At the risk of sounding like Richard Nixon after he lost the Calfornia governor’s race in 1962, this will be my final post on this blog. Well, maybe not.
(As that wise philosopher Emily Litella once observed: “Never mind.”)
I began my involvement with the city at a planning commission meeting on April Fool’s night last year.
It seems only fitting that I should pick the same holiday to wrap things up a year later. I refuse to say who the fool was in this adventure for fear of incriminating myself.
As the one-year anniversary neared I was really on the fence. I’ve put an amazing amount of time into this blog and my activism in the past year. In essence, I have sacrificed a year of retirement at a time when time has become a precious commodity.
Some of the growth here has come from the council members
Nevertheless, I had decided to commit to at least one more year. I wanted to remain involved in the fight to preserve the former Methodist church in town and to follow the wrap-up of the city’s 2035 planning study. I’m also interested in the outcome of two smaller studies, one in the former Bottoms and one along the Highland Street corridor between the old town and the MTSU campus.
Unfortunately, my decision on staying involved with the city was made for me by Mayor McFarland, who announced a new public comments policy last week. From now on, people who live outside the city (and don’t pay city taxes) go to the bottom of the priority list. Translated: In the short time the council allots for public comment, the out of towners at the back of the bus will likely be shut out every time. I live in Magnolia Trace, which is just over the city line.
As undemocratic a speaking policy as you could find
Now let’s try to put the current restrictive speaking policy this council has in clear language. It is easily the most undemocratic and selfish policy of any of the three councils I am familiar with in three states.
The system here is “pay to play”
(1) First, the council only takes comments from the public on the first meeting on the month. The common practice in Old Bridge, N.J. and Fremont, Calif., is to allow comments at every meeting.
(2) To talk, you have to make an appointment in advance with the council’s clerk and tell her what your topic will be. Fremont lets anyone walk up at meetings to talk. Old Bridge would put your name on the speaker’s list if you showed up before the meeting began.
(3) Don’t clear your throat or say “good evening” to the council because you only get three minutes. Old Bridge gives speakers’ five minutes, interrupting them with a nasty alarm. In the Fremont I knew every speaker had an open period in which to talk. The moderator controlled time by interrupting when he thought the speaker was rambling or repeating. An early end to a Fremont meeting was 11 p.m. Old Bridge and Murfreesboro almost invariably wind things up by 9 to 9:30 p.m. Rarely in Fremont did the public comments period go over 30 minutes. (It was good for me because I had to phone in a story at 8 p.m.)
There’s a deal any used car dealer would love
(4) If you are speaking for a group you get five minutes. Now there is a deal. If you represent 20 people you are given five minutes for saving the council 55 minutes. That says a lot about their attitude toward the people they supposedly serve.
(5) The three-minute limit is randomly enforced, evidently depending on whether the mayor likes you. I timed a couple of good old guys at 6 1/2 minutes.
(6) Public comments are squeezed into a 15 minute interval before the TV cameras come on — although the mayor has spoken of starting comments 30 minutes before the Big Show. In Fremont and Old Bridge, the public comment portion of the meeting is broadcast.
There is nothing in the laws of science that prohibits the mayor from welcoming viewers when the TV cameras come on and then announcing: “Welcome to the Murfreesboro City Council Meeting. We are just finishing up taking public comments on various issues in our open mike section.”
Pretty please, Mr. Mayor!
(7) The latest restriction, aimed at me, is to put speakers who live outside the city and who don’t pay city taxes at the bottom of the speaking priority list — meaning they may never speak again. At best they are waiting for a crumb to fall from the mayor’s table from time to time.
Exception B, Clause 2
But to make the rule even more targeted at me, the new policy does not apply to people outside the city, from Nashville for example, if the mayor believes they are offering “expert comments.”
Now let’s examine the mayor’s argument. People living on the edge of the city are affected by council actions, as those votes on putting heavy industry next to homes show.
We outlanders may not pay property taxes to the city, but we do pay sales taxes every time we shop in town, and where else are we going to go?
The sales tax rate in the county is 9.75% and is distributed as follows: 7% goes to the state. The remaining 2.75% stays here. Half is divided between city and county schools depending on their average daily attendance. The other half (1.375%) goes to the government where the sale was made, which is invariably the city of Murfreesboro.
We county folk are helping educate you city peoples’ children
Schools are the biggest part of where any taxpayer’s property taxes go. And the most expensive part of the school system is high school. We in the county pay to educate both county and city kids from high school on and often from as early as 7th grade.
Finally, our spending is a huge portion of the city’s economy. If we are taking advantage of the city by getting library cards or participating in city rec programs, it is an easy fix to charge higher fees for non-city residents. Nor do we rely in general upon the city for services. Most of us have septic tanks.
So now you pay for the right to speak. Brilliant!
But let’s be honest. City taxes have nothing to do with the mayor’s policy change. It is a not-so-subtle attempt to silence me and any other voices of dissent from outside the city.
Without letting my ego run overboard, it appears the council is creating a speakers’ crisis where none exists because it doesn’t like listening to dissent — particularly from outsiders. There is no line of people streaming outside the door, past the library and out to Church Street waiting to speak.
I always made my points and sat down
Now let’s look at my speaking history. I believe I spoke seven times in the year I have been coming to council meetings.Three times I spoke about the city’s insane policy or rezoning land next to homes to heavy industry. Another three times I spoke about preserving the history former Methodist church downtown, and once I praised Councilman LaLance for improving a development proposal. I always took a piece of paper to the podium to remind me of my talking points so I didn’t ramble.
