Vice Mayor Jim Shulman Credit: Campaign photo

The vice mayoral contest is one of the quieter races on the Aug. 3 ballot. The position is largely administrative: A vice mayor’s largest role is making sure the metro council meetings run smoothly, only voting in scenarios where a tie-breaker is needed. But this year, metro voters will be faced with two names on the ballot: Jim Shulman, the incumbent, and Angie Henderson, who spent the last two terms as a councilmember representing District 34.

Prior to his recent term as vice mayor, Shulman served as the District 25 Council rep from 1999 to 2007, and an at-large councilmember from 2015 to 2018, when he won the vice mayor’s seat in a special election. He now seeks a second term, and with early voting less than two weeks out, he spoke to the Banner about what he’d do to make the council run more efficiently and gave his thoughts on some policies he didn’t get a chance to vote on. 

Why should people care who the vice mayor is?

Well, they should care for a couple of different reasons. One is that whoever the vice mayor is, obviously, he’s in charge of running the council meetings. And so I would hope that people would want somebody there who has some ability to be able to handle a 40-member body, you know, in terms of understanding the rules, the process, the procedures. Back in the early 60s, when they worked on it, obviously, they decided that, instead of picking somebody from the body, they would pick a vice mayor. The second reason is that under our charter, the vice mayor would step in, in case something happened to the mayor. That’s only happened once. But it could happen. So I think people should at least want somebody capable of doing that as well. Now, I would admit that there are plenty of people out there that don’t know that we have a vice mayor. 

There are a few more people that know now than five years ago following Megan Barry’s resignation.

Probably so, but I think those are the two main things. And I guess I would add one last thing, and that is something we may get into more in the discussion. But there’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes that you don’t necessarily see that the vice mayor does, and that is, I have access to the mayor. I go see the mayor once a week. So I can take issues in. If there’s something that people are concerned about, if there’s council members concerned about something, I have access on a regular basis to the mayor. So I can take issues in and work on them. One of the good examples from this last term is the Brookmeade Park situation. That was an ongoing discussion with the mayor. That’s obviously just one encampment. But the focus was, okay, so we’ve got encampments all over the city, we have to have a plan, we have to be able to help people. 

It’s not a policy role in the sense that you’re not regularly voting on council ordinances, but you do occasionally have a vote. When do you think it’s appropriate for you, as vice mayor, to be involved in sort of pushing different policy agenda?

So you try to be careful in terms of pushing your opinion because obviously, you’re trying to run a meeting as fairly as you can and hear from different sides when people are asserting their opinions on a particular issue. What I tried to do this last term early on, when I was out there talking to people, there were certain issues that were popping up that I thought, “Hey, we could actually create some special subcommittees and actually look into that.” It dealt with sidewalks, it dealt with codes enforcement, dealt with 37208. Those were things that people were talking about. So it wasn’t necessarily trying to assert some type of opinion into the process. It was things that were out there that people seemed to be concerned with. And so what we were trying to do with those special subcommittees was to get the council members to look at the issues and figure out what the answers to the questions were. And then they could pursue legislation if they wanted to. 

But you do have policy preferences, obviously.

So I review the agenda before every meeting, and sometimes I review it several times. Some agendas are much more difficult than others and so you study the agenda. And you get to the point where you can basically say, “What are the issues that are going to come up on this agenda that are going to cause concerns or problems for people?” And so I guess what I would say is that, on some specific issues, I’m going like, “this might be a pretty close vote.” And so I’m studying the issue like everybody else. I wouldn’t necessarily tell you what I was thinking. But I’m ready to vote in case there’s a tie. Now, I will tell you this, I try to be very careful not to kill legislation. You know, even if it doesn’t look like it may have the 21 votes to pass on third reading or second reading. If there’s a tie, if council members brought legislation, I don’t think it’s my position to kill the ordinance. I may vote against a particular amendment or something like that. But I think it’s the council’s responsibility to try to decide whether they want to pass the thing or not. 

