The day after winning a long race to become Nashville’s next leader, Freddie O’Connell learned how unglamorous that victory can be.
Up before 7 a.m. to get ready and make lunches for his kids (peanut butter, banana and honey for the oldest), O’Connell spent much of the morning talking to the press and the rest of the day on the phone thanking supporters and talking to people about the transition. Lunch at The Palm? Nope. He had a few minutes with his brother for bagels in Midtown.
O’Connell is now staring at the very inconvenient calendar left to him by the election cycle. Sometime this week the Davidson County Election Commission will meet and certify the results of Thursday’s win over Alice Rolli. Mayor John Cooper, who is eager to move on, will leave and O’Connell will likely be sworn in at a small, private ceremony. The formal, public inauguration will likely take place Saturday, Sept. 30, with the O’Connell camp looking at hosting the event in Public Square Park.
And during these next two weeks, he’ll have to make do with a hodgepodge of campaign staff and Cooper’s current office, which has been thinned by departures over the past few months.
The wheels of the formal transition kicked in hours after O’Connell’s victory party left Eastside Bowl as he named three transition co-chairs: Alex Jahangir, the Vanderbilt surgeon and former Board of Health chair who led the city’s COVID-19 response for Cooper; Christy Pruitt-Haynes, a corporate human resources leader and consultant; and David Esquivel, a partner at Bass, Berry & Sims who has led the firm’s pro bono efforts.
They’re meant to lead the transition on what the campaign outlined as three areas: How Nashville grows, how Nashville moves (transit) and how Nashville works (making government more responsive). The reports each of these committees are producing will be ready at the end of October.
But the informal transition has been churning in the background for weeks with a group of advisers including Shanna Hughey, Junaid Odubeko, campaign manager Marjorie Pomeroy-Wallace, former Councilmember Bob Mendes and retired PR exec Katy Varney. They’ve spent some time evaluating organizational charts of previous administrations to see what worked as well as giving advice on priorities and potential hires.
O’Connell told the Banner that he does not expect to have final decisions on personnel made for several weeks.
“I will say that it is not my intent to rush. I want to fairly evaluate performance and priorities for people who would prefer to stay,” he said. “I mean, I think it’s helpful to know a few things, right? I think it’s good to know who wants to stay, it’s good to know whose priorities I think are going to be pretty aligned with what we’ve campaigned on and hope to govern against. And it’s also important to know those things for people outside the administration as well, who is interested and available, and again, who has skills, background and expertise that are going to be useful to what we’re doing going forward.”
One person who will not be staying is Kelly Flannery, the current finance director. O’Connell told her on Friday, according to multiple sources, that she would not be part of the transition to a new administration. With deputies able to sign legislation and no pressing budget requirements, the position doesn’t have to be filled immediately.
The Cooper administration leaves a bucket of issues with varying degrees of urgency for O’Connell to address.
* The current Community Oversight Board will cease to exist at the end of October as a result of legislation from the state. The COB passed with a wide majority by referendum, and O’Connell said he understands the city has asked for greater oversight of the police. Could an inspector general approach, which was floated by Cooper but never implemented, be an approach?
“If we get the guidance from Metro Legal that, yes, you do that and also, you can have an inspector general approach that works alongside that, I think that’s actually a pretty good outcome given where we are with the state landscape,” O’Connell said. He’s unlikely to fight the legislation in court.
* The term of the chair of the Hospital Authority Board, which oversees General Hospital, expired earlier this month. O’Connell said he’ll appoint someone within the 60-day period and not let the appointment fall to Vice Mayor Angie Henderson. Given the hospital’s current lease and the desire to build something new, the appointment is important.
“You saw this term, it was not an early strength having the administration, whether by intent or by side effect, let so many appointments fall to the vice mayor,” he said. “I think we want to be very intentional as a city upholding something I’ve said out loud, which is, at least on my watch, we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that Nashville has a long term public safety net hospital.”
* With the conclusion of the pilot program, the administration will have to fund license plate readers, raising questions about how O’Connell, a critic, will implement the law enforcement tool.
“I would not want to rush an expansion of the program without some clear indications of how we’re going to look at location of cameras and how we have clear processes for reevaluating those locations and any other data about the program and what the conditions may be,” he said.
* With the Cooper administration signing the Fallon Company as the master developer for the East Bank, there is contract language to be worked out as well as financing. O’Connell has negotiating resources he can lean on within Metro — Lucy Kempf in Planning and Tom Cross in Metro Legal — in addition to people like Mendes, who were heavily involved while on the council.
* Hickory Hollow Mall, which Cooper purchased for $44 million, is still without a tenant. When the deal was announced, the city signed a letter of intent with Vanderbilt Medical to create a campus for health care services. But the two sides have failed to agree on a lease.
* The former School for the Blind site at 88 Hermitage Ave. remains vacant. The city planned to purchase it for $11 million five years ago, but then-Councilmember John Cooper blocked the deal, but ended up paying the state $20 million for it in 2022.
* Last week’s ruling that the Middle Point Landfill in Rutherford County cannot expand is expected to heighten garbage concerns across Middle Tennessee governments, including in Nashville. Garbage has been a thorn in the Cooper administration’s side since contractor Red River declared bankruptcy. Adding to the problems, Mendes notes, is the deferred maintenance on the fleet, which has led to a host of problems.
O’Connell will also have to make decisions on a number of department heads. He told the Banner he’s been impressed with the work done by Metro Legal Director Wally Dietz. In addition to finance director, General Services has been operating with an interim director for two years.
“I think given how much is currently in progress, this would be not a wise time to remove the legal director who’s directly involved in multiple consequential, almost existential lawsuits,” O’Connell said.
He’ll also have to decide whether to pursue litigation with the state over the makeup of the sports authority, though mending the relationship with the state may take precedence over a fight on this one.
As a Banner story noted last month, O’Connell has neither staffing nor much time before beginning his term, something the Metro Council may consider fixing before the next mayor is elected. After an 18-month marathon, he’s now in the middle of a sprint. It’s a tricky period, because it’s impossible to win the next four years right now. But if he doesn’t handle transition well, he could hamper his term before it even begins.