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Developers Gone Wild

City planner may lose job for standing up for neighborhoods

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It was one of the slickest marketing themes of Mayor Karl Dean’s election campaign: He promised not to play the “old-style politics” of Nashville’s past—a not-too-subtle dissing of his stale, vapid opponent, Bob Clement. Yet now, scarcely eight months into his first term, comes the news that Dean’s top aide—Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote—may have interceded on behalf of politically connected developers who are pressuring the Metro Planning Department to fire its strongest advocate for neighborhoods.

At the center of the quarrel is the Swiss Ridge apartment/townhouse complex—a little taste of the Alps in gritty Antioch, which was built by the developer husband of Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors and is half-owned by the Planning Commission chairman.

As you might expect, nobody’s admitting anything. But if it’s all true—and there’s certainly plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing that way—the mayor’s critics see all sorts of unsavory possibilities: a return to cronyism and political back-scratching at the courthouse, a new heyday for developers in Nashville and the end of an eight-year rise of neighborhood-friendly policies that Dean’s predecessor, Bill Purcell, started.

Metro Council member Mike Jameson, to the obvious annoyance of some of his more development-oriented colleagues, tore the lid off this political potboiler last week during public hearings on the Planning Department budget. As Jameson questioned the department’s executive director, Rick Bernhardt, about the whole dispute, the budget committee chair, Erik Cole, objected.

“This is a budget hearing,” he scolded Jameson. “It is not a deposition.”

At which point Jameson launched into an attack on the Dean administration and a defense of David Kleinfelter, the tough-minded Planning Department manager who looks to be losing his job because some developers don’t like his style.

“I’ve read some recent statements in the press that this administration is trying to restore balance in the never-ending divide between neighborhoods and developers,” Jameson said during the hearing, “as if neighborhoods somehow have the upper hand, as if driving home tonight any of us aren’t going to see just seas of asphalt and pavement. To suggest that the neighborhoods are somehow winning these wars, and to take from us one of the few advocates we have on the planning staff to help us win reasonable negotiated compromises is a real, real setback.”

Kleinfelter, who by his own admission is known among developers as an “arrogant asshole” for his rigid insistence that they follow often-complex zoning plans and rules, is drawing fire in this case over a sidewalk.

In its plan for the Swiss Ridge complex, the Planning Commission required a sidewalk on each side of the street in front of the development. That was 2003. The developers—Planning Commission chairman Jim McLean and Affordable Housing Resources, whose construction division at the time was run by the vice mayor’s husband, Steve Neighbors—have haggled over it ever since, and still there’s no sidewalk.

(How a developer manages to become chairman of the Planning Commission is a very good question, but that’s for another story.)

On May 1, Deputy Mayor Hinote met with Bernhardt, the department’s director, and Eddie Latimer, CEO of Affordable Housing Resources. Latimer, who asked for the meeting, says he complained about Kleinfelter and demanded that Bernhardt change the Planning Commission’s plan for the development to require a sidewalk on only one side of the street. He insisted that only that much sidewalk had actually been required in the beginning but that the commission’s minutes were inaccurately recorded back in 2003.

As Latimer recalls, “Rick [Bernhardt] said, ‘Oh, I can get you on the agenda’ to change the plan, and I said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

So suddenly, after five years of squabbling, all was well after the meeting in the mayor’s office. “Rick got us on the agenda in two weeks,” Latimer boasts.

Bernhardt rewrote the 2003 minutes, the commission rubber-stamped it as a mere technical correction, and the development plan was changed. It now requires a sidewalk, strangely enough, only on the opposite side of the street from the complex, where for logistical reasons, it’s presumably less expensive to build. To reach it, assuming it’s ever built, residents will have to cross the street and walk through traffic coming down a steep hill.

What’s more, only days after the meeting in the mayor’s office and after a breakfast meeting with commission chair McLean, Bernhardt told Kleinfelter that, after seven years on the job, his $88,000-a-year employment contract wouldn’t be renewed when it expires at the end of the year.