This term has been marked by a lot of really contentious debate over several issues. Things have gotten heated a few times. There’s some famous video of you scolding people in a hallway kind of outside of a debate that was happening that night in the council chambers. What should people expect out of the vice mayor in terms of the orderly running of account of a council meeting? Versus the kind of making sure that every voice is heard ad infinitum? Because there have been instances where council meetings can go until two, three or four o’clock in the morning.

Yeah, I mean, so at least I’m famous for something. You know, that night, we spent a long time listening to one issue and people reading something to us. The concern from that night was that we weren’t hearing from other people. And it wasn’t necessarily about that one particular issue, but what the council had before it I think was a 34 percent property tax increase. And we had people texting us saying they couldn’t get onto the phone lines. It was just a public hearing on the budget. And so we tried to be fair and to say, wait a minute, other people want to be heard. And so you’re trying to figure out a way to do it. 

And I learned from that night. I apologized. We were there until 5:30 a.m. So we let everybody speak anyway. But I was trying to find a way to ensure that other people got heard on other concerns. And that’s the balance you’re trying to do. That’s why I study the agenda so carefully and try to determine if there’s, you know, “what is the debate going to be like? Is the back of the chamber going to be filled up?” Or, you know, we have public comment periods. And we’re going to have more now, because of the state. And how is all that going to work? So you do want to hear from people, but you want to hear from everybody. 

Who is in charge of the technology for the council voting machines that continually break down? And can it be improved?

It’s not me. It’s our IT department and [Metro IT Director] Keith Durbin. So Keith is a great guy. We’ve been having this long-running discussion about how and why does the machine keep breaking down? And on the, I guess it was on the Titans thing, particularly, it’s like 12 o’clock at night, and we can’t vote on anything because the machine keeps breaking.

I know you don’t have a vote, but you have had a vote in the past when you were an at-large member. Should something happen to the mayor, you would be the mayor. And I think people deserve to know where you stand on specific issues. Were you for or against the Titans’ proposal?

So initially, when I first heard that there was discussion about [them wanting] to build a new stadium, it was like, “we’ve got a stadium.” But then I went and talked to the folks who were working on the proposal. And based upon the way it was being funded, and based upon the fact that Metro obligations were going to be taken care of both in terms of the existing obligations and we weren’t going to have to pay for upkeep. And then understanding that they were going to eventually, if they built the stadium, going to tear [the old stadium] down and give us all that land back that we could use for development. 

And based upon the fact that there were lots of efforts being made to find ways to improve the community through funding mechanisms. It became one of those things where it’s a much better deal than what we had originally. I would say that if the state had just given us $500 million to spend on anything, I’d want to spend it on services and education. But those funding sources that were coming in were tied to the stadium. And so in the end, it looked like it was a much better deal for the city, a much better way to protect taxpayers. And so I would have voted for it if I’d had to vote.

The racetrack plan from the mayor is currently before the council. It’s something that all of the current mayoral candidates have to take a take a position on. What is your position on the racetrack plan?

So one of the things that we tried to do early on, which wasn’t that long ago, was to do the same thing that we did with the stadium, and that was to have a group of council members try to go through [the plan], because the plan itself you know, how was the sound mitigation stuff gonna work? I know, the Fair Board has been through some of that. And I went to one of those big giant community meetings that the Fair Board had, and I listened to both sides of the argument. What I would say at this point is that we haven’t really had a chance to vet everything that’s in that deal at this point. And so we’ve been asking for the administration to send us basically the information even though this matter is not necessarily before us. It’s been filed, but it can’t be considered until couldn’t be considered until after the operations budget.

