Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rich areas yield most of mayor's appointees

Council wants to boost Metro boards' diversity By MICHAEL CASS • Staff Writer (Tennessean) • March 30, 2008 No one from East Nashville sits on Metro government's Board of Zoning Appeals, which often hears cases from that part of town. But Belle Meade, a satellite city that isn't governed by the zoning laws the appeals board enforces, might be represented on the board soon. Mayor Karl Dean has appointed attorney Chris Whitson, a former Metro Council member who donated the maximum amount of money to Dean's campaign last year, pending council confirmation Tuesday. Councilwoman Megan Barry said Whitson's appointment is part of a larger problem: The residents appointed by the mayor to the city's 56 boards and commissions aren't diverse enough. Many of them come from Nashville's most affluent neighborhoods, while some other ZIP codes have very few representatives. Barry and other members of the council committee that review mayoral appointments have asked Dean's office to give them advance notice when positions are about to come open. "You go with who you know," said Barry, who represents the entire county as an at-large council member. "That's why the mayor needs to rely more on the council, so we can help him go with who we know." Dean declined to be interviewed, but he said in a written statement: "I have met with each of the council members a couple of times since taking office and expressed during those meetings that I'm always willing to hear their suggestions. … (M)y door is open. In terms of the process for appointing members of boards and commissions, we will follow the Charter." Pattern is familiar The issue is not new with Dean, who took office in September and has appointed 70 people, including nine the council will consider Tuesday. Of about 420 Metro board and commission members overall — some of whom are elected by the council or serve by virtue of holding elected offices or other positions — about 30 percent are from just two ZIP codes: 37205 (Belle Meade) and 37215 (Green Hills/Forest Hills). As of Feb. 29, there were 64 appointees from each of those areas, according to a breakdown by Metro Clerk Marilyn Swing's office. No other ZIP code has half as many board and commission members as the top two. The No. 3 area, with 26 appointees, is 37212, the Hillsboro Village, Belmont and Vanderbilt area. At the other end of the spectrum, there are three appointees each from Joelton and Whites Creek and four from the Fesslers Lane area. Dean's first six months of appointments have followed a similar pattern. The mayor has appointed 14 people from Belle Meade, including four who were originally appointed by former Mayor Bill Purcell, and nine from Green Hills/Forest Hills, according to data Swing compiled for The Tennessean. Next on Dean's list, with eight appointees, is 37209, which includes Sylvan Park, a West Nashville neighborhood. Councilman Rip Ryman, who leads the council's Rules, Confirmations and Public Elections Committee, said he'd like to see more diversity. "It's geared toward Green Hills and the Belle Meade area," said Ryman, who represents Goodlettsville. "We'd like to see them tell us what vacancies are coming up and give us some opportunities in other parts of town to fill those vacancies," Ryman said. "It's a concern of everybody on the committee." But Ryman, who worked for former Mayor Richard Fulton more than 20 years ago, said the problem existed back then, too. "I just don't think it's changed," he said. While the rules committee has typically rubber-stamped the mayor's nominations, it "needs to take a stronger role" when the mix isn't diverse, Barry said. Choice is controversial It's unclear if these tensions will lead the council to reject Dean's appointment of Whitson, a former colleague of some council members. Barry said the choice should have been "more well-thought-out." "I would want somebody who is actually governed by the laws they would oversee," she said. "It's like appointing someone from another county to sit on one of our boards." But Whitson, who resigned from the council in 2005 to avoid the appearance of impropriety from his legal work for the Nashville Predators, said he thought he was well-qualified for the seven-member zoning appeals board, even if he lives in a satellite city. "I find that suggestion a little unusual," he said. "The BZA is a quasi-judicial tribunal charged with following Metro and state laws. As an attorney with some experience in land-use planning, I probably have more experience than some potential nominees." Whitson, who resigned two years into his first council term, said he's eager to serve Metro again, and he knows many other satellite city residents who feel the same way. "If you foreclose people in Belle Meade, Forest Hills and Oak Hill, that's a substantial number of citizens," he said. Whitson donated $1,000 to Dean's general election campaign and another $1,000 to his run-off campaign. Dean nominated Whitson after hiring Charlie Williams to be assistant director of the Mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development. Williams, who lives in East Nashville, had to step down from the Board of Zoning Appeals to work for the city.

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