By one account, Bernhardt told Kleinfelter, “ ‘I just can’t defend you anymore.’ ” According to Bernhardt, he relayed a message from McLean. Bernhardt says, “I told Kleinfelter that McLean said that the commission would not approve a renewal of his contract.”

McLean says Bernhardt “misconstrued” what he said about Kleinfelter’s job status, that actually he didn’t promise to fire Kleinfelter but only threatened to try to do it. “I told Rick, ‘Look, David is very discourteous in some cases.’ I said, ‘Hey, he needs to remember that the commissioners are the ones who decide whether his contract is renewed or not.’ ”

In any case, McLean says, “It had nothing to do with the sidewalks out there.”

“I like David, but he’s a smart aleck,” McLean adds. “We get a lot of complaints from developers and builders that David is rubbing them the wrong way. They’re the ones who are bringing economic development into the community. [When developers go to the planning office] David needs to say to them, ‘Yes sir, come on in. I’m happy to see you.’ ”

Since Jameson went public with their backroom dealing, the Swiss Ridge developers have stayed busy innocently batting their eyes.

“I never intervened” with the mayor’s office, McLean says. Latimer says, “Everybody’s trying to make this look like a political thing. It would be flattering if I had such power, but I’m just a very little fish in a big sea.”

Latimer doesn’t deny, though, that he wouldn’t mind it if Kleinfelter lost his job.

“If what I said about Kleinfelter [during the meeting in the mayor’s office] broke the camel’s back, we were one straw of about a thousand,” Latimer says. “He’s not a good public servant.”

Steve Neighbors insists “it’s been a long time” since he was personally involved with Swiss Ridge. It’s true that in 2007, four years after the project began, Neighbors shifted positions at Affordable Housing Resources to become president of a wholly owned subsidiary, 5th & Main Corp. But even after that, he concedes, he continued to send emails to the Planning Department about the sidewalk dispute and even attended a meeting at the construction site about it.

Still, he says, “As far as whether the sidewalks get built or not, I don’t know why I’d have a vested interest in that.”

“I consider David [Kleinfelter] a friend,” he adds. “I don’t have any reason to go after his job, nor does she [his wife, the vice mayor]. I don’t know where all this is coming from, but I just think it’s completely inaccurate and outside of who we are and the way we conduct our business.”

The vice mayor herself says her husband would never try to use his political connections to his advantage. “My husband would not do that,” Diane Neighbors says. “He has had a very good working relationship with the Planning Department.”

In a letter to Metro Council members Tuesday, the vice mayor denounced the news media, meaning the Scene, for reporting online about her husband’s involvement with Swiss Ridge, and she accused Jameson of trying “to create a controversy intended to influence a Planning Department personnel decision.

“My husband and I were, it now appears, merely the unintended victims of his [Jameson’s] ‘advocacy’ efforts and perhaps a reporter’s efforts to create a more sensational story,” she wrote.

As for the propriety of Hinote’s meeting, she tells the Scene, “The mayor and everyone in the mayor’s office has had an open-door policy for everyone. They should be commended for their open door and their willingness to deal with people.”

Hinote, who is laid up at home following a bicycle accident, says he too is mystified by the controversy. He says the meeting was about the sidewalk argument and that Kleinfelter’s job status never came up.

“My interest and the interest of the mayor’s office is to make sure that the government is working for people in the way it should be,” Hinote says. “I do a lot of those kinds of meetings. Whatever political implications are being talked about today were not a part of the meeting that I had in my office. None whatsoever.”

The public squabble at least has made the city’s planning czars think twice about firing Kleinfelter. McLean now says Kleinfelter might keep his job if he’s nice to developers, and the entire 10-member commission can decide the planner’s fate in November. Kleinfelter, who at this point hopes to stay employed, isn’t commenting much publicly, except to say that he “isn’t willing to go out on that limb” and accuse anyone of succumbing to political pressure.

“I invite my supporters to keep those cards and letters coming,” he says..