And because of this public hearing thing, it really can’t be considered until that matter is either resolved or not. And so I don’t think it’s until we get the information to look at what’s in the agreement, and everybody has a chance to sit down and look at it, then it’s not necessarily fair to come out with an opinion on whether I would be for it or not. I do know that something needs to happen out there. I’ve been to the old Speedway. It’s one of those things that needs some care, whether people decide that they want to do a much bigger project, or whether we just need to put some money in and kind of help it. And I’d love to learn more about the sound mitigation. Because I know people are bothered by that. And I think it’s important to do that. But at this point, I haven’t seen all the information. So I really can’t tell you one way or the other. 

The Cooper administration is pushing really hard to finish this before they leave. Is this something that has to be done this term? Or could this be bumped into the next session?

Yeah, it could be punted. I’ve had a discussion with the mayor’s office and said we’re down to the end of this term. I’ve seen this at the end of terms before, it’s really hard to push major projects right at the end of the administration, particularly when there’s a new administration coming in. Because the council can vote on something, and then they leave it for the next administration to try to handle. I know that the mayor is very interested in this. And his staff has put a lot of time into it. But it could be passed to the next administration. And if it is, then we would, depending on who’s actually on the council, I would encourage the council to kind of regroup, and to really sit down and put together a group that actually can study the documents, understand the whole thing, understand sound mitigation. Have community meetings, talk to the people that live around the area. So you can get a much better feel. We’re getting close to being out of time obviously with this term.

License plate readers were another pretty contentious piece of legislation that came through. How would you have voted on on LPRs?

Yeah, so when CM Rosenberg first brought his LPR issue up, this was a long time ago, I was on the council then. And I voted against his ordinance, which was saying [the city] can’t have them. Because I talked to particular groups around the city who said they thought that [LPRs] would be beneficial. And I saw this, as long as it was properly controlled. And when I say that, we’re not using it to go track somebody that somebody doesn’t like, and we’re trying to figure out where they’re going. As long as there are safeguards in place to utilize it for things like the Amber Alert, Silver Alert, or for trying to track serious criminals who have done something and we’re trying to find somebody, then I would vote for LPRs. And I know that it’s a six-month pilot, and we’re getting information back that seems to indicate that they’re measuring the results, so we can take a look at it. But I mean, my take is, look, if you can save a child’s life by quickly tracking them to a car in an Amber Alert situation, then it’s worth it. And yeah, I would have voted for it.

We talked previously about the city-state relationship and you had spent some time on the Hill trying to clear the air and improve the city-state relationship. Is there anything that as vice mayor you could do to help that relationship?

We really never talked much after that article came out. And I will tell you that the mayor did not ask me to go. Obviously, the vice mayor doesn’t report to the mayor. I went up there on my own. And there was a plan. Despite what I think when the lobbyists said there was a plan to try to get that thing slowed down. The communication links between the metro government and the state are just not very good right now. And so the idea was, you have to go talk to those folks, you have to make it so that we’re communicating. I would say that — I’ve learned this through my years of public service — it’s a lot easier to pick on an entity when you really don’t know them, or you don’t see them. 

So we have to improve our lines of communication. I want it back to the point where, yeah, we can choose to disagree, but the city should be able to make policies and make decisions that are good for the city, and not be told how to do things by the state legislature. And so we’re going to have to revise how we operate. And then I would say, again, improved communications and better strategies about how to basically function in this type of environment. And I think we just need to be smarter in the ways that we deal with how we function. And we have to find ways to coexist. I mean, obviously, the state legislature is not going anywhere, and neither is the Metro Council. But we have some issues that we’re going to have to work through over the next couple of years. And I would rather say, they’ve got lots of issues they need to deal with, and we’ve got lots of issues we need to deal with. I’d rather go back to the ability to do that, instead of having to worry about what they may want to preempt.

You’ve had a full term in this role. What do you want to do in another term as vice mayor?

