocating and navigating through the school system with at-risk youth is very complicated. For example, I have a mentee who has an Individualized Education Program (IEP). For her, many school policies have conflicted with her needs. When she got into trouble outside of school, she was automatically expelled and sent to an alternative school … that did not offer extracurricular activities like band and basketball that were helping her with discipline and team-building skills. She ended up in juvenile this summer. … Last summer, she did not have idle time because her teacher and I worked together to secure her a summer job with Opportunity Now. This year, her interview for an Opportunity Now job was … over 30 minutes away … and she has no transportation. I had to explain how little policies tweaks within our Metro departments can help or lead to some children having more unproductive free time.
The way I handle these disagreements are by sharing stories from real life experiences, having one-on-one's, and being a living example of how proper support can transform your life.
Once example of dealing with a complex policy issue has to do with tax increment financing, or TIF. For several years, many in Nashville have disagreed about whether economic development is helping pay for the needs of our growing city. To address this, last September, I wrote and introduced legislation that would require new TIF loans for economic development to not ever use property tax dollars that are intended for our school system. Both the Mayor's office and certain business interests objected to this. However, we agreed to freeze new TIF deals for nine months to explore ways to make TIF work better for Nashville.
This led to the council creating a TIF Study Committee, which I chaired. The committee's report came out in May 2019 and unanimously recommended significant TIF reform, including a more equitable sharing of tax dollars between development loans and the city's needs. Most recently, on July 1, 2019, the ayor announced that several significant TIF loans would be re-worked to provide $7.5 million more for school funding. I was glad to see that what started as a controversial idea last September has now been implemented to provide more funding for our schools.
Having served as president of the Nashville Fire Fighters IAFF local 140, the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association, the Southern Federation of Professional Fire Fighters, the Tennessee AFL-CIO, and served eight years in the Tennessee General Assembly, I have handled many dispute resolutions. If I had to pick one, I would say it would be while serving in the Tennessee General Assembly — there was a proposed landfill in the Bellevue community. I facilitated the meeting between the citizens of Bellevue and the proposers of the landfill. It was a large crowd of mostly people against the landfill. However, I was able to make sure the proposers had a fair and equal opportunity to make their point.
In 2003, I was hired by the Hardeman County Chamber of Commerce to do a study on the state of Hardeman County. When the study revealed a low college graduation rate, I decided to start the Hardeman County Junior Achievement (JA). JA's volunteer-delivered, kindergarten-12th grade programs foster work-readiness, entrepreneurship and financial literacy skills, and use experiential learning to inspire students to dream big and reach their potential.
Tennessee ranked very poorly nationwide in education and there was heavy focus on standardized testing. Junior Achievement requires 30 minutes to 1 hour of instruction time depending on the grade level. Some principals and teachers were worried that bringing in a volunteer to do a separate curriculum would take away from classroom instruction time. To ease their concerns, I visited the schools with a JA staffer from Memphis and talked about how the Junior Achievement curriculum supplements what is already being taught. I presented at the principals’ meeting and shared studies on how having volunteers in the classroom would benefit students. I also assured the principals that I will raise the funds so that the program would be at no cost to the schools. … The overall performance of Hardeman county school actually went up.
In a situation where people have different opinions, it is not only important to listen to all sides to better understand where each sides were coming from, but to address the concerns rather than dismiss them. It is very important to educate based on data/facts.
What I have learned in both my professional, community service and personal life is that the best way to manage disagreements is to find common ground and work from there with patience. Zoning issues that have the potential to bring out people’s passion — the most contentious I dealt with was the Bellevue Towne Center redevelopment. The original “center” of Bellevue, this property was zoned for commercial/retail and residential at a density that would make the intersection substantially problematic. Sentimentally, this was also the site of the much-beloved Bellevue Market and site of the murder of its owner Frank Carter. Although there was consensus that the current plan was flawed, there was a robust debate about the proposed uses. What did I do? Brought people together five or six times, engaged them in conversation, shared options, and gathered survey data to determine where there was common agreement. It took years of conversation and compromise to achieve a revision. Had the neighbors not been engaged from the beginning with an opportunity to have a say in the nature of the development, the property would still be a vacant eyesore today.