It was one of the slickest marketing themes of Mayor Karl Dean’s election campaign: He promised not to play the “old-style politics” of Nashville’s past—a not-too-subtle dissing of his stale, vapid opponent, Bob Clement. Yet now, scarcely eight months into his first term, comes the news that Dean’s top aide—Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote—may have interceded on behalf of politically connected developers who are pressuring the Metro Planning Department to fire its strongest advocate for neighborhoods.

At the center of the quarrel is the Swiss Ridge apartment/townhouse complex—a little taste of the Alps in gritty Antioch, which was built by the developer husband of Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors and is half-owned by the Planning Commission chairman.

As you might expect, nobody’s admitting anything. But if it’s all true—and there’s certainly plenty of circumstantial evidence pointing that way—the mayor’s critics see all sorts of unsavory possibilities: a return to cronyism and political back-scratching at the courthouse, a new heyday for developers in Nashville and the end of an eight-year rise of neighborhood-friendly policies that Dean’s predecessor, Bill Purcell, started.

Metro Council member Mike Jameson, to the obvious annoyance of some of his more development-oriented colleagues, tore the lid off this political potboiler last week during public hearings on the Planning Department budget. As Jameson questioned the department’s executive director, Rick Bernhardt, about the whole dispute, the budget committee chair, Erik Cole, objected.

“This is a budget hearing,” he scolded Jameson. “It is not a deposition.”

At which point Jameson launched into an attack on the Dean administration and a defense of David Kleinfelter, the tough-minded Planning Department manager who looks to be losing his job because some developers don’t like his style.

“I’ve read some recent statements in the press that this administration is trying to restore balance in the never-ending divide between neighborhoods and developers,” Jameson said during the hearing, “as if neighborhoods somehow have the upper hand, as if driving home tonight any of us aren’t going to see just seas of asphalt and pavement. To suggest that the neighborhoods are somehow winning these wars, and to take from us one of the few advocates we have on the planning staff to help us win reasonable negotiated compromises is a real, real setback.”

Kleinfelter, who by his own admission is known among developers as an “arrogant asshole” for his rigid insistence that they follow often-complex zoning plans and rules, is drawing fire in this case over a sidewalk.

In its plan for the Swiss Ridge complex, the Planning Commission required a sidewalk on each side of the street in front of the development. That was 2003. The developers—Planning Commission chairman Jim McLean and Affordable Housing Resources, whose construction division at the time was run by the vice mayor’s husband, Steve Neighbors—have haggled over it ever since, and still there’s no sidewalk.

(How a developer manages to become chairman of the Planning Commission is a very good question, but that’s for another story.)

On May 1, Deputy Mayor Hinote met with Bernhardt, the department’s director, and Eddie Latimer, CEO of Affordable Housing Resources. Latimer, who asked for the meeting, says he complained about Kleinfelter and demanded that Bernhardt change the Planning Commission’s plan for the development to require a sidewalk on only one side of the street. He insisted that only that much sidewalk had actually been required in the beginning but that the commission’s minutes were inaccurately recorded back in 2003.

As Latimer recalls, “Rick [Bernhardt] said, ‘Oh, I can get you on the agenda’ to change the plan, and I said, ‘Thank you.’ ”

So suddenly, after five years of squabbling, all was well after the meeting in the mayor’s office. “Rick got us on the agenda in two weeks,” Latimer boasts.

Bernhardt rewrote the 2003 minutes, the commission rubber-stamped it as a mere technical correction, and the development plan was changed. It now requires a sidewalk, strangely enough, only on the opposite side of the street from the complex, where for logistical reasons, it’s presumably less expensive to build. To reach it, assuming it’s ever built, residents will have to cross the street and walk through traffic coming down a steep hill.

What’s more, only days after the meeting in the mayor’s office and after a breakfast meeting with commission chair McLean, Bernhardt told Kleinfelter that, after seven years on the job, his $88,000-a-year employment contract wouldn’t be renewed when it expires at the end of the year.

