Angie Henderson Credit: Campaign photo

Running a 40-member Metro Council full of members with strong opinions is no easy task, but by most measures, this four-year term was one of the most contentious in the Council’s history. Ask members about it privately and many complain about Vice Mayor Jim Shulman’s style and how the council’s meetings are run. It was little surprise that some of them cheered on Angie Henderson, the two-term councilmember from West Nashville, when she began exploring a challenge to Shulman. Henderson talks about what works in the council, what doesn’t and the changes she would like to make in the role.

Why should people care who the vice mayor is?

I share with folks because they often ask, they’re either not familiar with there being a vice mayor, or they think perhaps the vice mayor runs on a ticket with the mayor. But as I share with folks, the vice mayor is the president, the leader of your legislative branch of the city council. And so we do have a strong mayor system. And for good governance and checks and balances, you need also to have a strong legislative branch, as strong as they can be. And I think when you have a 40-member body that does require effective organization and leadership. And so when you already have structurally an imbalance of power between the executive and the legislative, I think it is all the more important that council be very strategic and intentional and organized in its policy, work, oversight work through committees.

I want to know when you think that it’s appropriate for a vice mayor to be involved in pushing policy, versus being the person who is who is keeping the council running.

I think I wouldn’t use the verb pushing policy. What I would say is when government is working optimally, you are aligning your strategic plans, with your policy work and with your budget. So when I look at kind of why a myriad group of folks run for office to serve on the council, like me, they might have been bike/ped advocates or leaders in their neighborhoods, I ran to address our dearth of sidewalks, but we can’t all be kind of just willy nilly Higgledy Piggledy, trying to take a policy approach to that. So kind of monitoring the work, making sure the policy work is aligned with the strategic plans, supporting council members in the work that they want to do, so that we’re being smart about it. So it’s not pushing any one particular policy. It’s saying, “What are the strategic goals adopted by this council? What are the policy aspects of those plans? And how do we find them?” 

It’s not like you don’t have policy objectives. You’ve spent the last couple of terms in the council pushing a variety of different things. You don’t stop having those opinions, just because you’re vice mayor.

Sure that’s true. But I think it’s important that a vice mayor is looking again, to the adopted strategic plans and the policy paths to achieve. One of the concerns I have seen is that many of our plans or updates to plans are not actionable. They don’t have clear policy recommendations. So I’m keenly aware of this because in my early service on council, I was a chair of the policy subcommittee of the walk and bike strategic plan. So I know how important it is for the success of legislation in a very difficult policy-making space, that we line all these things up with our strategic plans. So, yes, as you move into a different role, it’s not your name on the bill anymore. But if you find colleagues with similar interests and goals, there is a role in sharing “well, we’ve tried this before, and that didn’t work. And here’s another option, and what do you think about this?” In my view, it’s a mentorship role.

The vice mayor’s job is often kind of a balancing act, you know, what should people expect out of a vice mayor in terms of running an orderly session of a council meeting versus making sure that every voice is heard even when those voices are repetitive?

I would assert, we need to do more of the talking about the policy work and the amending in committee. One of the key things I am looking to do as a former committee chair and vice chair with a strong policy interest is to make sure that committee meetings are not perfunctory, we’re not just there to like okay, check, move on. That is where the work should be happening. Now, that said, when you have a matter of broad community interest, a high level of complexity, there is community benefit to the body in posing questions and having the sponsor answer them on the floor in a meeting. And so there are things that absolutely can be addressed, more specifically in committee, and not take up the time of the main meeting. But there will always be some of these kinds of bigger questions and bigger challenges and things that have high community interest and concern that I feel it is important for a city to see that debate.

This is a similar question, but a little different. How do you balance public comment? Because we’ve had some situations here, where there were two, three or four hours of public comment on something. In several instances, it was a repetition of the same comments over and over again. How do you balance that versus the public’s legitimate right to comment before the Metro Council?

I think we always have to kind of land on the side of being more open and more accessible. But I think the work that happens before that public hearing. It is telling when there is just such a high volume of commentary and that commentary sounds very similar, that is a cohort that feels unheard or, you know, under underserved, not responded to. And so it is incumbent on us as council members, when we have something difficult, whether for countywide policy or for a district-based zoning policy, to have those stakeholder meetings, have those conversations in the community first and foremost, and sometimes the public comment is somewhat of a litmus for the success of those previous meetings. So you are always going to have times when, despite best efforts, and trying to foster good conversations and good information and community, there will just be a really big cohort of opposition to something. And that is what it is, and it may be frustrating to those who are watching or listening to that, but we have to have that forum, and it may feel unproductive, but it speaks to other issues.

I want to ask a technical question that lands in the lap of the vice mayor. Can the technology for the Metro Council be improved at all? Can we not have voting machines breaking in the middle of key votes? 

That is not good, especially on high-stress, key votes. That undermines people’s confidence. And the fairness and transparency of the process, we have got to get with our IT staff and make sure with the clerk’s office that we are running checks on that anytime we see any sort of pattern, whether it’s our internet and WiFi seeming to go out at a certain similar time, we just got to be very intentional about that. And then from a system standpoint, I know there are some conversations ongoing right now with Granicus, the provider of our voting system. 

I want to ask you about a couple of policy things because you’re you it’s likely that you’re going to vote on some things as vice mayor. Why did you vote against the Titan stadium?

Oh, gosh.

Five thousand words or less, please.

