A little more than two months after winning the election, Mayor Freddie O’Connell’s transition teams have presented a series of policy roadmaps for his administration.
One of O’Connell’s first post-election actions was to establish a transition committee, split up into three subcommittees: How Nashville Moves, How Nashville Works and How Nashville Grows, chaired respectively by Dr. Alex Jahangir, business consultant Christy Pruitt-Haynes and attorney David Esquivel. Each committee was tasked with taking a broad look at some of the most significant issues Nashville faces and establishing policy recommendations for the O’Connell administration. While much of the report is very broad and aspirational, pieces of it give a real look at what the next four years could look like should O’Connell heed the committee’s recommendations.
The committees mostly met once a week since their establishment and heard from experts across different demographics and industries on their topics. Each committee comprised a diverse spread of community leaders and subject matter experts and even included some familiar faces: mayoral hopefuls Jim Gingrich and Jeff Yarbro, who both endorsed O’Connell in the runoff, each held seats on a committee.
“My hope is that these people will not feel like their work is done today, but rather we might ask them or at least the chairs to see who’s still interested in participating a year from now and see how we’re doing,” O’Connell told the Banner. “I’d like this to be not just a discrete moment in time, but the start of a conversation that continues.”
How Nashville Moves
O’Connell’s campaign emphasized the need to fix Nashville’s transit system. As the worst commuter city in the country, according to one study, it’s going to take drastic action to make a dent in the problem. In Tennessee, there’s only one way to make that level of change happen: a transit referendum.
“It’s really important for the most amount of Nashvillians to be exposed to what’s being asked and to have the highest turnout election possible to evaluate this so everyone has a say,” Jahangir told the Banner. “The highest turnout elections are presidential elections. It just happens that we have one in less than a year.”
The report identifies the 2024 presidential election as the ideal time to get a referendum on the ballot, but it will take a lot of work to make that happen. Not only does the administration need to develop a detailed plan to present to Nashvillians, the report acknowledges that a lot of work needs to be done in the community to build trust and support for a transit plan.
The first recommendation from the committee revolves around O’Connell rebuilding trust in the city’s transit system, setting the groundwork for a referendum that would require major public support. The thinking is that to understand and support the scope of what the city needs, Nashvillians first need to understand what it already has.
The last referendum in 2018 failed dramatically, and the committee points to learning from and building on that attempt. A large part of the transition committee report and O’Connell’s first months in office has emphasized transparency, and the report underlines that transparency and community involvement will be a high priority to avoid having a repeat of 2018.
“I hope people walk away after reviewing all this with a lot of hope and optimism and belief that this actually is going to happen,” Jahangir told the Banner. “It feels different in a really good way for me this time.”
How Nashville Works
All three committees are intertwined, but more than the other two, the How Nashville Works committee focused on setting the groundwork to allow the ambitious ideas of the other committees to succeed.
“When we think about how Nashville works, we really wanted to focus on creating the vision that would live out across all Metro departments and across all Metro projects,” said Christy Pruitt-Haynes. “Obviously that was going to touch the how Nashville moves and how Nashville grows committees in a really significant way.”
Early in the campaign, O’Connell released 15 fixes that he would begin working towards on Day One in office, one of which was Metro’s customer service. It’s a long-running issue that O’Connell acknowledged during his campaign would be essential to fix for the city to do other things well. Pruitt-Haynes said that customer service and the other 15 fixes were the main focus of her committee when creating their policy recommendations.
“We looked at a lot of the data on the type of calls that Metro was getting most frequently, the type of issues that people were bringing to Hub Nashville,” said Pruitt-Haynes. “And some of our recommendations have to do with, let’s make sure we are staffing not only Hub Nashville but all of the metro departments in accordance or in alignment with what those biggest issues are.”
A common theme throughout all three committee reports is building trust and transparency. The How Nashville Works committee’s recommendations are directly targeted at the systems most visible to Nashvillians: reporting a pothole on your street, streamlining payment services and creating a community safety plan. The idea is that larger projects like the East Bank and a transit referendum could be more doable by getting these things right and creating a system that can accomplish these things smoothly.
“My hope is that the public will recognize that all of these recommendations and the administration’s acceptance of these is further proof that everything Mayor O’Connell talked about while he was campaigning, truly is a priority,” said Pruitt-Haynes.
How Nashville Grows
Discussing the next four years in Nashville is impossible without bringing up the East Bank. As the home of the Titans stadium and not much else, a big part of former mayor John Cooper’s pitch for a new Titans stadium was the development of the East Bank as a new neighborhood in Nashville.
“Particularly on the East Bank, the circumstances there are changing, and this is a project that is not years, but decades in the making,” said Esquivel. “So there is going to have to be, in our committee’s view, a lot of transparency about what the priorities are.”
The committee viewed the East Bank as a prototype for what development could look like across the city should O’Connell heed their recommendations. Already, Esquivel said that he saw the mayor taking actions that align with the committee’s recommendations before they were presented.
The first recommendation involves clearly communicating any costs associated with East Bank infrastructure investment and how or if those will be recouped. The committee recommends providing these updates through the East Bank Committee. That committee met for the first time on Nov. 8, and heard a presentation from O’Connell’s Chief Development Officer Bob Mendes and Director of Planning Lucy Kempf that laid out not only a timeline for the East Bank, but what some of the most significant infrastructure costs will be. Mendes also pledged to return to that committee to give them updates as things proceed.
The committee’s report also clarifies that the East Bank “should not be an extension of Nashville’s tourism and entertainment district.” It emphasizes a focus on the Envision East Bank plan, which was created with community input. It even goes so far as to say that affordable housing should be prioritized rather than maximization of revenue.
The committee acknowledged that Metro has a long history of rolling out detailed, well-thought-out plans without putting in the work to implement them. They recommend establishing a team or entity that can focus on coordinating among departments to implement the plans already in place.
“There’s already been some good planning about how Nashvillians want to see development occur in the city and in their neighborhoods in particular, but up to this point there has not been an entity or a person or a team that’s charged with bringing together all of the public entities and private entities that are needed to carry plans through to implementation,” said Esquivel.
O’Connell told the Banner that while he is not sure an actual team will be established with this mission, this was one of the most interesting recommendations to him. He has long been an advocate for dusting off the many plans that have been created and then shelved in Metro. He said that to him, it is the “charge of the mayor’s office,” to fill the role of ensuring their implementation. He said he hopes that Tuesday’s presentations can be a good step towards getting the community involved in that image.
“One of the things I really appreciated about how the committees have done their work and kind of prepared it for today is that my hope is that these are very easily digestible by almost everybody in the city and I hope we get some opportunity to get a response,” said O’Connell.