The Problem with Normal

Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told Channel 4 that this is how government works.

"It’s part of government. To try to draw any conclusions that it’s anything beyond that is really kind of sophomoric," Riebeling told Channel 4.

–WSMV Television

Such is the response of Rich Riebling, Metro Finance Director in response to questions about a series of e-mails that has been leaked which provide insight into the efforts made by the administration to move forward the closing of the fairgrounds. Many of these e-mails can be found on Mike Byrd’s Enclave site, but WSMV has also received copies and asking questions about the internal process behind the administration’s strategy to win the debate and the battle.

In fact, what Mr. Riebling says is indeed the truth. The kinds of conversations on strategy, including demonizing the intentions of opponents and devaluing their input are normal in politics today. Focusing on strategy and managing communications is the focus of much activity behind the walls of government, with officials and media alike often focusing on process as much as outcomes. And that is the problem, for what Mr. Riebling labels sophomoric is behind the mistrust in government seen throughout our country today. Average men and women are frankly tired of the horse race for the race’s sake. They want to feel that they are heard by their leader and they are angry when it becomes clear that their leaders are manipulating process in ways to undermine the broader desires of the community.

Let’s be straight here – our system of governance requires times when leaders overrule the desires of the masses in order to bring forth justice and needed change. Such was the case in regards to overturning the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. But in those cases it is important for our leaders to stand firm and proclaim the principles they are upholding, recognizing that in staking out a position of principle they may indeed be putting their political future at risk. Back room dealings are more often than not driven by the fear of accountability rather than a stance on principle.

I may be an idealistic sophomore in my desire, but I (like many) long for a politics by which people stake claims and debate issues on merits leading to informed decisions rather than focusing on strategic meanderings that leads to a desired result with a minimum of conversation and debate. If the administration clearly believes that: 1) there is no way for the fairgrounds to be financially viable apart from city funding; 2) that the city does not need a multipurpose piece of property to be used in a variety of ways (including during emergencies); and 3) that economic development possibilities are close enough to reality that it justifies the destruction of a property that has historic roots in our city, then clearly say so and get out throughout the community to sell your position. If this is ultimately about closing the racetrack to deal with valid noise concerns, than say so and make your case. A single press conference with some pretty pictures from the Nashville Chamber with very little detail is not engaging in conversation on the merits of your plan.

Why is it so impossible to imagine that governance could involve honest conversation with one another so that all can feel heard, and thus possibly lead to greater acceptance when the majority makes a final decision? Yes, the back room e-mails are normal, but do they really have to be?

There are times when I really wish Karl and company would read Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team and recognize that managing our city is a team effort.


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