My subjects were of citywide interest
Now let’s look a the city’s zoning history to see just how absurd the current heavy industry zoning policy is. I was accused at the time of yelling “the sky is falling” like a modern-day Chicken Little.
It is obvious that the light industrial zone — which bans anything that causes odor, loud noises, air pollution or vibrations — was meant as a buffer between homes and heavy industry. But it can’t perform that function if the council rezones to heavy industry any time a developer requests it.
You would never have heard from me if the issue was condos near homes
Basically, my position on heavy industry next to homes looked pretty mild after I had listened to a series of complaints from residents who were upset at having condos or apartments as neighbors.
The same position as the city’s consultant only in plain English
Ironically, my position on heavy industrial zoning was the same as the planning consultant the city hired to plan for the next 20 years or growth. The consultant was just saying it in high-falutin’ language. The consultant’s original recommendation for the Joe B. Jackson corridor was “business park”, which basically calls for offices on well landscaped lots.
When I spoke briefly to one of the consultants, he said they weren’t recommending heavy industry in the city anywhere except for a quarry area well south of Joe B Jackson. Later I learned from a source that the consultant was pressured by city planners to do away with his business park zoning in favor of light industrial. This would be fine if the council had any respect for light industrial.
We need a less restrictive version of light industrial zoning
Simply put, light industrial is so restrictive it forces developers, who need flexibility, to request rezonings to heavy industry. The NHK plant on Joe B Jackson could not go in without a rezoning to heavy industry, but it is no more offensive to its neighbors than a warehouse. My solution was to go for a system of zones from I-1 to I-4, like Knoxville, and keep all of the nasty uses out of I-1 and I-2.
Not all developers are classy like Harney
The bankruptcy of the current system is that the city had to rely on John Harney, one of its progressive developers, to fix the flawed zoning by agreeing to a series of deed restrictions.* (These voluntary restrictions bar most of the offensive heavy industrial uses on Harney’s parcel) The homes in Magnolia Trace will suffer if either NHK or Amazon decide to close facilities here, and those two parcels, both zoned for heavy industry, go up for sale. Neither has the deed restrictions Harney agreed to, making them ticking bombs.
Three times I spoke about the absolute insanity of rezoning land next to homes to heavy industrial — which permits, among other things, all the sex uses (like bookstores and massage parlors), chemical plants, and fertilizer factories. Animal stockyards and petroleum refineries require a use permit, but once you have said they are legal with a use permit, you can’t bar them arbitrarily from the district without getting sued.
Citizens’ views are ignored except in rare cases
In truth, this council rarely responds to the requests of citizens, especially if they have to go against the wishes of a local developer who is a campaign contributor. Basically, if you pay the money to fund campaigns, which can get expensive here, you get to play by different rules.
The mayor is the big campaign spender on the block
Let’s look at funding for some campaigns from the past. Two facts stand out. Some campaigns have been amazingly expensive for a small town and often the same names keep cropping up as contributors. Many of them also keep cropping up on business items before the council.
The high roller
Take Mayor McFarland, for example, He is by far the big spender in town when it comes to campaigning. By my calculation he spent about $109,199 to win his mayor’s job: $12,347 between Jan. 16th and Feb, 3rd of 2014; $67,322 between February 4th and April 5th of 2014; $23,637 between April 6th and and June 30th of 2014 and $5,894 between July 1st of 2014 and Jan. 26th of 2015. If I got any of this wrong, I will gladly publish your rebuttal on the forum page and correct this post.
Council members Eddie Smotherland, Bill Shacklett and Madelyn Scales Harris ran relatively modest campaigns. Councilmen Rick LaLance and Vice Mayor Doug Young were in the middle.
Link between some contributions and speaking time
Among the names cropping up on the contributution lists of various winning candidates are the Rutherford County Homebuilders Political Action Committee; Bob Parks and John Harney, two important local developers; Ole South builders, which is building a residential development off Joe B Jackson; and employees of SEC Engineering, a local firm that often appears before the council on business.
“Hey you! What are you doing by that mailbox?”
Before I close, I hope you will permit me to reminisce on my year here. In seven flyer campaigns I placed at least 3,000 flyers on peoples’ doors, most often in homes along Manchester Pike, in Magnolia Trace and in neighborhoods adjoining joe B Jackson west of I-24. I also made a foray into the city on the church issue and nearly wound up in the clink.
I spent 60 days gathering 450 signatures on a petition against putting heavy industry next to homes. I became a familiar figure haunting places where people gather. At one spot I was kicked out of a supermarket parking lot by the store manager, who liked my cause and signed my petition before telling me to leave.
The best and brightest on the council
When you’re a journalist covering public meetings it is almost a reflex action to size up members who are bringing something to the table and those who coast. Ironically, Eddie Smotherman, the councilman who seemed farthest from my viewpoint at the beginning, became my favorite on the council. When he speaks it is almost always worth listening to. And I came to admire him when I ran into him at a neighborhood meeting on his own time. I believe he was the only council member there.
Bill Shacklet strikes me as a man who reeks of sincerity and integrity when he talks, and you always feel the good of the town is uppermost in his thoughts.
Councilman Rick LaLance always plays the country bumpkin, which is hilarious because he is anything but.
Madelyn Scales Harris always brought her faith and compassion to the council. She has been missed.
Mayor McFarland runs a smooth meeting, is adept at the art of politics and has a quick wit.
I like to think the council members and I both grew in the past year, and I wish them luck as they continue making decisions. I am excited to have my life of leisure back again. For that, I say: “Thanks Mayor McFarland”. There was no point in continuing with a gag on my mouth.
This video applies to Washington, but, in my view, some of it fits well here, too.