Plan Your Vote, Nov. 8 2022

FACT CHECK. Following the original publication of this article, here are a couple of changes / clarifications:
1. Photo of candidate speaking at forum has been removed since it served only to trigger some readers. The photo did not comment on the candidate herself, her qualifications, or her character (in fact the caption indicated that editors fully agreed with that candidate’s message). It only showed that her comments were not omitted from the September 2022 BOMA meeting, while comments from another at the November 2022 BOMA meeting were omitted / removed from the city’s video of the meeting. You can go to the September meeting yourself and see it at this link.
2. No Planning Commissioner resigned specifically because of the rezoning to high density (or PUD). However, two Board of Zoning Commissioners did resign due to interference in their decisions by the mayor. The original sentence was removed.
3. Comments have been turned off on the Facebook article because instead of reading the actual article and commenting on the issues presented, commenters began attacking people referenced in the article. You may share your opinion below.
4. In the article no one said the condos behind KFC were started by current administration. The article said this is what high density brings.
5. READ the article before commenting.

This post is based on factual information that can be confirmed independently (but some screenshots and links are attached). Here’s what we’ve seen for the past four years, presented in a format that’s easy for people to read. Be informed about what’s happening in your city. Plan your vote on November 8, 2022.

THE GOOD

RAISES. Let’s start by giving credit where credit is due. We deeply appreciate that employees have been given significant raises. Hearing from several people who used to work here – but are now in other cities – describing how they are allowed to work free of politics and pandering, it makes me appreciate even more what our employees go through every day. Their raises are well deserved.

PERFORMANCE APPRAISALS. We also applaud that after 15-20 years of asking, our city employees are finally getting annual performance appraisals. Honestly no one likes them, but an employment review gives staff feedback on what they’re doing well and where they can improve. It should also give staff a chance to talk with supervisors and managers about where they want to grow their jobs and review opportunities for advancement.

RETAIL. Great job bringing Pop Shelf, Mario’s Pizza, Popeye’s, White Buffalo Coffee, and Thornton’s. We further applaud that one of our own right here in LaVergne (Good-L Corporation) produces the hand-carried shopping baskets used by Dollar General and Pop Shelf!

THE NOT SO GOOD

GROWTH AGAINST RECOMMENDATIONS

During the last four years, LaVergne has experienced a surge in residential growth. While everyone agrees that you can’t stop growth, change, and newness, it’s how we’re getting here that causes concern. People have been told by those currently leading, “This isn’t personal, it’s business” as the peaceful areas where they live are being dismantled through rezoning. When you change a residential low density area to high density with commercial, that brings packed housing to an area known for its narrow roads and overcrowded schools. That neighborhood is heading from THIS:

Current view of a backyard will be changing…

TO THIS:

Triple floor condos behind KFC on Nir Shreibman Blvd.

Why is this even a problem, you ask? After more than 700 citizen signatures were presented to the Planning Commission begging R-1 zoning (low density) to remain (and something a developer agreed to), the current administration asked the developer to request a change in zoning to allow high density and commercial development. The majority of the Planning Commission listened and made an unfavorable recommendation to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BOMA) against this zoning change, but BOMA overruled both the citizens and commissioners and forced the change. Additionally the will of the people was not just ignored, but residents have been openly mocked and taunted for fighting back. The infamous lawsuit? These residents are asking for relief from heavy-handed decisions made both against the wishes of hundreds of people who live there AND the city’s own Planning Commission. Worth noting, none of the residents objected to new subdivisions going in, contrary to what’s been sold on social media. No one is against growth, but SMART GROWTH is needed.

SLOPPY INFRASTRUCTURE. When you don’t plan ahead and a huge infrastructure project begins on the FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL (2021) with no warning to residents, that’s just sloppy. When you have a roundabout that could have been home to flowers or landscaping but get a telephone pole instead, that’s just sloppy. When your projects cause massive traffic backups, that’s just sloppy. When signs are just embarrassingly faded and peeling, that’s just sloppy.

SOCIAL MEDIA. Hearing this administration described as “transparent” is just not accurate. In fact, it’s woefully inaccurate. Being “transparent” is when information is easily accessible to EVERYONE. Transparency is when information is shared publicly, not in groups where people have to apply for membership. Currently our city page – which was the FIRST municipal facebook page in Rutherford County – has just over 5,000 followers. Smyrna’s page, where they actually share information, news, events, etc., has more than 17,000 followers. There is a direct correlation in the number of followers with valuable information being provided.

What we do have in LaVergne are anywhere from five to nine private groups managed by the current mayor. When someone disagrees with him, when someone shares information about someone he views as a political enemy, when someone is favorable to people he doesn’t like, they are removed and blocked from the groups. This is why when people visit his countless groups, you only see opinions through rose-colored glasses. Recently – under threat of being reported to the ACLU for censorship – several of our personal acquaintances were unblocked from his pages. Another common action is the mayor asking people to send private messages. People we know have done this, only to learn later that he reports these conversations to FB as “spam” so they completely disappear. Lesson learned if you have a conversation by message that you view as important, you’d better screenshot it before it’s gone.