By one account, Bernhardt told Kleinfelter, “ ‘I just can’t defend you anymore.’ ” According to Bernhardt, he relayed a message from McLean. Bernhardt says, “I told Kleinfelter that McLean said that the commission would not approve a renewal of his contract.”

McLean says Bernhardt “misconstrued” what he said about Kleinfelter’s job status, that actually he didn’t promise to fire Kleinfelter but only threatened to try to do it. “I told Rick, ‘Look, David is very discourteous in some cases.’ I said, ‘Hey, he needs to remember that the commissioners are the ones who decide whether his contract is renewed or not.’ ”

In any case, McLean says, “It had nothing to do with the sidewalks out there.”

“I like David, but he’s a smart aleck,” McLean adds. “We get a lot of complaints from developers and builders that David is rubbing them the wrong way. They’re the ones who are bringing economic development into the community. [When developers go to the planning office] David needs to say to them, ‘Yes sir, come on in. I’m happy to see you.’ ”

Since Jameson went public with their backroom dealing, the Swiss Ridge developers have stayed busy innocently batting their eyes.

“I never intervened” with the mayor’s office, McLean says. Latimer says, “Everybody’s trying to make this look like a political thing. It would be flattering if I had such power, but I’m just a very little fish in a big sea.”

Latimer doesn’t deny, though, that he wouldn’t mind it if Kleinfelter lost his job.

“If what I said about Kleinfelter [during the meeting in the mayor’s office] broke the camel’s back, we were one straw of about a thousand,” Latimer says. “He’s not a good public servant.”

Steve Neighbors insists “it’s been a long time” since he was personally involved with Swiss Ridge. It’s true that in 2007, four years after the project began, Neighbors shifted positions at Affordable Housing Resources to become president of a wholly owned subsidiary, 5th & Main Corp. But even after that, he concedes, he continued to send emails to the Planning Department about the sidewalk dispute and even attended a meeting at the construction site about it.

Still, he says, “As far as whether the sidewalks get built or not, I don’t know why I’d have a vested interest in that.”

“I consider David [Kleinfelter] a friend,” he adds. “I don’t have any reason to go after his job, nor does she [his wife, the vice mayor]. I don’t know where all this is coming from, but I just think it’s completely inaccurate and outside of who we are and the way we conduct our business.”

The vice mayor herself says her husband would never try to use his political connections to his advantage. “My husband would not do that,” Diane Neighbors says. “He has had a very good working relationship with the Planning Department.”

In a letter to Metro Council members Tuesday, the vice mayor denounced the news media, meaning the Scene, for reporting online about her husband’s involvement with Swiss Ridge, and she accused Jameson of trying “to create a controversy intended to influence a Planning Department personnel decision.

“My husband and I were, it now appears, merely the unintended victims of his [Jameson’s] ‘advocacy’ efforts and perhaps a reporter’s efforts to create a more sensational story,” she wrote.

As for the propriety of Hinote’s meeting, she tells the Scene, “The mayor and everyone in the mayor’s office has had an open-door policy for everyone. They should be commended for their open door and their willingness to deal with people.”

Hinote, who is laid up at home following a bicycle accident, says he too is mystified by the controversy. He says the meeting was about the sidewalk argument and that Kleinfelter’s job status never came up.

“My interest and the interest of the mayor’s office is to make sure that the government is working for people in the way it should be,” Hinote says. “I do a lot of those kinds of meetings. Whatever political implications are being talked about today were not a part of the meeting that I had in my office. None whatsoever.”

The public squabble at least has made the city’s planning czars think twice about firing Kleinfelter. McLean now says Kleinfelter might keep his job if he’s nice to developers, and the entire 10-member commission can decide the planner’s fate in November. Kleinfelter, who at this point hopes to stay employed, isn’t commenting much publicly, except to say that he “isn’t willing to go out on that limb” and accuse anyone of succumbing to political pressure.

“I invite my supporters to keep those cards and letters coming,” he says..

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