[Re: John Cooper] Ad Hoc Committee for Mayoral Review's Review of the Mayor's Strategic Self-Evaluation [Official Findings]
Remember when you got to write your own report card in school? And no one asked questions when you gave yourself all good grades? This is the same thing but you're Mayor of a large American city.
The Mayor’s Office released a 20-page spreadsheet with 51 rows a couple weeks ago, each a campaign promise pulled from a stump speech or mailer, accompanied by paragraphs-long explanations. The spreadsheet—”commitment tracker,” per official communications—hopes to look like a thorough self-evaluation. It’s like a report card, except it’s done by your staff who you pay and you’re a politician.
Far from an exercise in transparency or accountability, Cooper’s commitment tracker has the particular goal of making the Mayor look good. It’s also a window into an administration that has bled top-level staff. Himself a veteran of Wall Street and tech private equity, two industries known for their exemplary work environments, Cooper’s cruel, immature management style has been a poorly kept secret in City Hall and includes an anecdote about throwing a stapler through a wall. If general services indeed patched up the mayoral suite, as the rumor goes, there is paperwork—we have an outstanding public records request and will report back for corroboration.
Roundabout language when fewer, clearer words are appropriate has become a hallmark of public-facing communications like Cooper’s commitment tracker, likely the work of Ben Eagles (one of the few staff members who hasn’t walked out). Circumlocution is a form of damage control, a way of confusing the reader and obscuring what is or isn’t happening in Metro’s highest office. A simple ‘No’ or ‘not yet’ becomes “Assessing feasibility,” or, Public Comment’s personal favorite: “Mayor Cooper is reviewing all policy options and is dedicated to solutions that are efficient and effective.” On page two, the tracker refers to the lavish tax incentives Cooper gave Oracle as “the best possible arrangement for residents and taxpayers.”
The result leaves the reader wondering, “What exactly did that sentence mean? Did it even mean anything?” and, before long, “Why am I reading this?”
But sometimes jargonful, pedantic documents tell us about power in Nashville. This report reads like a metaphor for the Cooper administration: bureaucratic language, acronyms, time horizons, commissions, reviews, and comprehensive evaluations take the place of clear communication. The overall effect, like Cooper’s brand as a politician, feels like attrition: throw things at the public, no matter how tangential, irrelevant, or obviously ineffective. Recast it all as cautious leadership and postpone decision-making.
Instead, make decisions about decision-making. Create committees, turn them over to the city’s banks, to Vanderbilt, to law firms, tap a few people from choice non-profits, loop in the private development and real estate industries, and wait for nonbinding recommendations. This report mentions the Sustainability Advisory Committee (48 members), the Affordable Housing Task Force (21 members), and the Public Integrity Task Force (8 members (5 attorneys)). There’s also the Policing Policy Commission (41 members) and the Community Safety Advisory Board. Cooper (and the press) talk about these committees like it’s action, evidence that Cooper is taking community concerns seriously. In reality, they overlap and intersect with existing bodies that Cooper seems to ignore altogether, preferring to create his own and fill it with friends and favored constituents.
Why was a Policing Policy Commission necessary when we already have a Community Oversight Board that regularly generates Policy Advisory Reports? Why was an Affordable Housing Task Force necessary when a variety of governmental and non-governmental organizations collaborate to work toward affordable housing goals? Pretty quickly, the delay becomes the point. Cooper gets the initial positive press from creating a committee, another bump when the committee releases reports and recommendations, time passes, and we all sort of forget that nothing has happened. Cooper uses these recommendations to formulate various plans, strategic initiatives, or conduct further reviews. He postures to national groups who have plans and initiatives, like the Global Covenant of Mayors or the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, supporting coalitions and endorsing initiatives.
The problems that he was elected to fix—lack of affordable housing, the slow decline of MNPS, bad public deals—are getting far worse. What a mayor actually does or doesn’t do is the standard by which he should be strategically evaluated and Cooper has functionally ignored the (obvious) suite of priorities critical for any public figure in Nashville: mass transit, state preemption, rock-bottom minimum wage, exclusionary zoning, TVA’s energy monopoly, and a regressive property tax burden.
The best examples come from Cooper’s attempt to spin token publicity stunts as acts of environmental stewardship. We are meant to pay attention to a 1.3 megawatt solar farm for 500 homes rather than talk about how Nashville sold out Memphis, Huntsville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville last year when NES crossed the picket line to sign a 20-year contract with TVA, which powers the rest of the city with coal and gas. Commitment #17 states that trees provide Nashville with a “12:1 return-on-investment” for stormwater control  and metro is “ramping up tree-planting.” Trees are good for a lot of things (... infinite ROI?). But a tree-planting campaign is, of course, easier to publicize, legally smoother, and likely more popular with private development than protecting Nashville’s mature, existing canopy. Can we just try both?
So where are the questions about the city’s inability to keep up with any number of crises? And where are the answers? How do we make Nashville affordable? Mass transit? How do we meaningfully respond to a state trying to govern Nashville from the Capitol? Are staplers still allowed on the Mayor’s desk?
There are some clear, simple wins that Cooper takes credit for in the tracker. Metro Council reduced the speed limit from 30mph to 25mph on many neighborhood streets. Teachers got paid, an undeniably good thing, thanks to years of advocacy and organizing that comes as individual public schools, particularly in North Nashville, struggle with declining enrollment and face consolidation. Working within Tennessee’s arcane “revenue-neutral” tax code that incentivizes gentrification and misdeals tax burdens, last year’s budget raised property taxes to something approaching a level appropriate for a city of our size despite a dark-money libertarian-anarchist (Koch and friends) effort to slash basic government services like trash collection, gut schools, and, ironically, defund the police.
David Plazas, writing on behalf of the Tennessean’s editorial team, fawned over Cooper’s commitment tracker last year, calling for such “openness and accountability” to be “celebrated and emulated.” As a trained journalist, Plazas should know that accountability is actually the job of the press, not the elected official’s communications team.
The Mayor’s Office has been confronted with multiple overlapping crises. A threatening visit from the Tennessee Comptroller. A massive flood, catastrophic tornadoes, a global pandemic, and a bombing on 2nd Avenue. These have, understandably, pulled focus from other commitments and priorities. However, instead of just acknowledging that this has created unforeseen constraints (and maybe even highlighting relevant successes dealing with these crises), Cooper has tried to pretend that everything is on track. Which it isn’t, nor should we expect it to be. The rigid determination to “stick to the plan” is out of step with reality that plans can, do, and often should change. People do not elect spreadsheets, they elect leaders. Now what? Leadership is about a vision for the city. What is the vision?
Read the tracker yourself. When a politician uses his office to write his own report card, avoid the promises he’s broken, and mislead constituents with jargon and spin, the only word that fits is propaganda. When we hear about community recommendations and strategic assessments, we think about the perfunctory listening sessions and questions heard, met with polite smiles, but never answered. We have been there, in community centers and school cafeterias. As Cooper builds an empire of pointless bureaucracy, he deflects responsibility and abdicates leadership in a city that he doesn’t really know how to move forward. Most of all, he sets up a reelection campaign built on the unfinished business of 5- and 10-year plans.
Written in collaboration with Nicole (@startleseasily) whose encyclopedic knowledge of Metro and keen eye for detail make her Nashville’s most sought after editor-at-large.