AND MORE CENSORSHIP. Lots of people believe that censorship is when random pages or groups don’t let you just post whatever you want. The actual definition is when a GOVERNMENT ENTITY OR GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL withholds or block information. We proved the city censored information by withholding links to meetings where information was openly discussed that would impact 10,000+ people HERE. We had to dig to find links on YouTube to share the information (which was subsequently corrected). Most recently one of our long-time residents spoke during citizen comments on November 1st during the Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting. She spoke against the mayor. Through September, the city aired the citizen comments but they don’t share the citizen comments when people speak against him, or when they express concerns about the direction the city is headed.

USING OFFICE FOR POLITICAL GAIN. As an elected official, you are expected to speak at city events. But when you are speaking as mayor wearing your “vote for me” tshirt, you are using your office for political gain. On the flip side, wearing official city clothing while campaigning is the same thing. It’s using city resources for political gain. I encourage public officials to speak up at formal events, but don’t use public events for self promotion. NOTHING wrong with wearing your campaign tshirt, but if you’re wearing it the announcements of winners should be made by staff. Same goes for city staff. Support whoever you want to support – you are ENCOURAGED to express your first amendment rights to free speech. But don’t use city resources while doing so.

WASTEFUL SPENDING AND DEBT. As former members of the Parks & Recreation Advisory Committee and having written both a master parks & rec plan AND a Local Parks & Recreation Fund grant application (both were approved), some of our editors volunteered to do the same for our city at no charge. For free. Instead the city budgeted between $150,000 and $180,000 (can’t remember exact number) for this to be done. They were proud they *only* spent $70,000 for this.

More than 100 grants have been given by the Boyd Foundation for dog parks throughout Tennessee. When LaVergne received the grant in 2019, the town where one of our editors works also received the same amount at the same time. We had our beautiful dog park built within six months (give or take), with $2,000 left over for water. Other local folks also built theirs quickly and efficiently. Yet LaVergne waited three years to build… until election year. We were told it was going to be “state of the art” and amazing. What officials didn’t count on was during the excruciating delay, Covid would hit which had a terrible impact on the supply chain, therefore prices skyrocketed. Our dog park now has two fences, a parking lot, water for the dogs, and donated picnic tables. But no adventure or training toys. We do really like that the city saved some shade trees. Anyway, where other communities paid $25,000 for their dog parks, LaVergne paid $150,000.

We requested information from the city asking about how much debt has been issued from 2011 through (anticipated debt) 2023. What we found was that the current administration has and is scheduled to issue 24% MORE DEBT than the previous two administrations combined. The one caveat we would point out is that some of the debt issued also included refinancing old debt at a lower interest rate. Taking that into account, the city issued 21% more NEW debt than the previous two administrations. While yes it costs money to operate a city, the concern is can we afford this. Someone asked our city’s finance manager if we could manage this debt. She said (and we’re quoting), “Um. I mean yes because we have so much money in reserve, it’s definitely manageable. But if we run into some bad years we’re in trouble.” The Finance Director also noted in a budget hearing that she was concerned about taking on so much debt because the city would then not have enough funding left for regular capital purchases such as police cars (City Budget Workshop on 4/22/2021).

Meanwhile, the debt was issued because they think recessions and bad years don’t happen? It’s worth pointing out that another $17.5 million in debt is scheduled to be issued for widening Waldron Road. Here’s what the current mayor said four years ago regarding issuance of debt.

And about necessary debt, yes EVERYONE is aware that the current public works building is a hot mess. It has mold, it’s getting old. Everyone is aware that a new building is necessary. So where’s the beef? It is the fact that the public works department with heavy trucks, potential hazardous materials, etc. is relocating to a non-centralized residential area when industrial areas are available (in a heavy industrial city). We recognize that people don’t want lots of extra traffic in their neighborhood, but moving almost a dozen city hall offices to the “Taj Mahal” as the mayor describes it (and it’s also described as a barn type structure) will also have a huge impact on traffic. The design cost for the so-called Taj Mahal / Barn is $487,000 according to City Budget Workshop Meeting 3 in 2022 on April 25, 2022. An amendment to the budget (Ordinance 2022-17) calls for an additional $150,000 in engineering fees. Here’s a link to several relevant discussions about the money being spent. Go to 13:03  to listen about Capitol Projects Streets Engineering Fees Only and 16:11 for discussion of this only covering engineering fees, not projects. Dig deeper to find that a fish-stocked RETENTION pond (not detention pond because that drains) and walking trails are being built just a hundred feet or so from a lake that… well it has fish. Also dig deeper to find that the new city hall complex (being sold as a community development center) is being built in several stages. This will require more and more debt to be issued in the coming years.

Added to this is the fact that the city bought the land for ABOVE APPRAISED VALUE. Then the city sold other property owned by the city for BELOW APPRAISED VALUE. This is not good stewardship of our public funds. And the mostly hand-picked BOMA members went right along with this which is likely why they were hand-picked.