So you’re always working, always looking for better ways to be transparent, and to get information out to citizens, so they know what we’re doing. They can follow an agenda. They know when the council is meeting, they know they’re welcome to come down and talk. And if they have concerns, they know how to communicate those concerns. So we’re always trying to figure out better ways to communicate and include people in the discussions. Our calendar can sometimes be over 50 pages long. So we try to make sure we take the time to explain exactly where we are and what we’re doing. We’ve let people bang the gavel to start the meetings. Most of those are young children, but it’s a way of trying to make the meetings a little bit more fun and enjoyable. So people feel like they’re a part of their government. We’ve also started this process of having the Metro Arts Commission have a couple minutes at the second meeting of the month, to bring in and showcase some talent. So we’re trying to do some innovative things. 

At the same time, you go back to the IT question and also the functioning of the council as a whole. I’ve never liked the way our committee structure works, because they meet a couple of hours before the full council meeting. And so people are typically running around between committee meetings and understanding that they may vote on this bill right now, but they’re going to see it again in about two hours. It doesn’t allow the committee much time to actually discuss legislation and actually amend it. So we may want to regroup and look at whether we want to have committees on a different day, which would allow for a couple of things. It would allow for a set time for a committee to review legislation, but also to talk about the legislation in more detail if that’s what they wanted or to have more discussions with the departments that they are engaged with. 

And that also allows us to figure out much earlier what needs to be on the consent calendar. One of the concerns, or the reason you hear me read so much during the meetings, is because of public notice requirements, we have to read the caption. What we’d like to do is figure out, if we had enough time, is to determine what needs to be on the consent calendar and publish it and actually put it on a sheet, get it out, and provide proper public notice, so people can see it. And then when it comes up at the full council meeting, you simply say we’re on the consent calendar for resolutions, or consent calendar for bills on second reading, “Does anything need to be bumped off?” You have plenty of time to look at it, and you bump those things off that don’t need to be on consent, but then you pass the consent calendar en masse. You don’t have to read the captions, you actually pass the whole thing.

So the headline should be “Shulman: I want to read less in the next year.”

[laughs] Well, I don’t mind reading all that. But I will tell you that I don’t think anybody’s listening to me, right? I mean, are you? Are you listening?

I do want to ask you about Safe Haven. You left Safe Haven in February following a review period. How would you characterize your exit from Safe Haven?

I actually left in December, so I’ve been gone a long time. Difference of opinion within leadership. I was the CEO, but it was kind of a difference of opinion about where the agency was going to go. If you talk to the board, there was a statement at one point that they were going to do kind of an in-depth review of the operations internally of the agency, which was fine with me. And suddenly they did and I never saw what they came up with but it was kind of a difference of opinion of where everything was going to go, and I had plenty of other things to do. And I just decided it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be, I didn’t want to have to go through that. That was going to take us a while to work through that. And it was going to be difficult. And I think in the end, I just decided it was probably easier for me to leave. And so I left.

There are two people on the ballot for vice mayor, you and Angie Henderson. Can you tell me why you think you are a better choice for Vice Mayor?

I try to be careful not to say anything bad about anybody else. That’s just not me. But look, I’ve been a district councilmember for eight years, an at-large councilmember for three years, I’ve been the city’s vice mayor for five years. It’s been quite a learning experience, but I do know the rules. And I know the process and I know the procedures, and know all the stuff that happens both when people are not watching and then what you have to do to get ready for when people are watching. And then the interactions that you have to have and the understanding, you have to have to be able to step into the mayor’s role in case that ever happens. 

I’ve also had over 30 years of experience working at the state in terms of management positions. So I’ve been in management positions for most of my career. And I’m also a lawyer. So I understand how to read the ordinances and the resolutions and I can read the contracts that come with some of those things. I’ve had years of experience in terms of understanding what this role requires. I’ve been around for a long time, I’ve been heavily involved in the community with a number of different organizations. I’ve served on a bunch of different boards and I’ve been pretty heavily involved in a lot of other organizations. So I love the city. I love the people and I have the experience to do this.

Steve is a three-decade veteran of newspapers, working around the country at places like the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune before returning home to Nashville in 2011 to edit The City Paper and Nashville...