Okay. Yeah, I followed very closely the work of the East Bank Stadium committee. And I do want to commend my colleague, Councilman Mendes, for his diligence, and that work. And those on the committee who followed that closely. I just personally, after reading all the material, I’m trying my very best through what was publicly available to understand and kind of do the math. I did not think it was a better deal than what we have. We have a bad deal currently, I acknowledged that. I don’t think this was a better deal. I think it was fiscally irresponsible. And I could not vote for it. And I am disappointed that the majority of our body did.

What is your what’s your position on a potential racetrack deal?

I don’t have a position on that. Because of the level of homework that I did for the Titan stadium, I’ve not done that level of homework for this deal yet. And I don’t know to be frank, if the council has the bandwidth to do that level of homework, this close to the proverbial finish line, no track racing pun intended there.

Do you feel like it has to be done this session?

No. I understand the challenges of carrying something across a term. But I don’t think we should ever succumb to brinkmanship type, you know, get this done at the finish-type situation on something of this magnitude. So I will readily say I need to do more homework. It’s a lot at this moment, on the tail end of budget season, with all that is kind of going on at the end of a council term. So I don’t yet have a position on that, because I have yet to fully do my homework on it. And I really don’t like to take a position on any major vote. And I discourage colleagues from [taking a position] until they have fully done all the homework. I often declined meetings with the lobbyist or coffee with this person or that person, because I want to base my decisions off the exact same information that the full council receives, and that the public receives. I think it’s absolutely fine for colleagues to be in touch with a lobbyist representing a certain interest in policy to, you know, pose questions. But I think we need to be mindful of who is driving the train on a piece of legislation that is in the legislative body. And I feel like sometimes we get a little out of whack in relying on the information that is very complicated that’s coming from the lobbyists or that’s coming from the mayor’s office. So then again, you get that structural disadvantage right. So we as an office, need to be strong in our analysis, and our ability to answer these questions. 

What do you think of the pilot program on license plate readers?

I am very interested in digging into that data. I am concerned about how they will work in a 526-square-mile county without just dropping a massive surveillance net over this city. I think I do have constituents who are in smaller satellite communities. My own district is proximate to a city with an LPR system. But that’s a three-square-mile city. And so effectively, much as an HOA could do with a camera at this ingress and egress and a camera at that ingress and egress …

I’ve often thought of Belle Meade as just a big HOA [laughs]

I do have constituents tell me, “Well, Belle Meade has this and we need this.” And I say to folks, “I can see how this might be effective in, again, a three square mile city.” So you can fiscally, with their extra tax base that they have, implement a program of that size, at every ingress and egress and street in and out of that city. And I see what those folks desire or think they desire. But I have to think about the long-term long-range effects of that writ large. Also, I’ll say to my constituents, who are more fiscally conservative, just the fiscal prudence of implementing a system like that, set aside the privacy and surveillance concerns, on 526 square miles is a lot of space. The efficacy of any system is very much still in question. For me, I think a lot of the areas where this has been touted as being effective have a very small footprint. So that is to say, yes, I have seen the pilot data has been released. I have not read that deeply yet.

What would your main priorities be as a vice mayor?

First and foremost, if I were to be elected, coming into the office, looking at how council members are supported and the work that they do, onboarding council members, how the office works in support of council members, both in their constituent service and the legislative work. I think we have some work to do, and just kind of optimizing how we do the work. How we support council members, it is very difficult, optimizing how we do the work.

The feedback that I get from first-term council members about this onboarding, and I felt it myself in 2015, it was unhelpful and insufficient to the work that we do. And so you have people running for council, and I said it earlier — myriad interests, motivations, professional experience. That’s wonderful. That’s a strength. Our large council reflects the diversity of our city. We are 50 percent women, we have an LGBTQ caucus, a minority caucus, we have doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, it is a diverse skill set. And that is great. It can be organized. And so the majority of the work that we do as a city council is land use policy and zoning. There is very particular education and instruction around that and best practices, and some of the best practice and land use policies are counterintuitive: Parking policy. Induced demand. If you’re just a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, you haven’t really engaged with urban studies, urban policy, urban planning, you’re getting a whole lot dropped in your lap, and having to understand it at a high level is difficult. So I do think it’s incumbent upon the vice mayor and how the council office is organized and how we work with our departments, that education is really important.

You and I had talked last year about an inspector general office and how it might work. That might be even more relevant in light of the state essentially stripping authority out of the Community Oversight Board. Do you think that it’s time for something like that to be revisited?

I think it is worthwhile. I have not heard from this administration on the extent to which they had the opportunity to pursue that. I know it was on this [Mayor Cooper’s] platform. But I’ve not really gotten any feedback on if that was pursued. As Vice Mayor, you do serve on the audit committee. And I do think that is an important function for sure. And so I am interested to engage in that conversation and see what that might look like. I don’t purport to know how best that would be implemented. I was, to be frank, sort of relying on this administration to pursue that to see about its feasibility and efficacy. So I think, given local bodies that had investigative authority, that being preempted by the state, it is worth looking at how we have independent analysis of a variety of things that give confidence to the community that their government is working well. 

Finally, I want you to make a direct case for why I, or any other voter, should vote for you and not for Jim Shulman.

I think I have the experience, the care and the concern, to do the job better than the incumbent vice mayor is doing the job. You know, if folks are pleased with how things are going … I am not. As somebody who has been serving on this body under the current leadership, I believe strongly that we need new leadership to bring more intention to the work that we do, and make the work that we do more effective. I am a change candidate, but I am also an experienced candidate. We’re the policy body and we need to really have someone who has a passion for policy work leading the policy body.

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...