For further clarification, the stormwater fund paid for a building purchase several years ago and it was named the “Stormwater Building” for this reason. However with general offices also being located in the future stormwater building, state law states you cannot legally take all money from a special fund to support other city functions. Here’s a link to that meeting. Go to 3:14:30 where Adam Leach talks about PW building and said legally the city can’t take all the money out of storm water funds. This is one of the reasons more debt is needing to be issued.

Let’s talk about more spending (click this link). Here’s what to watch (but feel free of course to watch it all):
29:33 total non recurring capital and operating request $3,208,600
31:28 total operating recurring and capital and operating requests combined capital requests total $4,146,677
35:10  Public Works Design costs to be spread out $487,000
45:58 Finance director comments this is a very large increase request this year
46:49  Alderman Waldron expresses concern about bad future years, Finance director says $980,000 in recurring year budgets will roll over every year going forward

Now here’s a meeting where the following items were discussed (click this link).
22:12 LED street light conversion 
22:56  Where the storm water budget for new PW building was amended, additional engineering fees of 150,000 for public works.
45:45  Motion of intent to purchase PW facility (appraisal was $1,300,000 and offer to purchase is $1,500,000).

COMMITTEE MEMBERSHIP. The members of BOMA violated the city’s municipal code in its efforts to appoint members to certain committees. Here’s what our municipal code says:

SHALL be eligible. That means if a member of a committee is in good standing (attends meetings regularly, for example), they SHALL be eligible for re-appointment. Tell that to committee members who have been removed from Parks & Recreation, the Senior Advisory Committee, and the Board of Zoning Appeals. Two long-time members in good standing were removed from P&R when their terms expired. This was in direct violation of our own city municipal code. Volunteers in our community (including one who was literally named citizen of the year and another who originated the Farmers Market idea) were replaced with friends of the mayor. This means no differing opinions can be offered without threats of being removed, either when terms expire or just willful removal. Also note that the mayor recently said in another private group somewhere that he doesn’t “appoint” anyone. Clearly it states he does appoint, but members are confirmed by the rest of the board. Also worth noting is that three of the five current members of the BOMA were originally appointed by the mayor. One did deserve the appointment as the third-highest vote getter. Another person was appointed with no government experience, no history of meeting attendance, no active committee experience (though she proclaimed on her behalf that her husband served on a committee). This person was appointed instead of about a dozen other applicants who had impressive resumes and experience. But was needed was an assured “yes” vote and that’s what he got in the approximately 65% of meetings she attended.

THE SHOCKING

UNINHABITABLE. A couple of years ago, we heard about a gentleman here in LaVergne who’d had his home declared “uninhabitable” by the city codes department. Not because of junk cars, trash, mold or rodent infestation, holes in the ceiling, or otherwise an unsafe structure. Why was it declared uninhabitable? Because his water was shutoff for non-payment. 

Forget the fact that people can buy water in bottles, gallon jugs or water cooler containers. The current administration is having codes staff declare homes as uninhabitable because their water has been cutoff for non-payment. We heard about this a couple of years ago, but when one member of our editorial team made phone calls it stopped. Unfortunately, we received confirmation in October 2022 that a couple of months (maybe weeks) after the initial phone call was made the practice was resumed.

To customers who’ve had to move out of their homes because they’ve been declared uninhabitable for water being shutoff, we hope you are registered to vote and remember this at the polls. To anyone who defends this practice, we ask how would you feel if you’ve forgotten to pay your bill one month because of illness, loss of income, or another reason, then be told your home is uninhabitable.

Why would the city not take some basic steps toward being a compassionate government (e.g., starting a round-up your bill program to help others or copy Smyrna’s existing help program) rather than taking punitive actions. We confirmed this directly from two employees who have asked to remain anonymous. Read about fear further below. If you want proof, complete an information request form and ask for the following: Request texts and emails from codes enforcement officers, current water billing department employees, Randolph Salyers, and Mayor Cole.

COLLECTING SPONSORS AND MONEY ON BEHALF OF CITY. Several years ago a member of the Parks & Recreation Committee was publicly humiliated by the current mayor for saying she had sponsors to build a memorial wall for the city.

Unfortunately, this is what’s now happening again. A committee member is stating he is doing the same exact thing – with the mayor in attendance at the same meeting – and nothing was said. This is a double standard, different rules for different people.

THE FEAR. We have talked with dozens of people who are (frankly) afraid of the mayor. Because of their fear, we won’t name them. But there is real fear in our community about publicly disagreeing with leadership because they don’t want to be a victim of someone seeking revenge. We’ve had employees leave because of always being watched and questioned. Yes oversight and accountability are important, but not to the point where people are always looking over their shoulder. Not to the point that the people you were elected to serve are fearful of you.

THE FINAL DAY TO VOTE IS TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 8TH, FROM 7:00 A.M. TO 7:00 P.M. You can vote this year at any precinct in Rutherford County.

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