The Nolensville Board of Mayor and Aldermen held a work session on Wednesday where the discussed a variety of topics, including the possibility of altering the town’s form of government from a Strong Mayor System to a Manager, Commission System.
“This is a longterm discussion, this is not something that happens today, next year, in two years,” Town Administrator Scott Collins said at the beginning of the work session that he led.
Nolensville Mayor Jimmy Alexander said that the discussion of a change in government structure has been ongoing behind the scenes of town hall for several years, adding that it was also a conversation he had with Nolensville’s previous town administrator Ken McLawhon.
“The idea of a government change is not a new idea. We have talked about this for a number of years, in fact, I’ve talked about it with Scott in the short time that he’s been here. We’ve talked about what are the advantages, what are the disadvantages and whether we should even think about it right now,” Alexander said. “It doesn’t hurt to discuss it. With all of our discussions and all of our back and forth, the conclusion was that the town of Nolensville is doing very well. The vast majority of people out here are happy, they have no concerns about the form of government we have and we didn’t feel like it was time to bring up anything like this.”
Alexander touted the community in Nolensville and the growing number of people who choose to live in the town.
“We got things going pretty good now,” Alexander said. “Do we want to in the midst of how everything is working [change things?] Not everything is working — I hate to see Scott leave — but basically everything is going really good. Do we want to stir the pot and try to start thinking more about a different form of government?”
Collins dove into the complexities of the challenge by first using the metaphor of a garden that began with a single patch of corn that has now become a diverse community garden to explain how he saw the changes in both population growth and the corresponding needs of the town and community.
“There’s a certain component of the community who thinks that corn patch has grown from only corn from 5,000 to 15,000, where it’s only the local population that has grown and taken root for that. There’s another component to where we’ve brought things in so now our corn garden has strawberries and peas and okra and all of those things to where it’s now a community garden and not just a patch of corn. Everything in that community garden is a part of the community — it all needs water, it all needs Sun, but individually it all has different needs. Strawberries different from corn, then different from peas, different from okra but it’s all a part of the garden. So the discussion is how do you manage the garden? How do you keep everything in it healthy and obviously maintain the weeds and that’s where we are, because the more growth and the more things get involved the more nurturing it needs.”
Collins said that the complexes are not just in changing government structures but in understanding that the current form of government is itself a challenge with the rapid growth of the town that is largely the responsibility of a part-time mayor.
“The question to that is how does it become successful so that it’s supportive for the community in the long term? That’s the reality of how we arrived at this discussion — nothing more, nothing less — it wasn’t political, it wasn’t [unintelligible,] it was how does the function so that everyone can understand who we are, how we can move forward in that thing.”
Collins said that the discussions and any decision to alter the government should include everyone in the town.
“This is not something that you vote on next week and all of a sudden you come two meetings from now and there’s a city manager sitting here. It’s a long term process that involves the community, the state, the staff — everyone,” Collins said. “As a team, all fo the stakeholders, shareholders, voters, everybody involved need to have an invested say and thought in the process while also understanding the ultimate goal is what benefits Nolensville 5 years, 10 years, 20 years down the road so that everyone can be a part of it.”
Collins also strongly defended Mayor Alexander and the town administration and assessed the greater Nolensville community as one that is looking to have pride in their government.
“In the sort time that I’ve been here what I have seen is a mayor who comes in everyday to do the best he can for a growing community who needs it,” Collins said. “I see a staff that’s floundering a little bit, that needs some help and a direction for where we’re going to go and a community that just wants to be proud of the whole process no matter what that is.”
Collins detailed the current form of government where the charter does provide for a town administrator position that he called “a bit cumbersome.”
“I understand what the intent of the charter was and I think that would have worked well 15 years ago,” Collins said. “The process for the amount of work put on the mayor and the responsibility put on the mayor today has really grown that, so the discussion is do you invest in staff to help the mayor do those things or do you change the form government where you relieve that pressure from the elected officials and put that responsibility on someone that the whole community and board can be responsible to that group?”
Collins said that it’s a healthy discussion for the community and BOMA to have, something that Alexander voiced an agreement with, and a discussion that Alderman Wendy Cook-Mucci said has been a common one throughout local governments, citing the Elected Officials Academy Manual that discussed the challenge of the Strong Mayor System in dealing with unprecedented growth.
“I think that’s where we are,",” Cook-Mucci said. "We’ve just urbanized to a point where our system has been great — you’ve brought us here — and now we have to figure out how to move to the next — and particularly management, before we go much further in the process, a lot of the systems are predicated on having a good town administrator, and we’ve had a heck of a time with that part of the process so that has to go underneath all of our discussions — Can we find somebody that can do this job?”
Mayor Alexander said that he is actively working on an interim town administrator, citing two possible choices to fill the soon to be vacant spot.
Collins said that regardless of the future structure of the government that a key to the town's success lies in good communication and a clear understanding of the roles and processes of the government, as well as detailing some specific pros to the proposed system.
“The benefits that there are is that it does give you someone day in and day out to be responsible to everyone when you go through that process. It helps to facilitate staff and network and those things, and it limits the necessity to allow elected officials, particularly the part-time elected officials on part-time salaries who just aren’t really given the tools and time and resources to get those things done, that is a huge ask of anybody regardless of the town,” Collins said. “The ordinance when done can be done in such a way that it clearly defines that. Those roles, if you stay under this form of government, there just have to be really open discussions about everyone understanding these are the roles, tasks, these are the lanes so to speak and everyone involved in the task not being offended if someone doesn’t use a blinker.”
Alderman Derek Adams acknowledged the work by Mayor Alexander and former Mayor and current County Commissioner Beth Lothers who was sitting in the audience during the meeting, but reaffirmed his stance for needed change.
“If I could pick what we would do I would pick a board of seven people who are all equals and are making decisions together as a board for the town. It provides better representation for a growing, diverse population,” Adams said. “We have a very diverse town compared to what it used to be and with that comes diverse ideas and people will feel better represented.”
Collins said that his only caution — one that he said was more of a personal opinion versus a professional opinion — had to do with how the discussion has been framed.
“Over the last 72 hours so to speak when there was a discussion that came about there was a component of this that became a Jimmy Alexander discussion rather than a manager-council form of government or how that goes,” Collins said. “I’ll submit to everyone in this room, that is completely unfair.”
Collins defended Alexander and his dedication to the job, something that Adams agreed with.
“Within that, it’s also unfair to expect that a person such as Mayor Alexander or anyone else be saddled with the responsibilities that are required to function a town of this magnitude and the growth that we’ve had.”
“The discussion going from healthy, where does Nolensville go forward, to pointed, how did we get here and whose at fault for that — it’s just wrong,” Collins said noting that while the town has challenges it also has opportunities. "Take a moment to find out what you appreciate and then take a moment for how you invest in that going forward, because if you don’t you’re going to have Facebook, social media fights back and forth and the same discussions at the next election and the next election and the next one. There’s too much good in this room for it to be a personal discussion., it should be a ‘what do we do as a community?’ discussion”
Finally Collins laid out a potential path forward if the community and government decide to go down it, saying that there would have to be a petition signed by 3,000 residents to have the issue considered by BOMA, followed by a resolution or ordinance adopted by BOMA suggesting a surrender of the town charter in favor of a new specific government structure.
That matter would then be taken up by the state legislature and would involve an election bond that would have to be put up for the cost of the election, in what Collins said would be a very long process over several years, meaning that for the foreseeable future the issue is bound to continue to be discussed but is unlikely to see any significant change.
Collins, who is resigning after just over a month on the job, also faced questions and disappointment from town officials in the same meeting. That reporting can be found here.