Lebanon’s mayoral candidates met to discuss their platforms for the first time during a forum at the Capitol Theatre on Tuesday.
The Wilson County Black History Committee hosted the event, which included Mayor Bernie Ash and challengers Cumberland University professor Rick Bell, former city councilor Rob Cesternino and touring musician John DeMoor.
Rusty Richardson of Cumberland University moderated the forum, and the candidates weighed in on issues from COVID-19 to the square’s Gen. Robert Hatton statue. Here’s how each candidate looks to face the city’s challenges if elected on Nov. 3.
COVID-19 and the city budget
DeMoor said following health and safety guidelines is the most effective way to prevent the virus from spreading further in the community, and outlined his plans for budget management to address the economic impact.
“I was going through the budget and I noticed, as an example, we have 10 bonds that we’re dealing with as far as debt load,” he said. “I’d like to know when those bonds are going to meet maturity so that we can get an estimated or an exact target of when some of these debts will be relieved … I’ll take another look at the budget to see if anything else can be pared back without too much harm to citizens, but I think more transparency, as I look at the budget I think it could be a little more detailed as far as how much debt we’re incurring, perhaps quarterly.”
Cesternino said he wants department heads to submit yearly budgets with contingency plans to cut 2.5%, 5.5%, 7.5% and 10% to prepare for revenue shortfall.
“Right now, everyone seems to be operating in this city in a bubble like they don’t see that there’s a problem because we have disproportionately inflated numbers because of the online retail sales,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, make no mistake. As I was at Mo’Cara the other night and we saw a restaurant owner on his last night shutting his doors, and Dickey’s Barbecue close their doors — we have financial issues, but as long as we have a plan, as long as we have experienced, results-oriented leadership we’ll be fine.”
Ash said COVID-19 is a present threat in the community and asked residents to wear masks and socially distance. Economically, he said the city is in a healthy position because of recently passed status quo budgets and increased tax collections.
“We didn’t know how our sales tax revenue was going to come in from March, April, May and June,” he said. “We’ve been watching those numbers very carefully, and they have come in actually over last year’s revenues … part of that is because of the half-cent sales tax that was passed, it helped with our sales tax … we have tried to take care of our employees and take care of our citizens, and I think we’ve done a good job.”
Bell said he intends to make various budget cuts without raising taxes to address COVID-19’s economic impact.
“I’m not going to go in and ask for across the board cuts across all departments, because some departments run more efficiently than others,” he said. “But there do need to be cuts out there, and to do that we need better budget management. We need a mayor who understands that the budget is his responsibility, and not the responsibility of the department heads … if this budget comes up short, we can’t put a tax increase on people that are struggling. We already had a 41% tax increase last year, we can’t do that again.”
Cesternino said he sees Lebanon as a transit-oriented extension of Nashville, citing locations like the Lebanon Municipal Airport and Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital as strong marketing assets.
“You’re talking about Lebanon going through a shift in its culture,” he said. “So we need to communicate, we need to collaborate, we need to get consensus, sometimes we need to be ready to compromise and then we need to work as a team understanding that it’s our responsibility to leave Lebanon a better place for our kids and our grandkids.”
On maintaining the city’s small-town feel while growing business, Cesternino said he wants to implement a more focused zoning plan to protect investments, and seek out businesses to match the commercial and industrial areas.
Ash’s vision for Lebanon’s growth is focused on quality of life investments. His administration is currently building a network of parks using $5 million originally borrowed for a single park in Hermitage Springs, and also used a portion to buy land for a sports complex on Highway 231.
“My vision, and I’ve started on it, is to have several neighborhood parks,” he said. “Hopefully one in each district before we’re through. We’ve already built one out on South Hartmann Drive, we have another being built in Cairo Bend where a lot of growth has happened, a lot of houses are being built. I’m planning another one, a very small park by the Water Department on Carver Lane.”
Ash also credited Economic Development Director Sarah Haston and a consulting firm he hired with bringing several new businesses into Lebanon over the past few years.
Bell said he wants the city to build up its interstate access points through projects like the South Hartmann Drive Corridor Study and the 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which were introduced three years ago and remain in development.
“We have to have more urgency than that,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ll get overwhelmed … we have four interstate exits, and we’re not utilizing all of them for retail, property tax revenues, sales tax. Sparta Pike, I’d love to see a Red Lobster out there, and a hotel. We have an Expo Center out there, that should attract business.”
Bell said the city should also to create the infrastructure, such as sewer lines, to support future development.
DeMoor supports leaving the city’s current zoning ordinances intact and building up existing industrial areas.
“I don’t think government should get involved in micromanaging things like that,” he said. “I think that as neighbors, we can all obey the zoning laws and the safety codes and preserve our neighborhood while we’re growing Lebanon. Lebanon’s going to be growing whether we like it or not, and I think we need to embrace it and do it wisely.”
DeMoor said his economic development plan is centered on growth and historic preservation, and he plans to release a copy in the next few weeks.
Ash said the Lebanon Police Department is among the most professional in the state, and that their safety training and procedures are sufficient to prevent an incident like George Floyd’s death.
“Our police department does not condone unnecessary violence,” he said. “I know of one case where a policeman mistreated a lady in her car. Our chief of police, with my approval, fired that officer. And it will happen to any police officer who does not respect the public and avoid unnecessary violence. I think we have already solved that problem in Lebanon.”
Bell said the Lebanon PD’s protocols include never cutting off a suspect’s airway when subduing them, and said he sees the department as one always looking to improve.
“A former student of mine who’s a police officer now in another city put something on Facebook when everything was happening,” he said. “He said the people he works with, sometimes they like going to the gun range to train but they don’t like training on subduing suspects. We need to train in all of it, and make sure we do everything correctly and everything right.”
DeMoor said he has spoken with current and former Lebanon Police Department officers since George Floyd’s death and is satisfied with their training standards and procedures.
“My issue goes to protestors,” he said. “Peaceful protesting, absolutely. But when a protestor decides to break the law, they’ve also decided on the consequences. And again, I’m confident that our police force has been well trained, and they know the limits, and they know how to do their job. Police should be able to defend themselves, period.”
Cesternino, who has previously worked as a police officer, said he wants to put more emphasis on the citizens’ review board to promote accountability.
“The review board will meet monthly with the leaders of the police department to ensure that we have the dialogue before we have an issue,” he said. “I will ask every member of that review board, as well as every council member and myself, to sit through the Lebanon Police Department’s use of force in-service every year. I don’t care what side of the issue you fall on … if you haven’t sat through the training you don’t know in your heart of hearts how they were trained.”
Gen. Robert Hatton Statue
Bell, who also serves as Lebanon’s city historian, said the city cannot remove the statue because of the Tennessee Heritage Protection Act and that he wants to see other monuments built instead.
“I’d rather focus on what we can do,” he said. “And that’s put up monuments and markers, not just on the square but throughout the city, that tell a fuller story of Lebanon’s history.”
Bell said he originally wanted to put up additional material on the square to contextualize slavery and the Civil War era, but has since heard from people interested in highlighting more modern figures, including members of the Black community.
“Those decisions should not be made by the mayor and members of the city council,” he said. “Those decisions of what’s added to tell our story should be made by the citizens, so as mayor I’ll put together a committee of citizens, of people from all walks of life to decide what we put up and where we put them to tell our complete story.”
DeMoor condemned racism and prejudice, and said he wrote an unpublished letter to the Tennessean sharing his perspective on the statue.
“I approached the subject about, I see Gen. Hatton’s statue almost on a daily basis,” he said. “When I see that statue, I see the Confederate general, and that’s the side that lost — largely because of the issue of slavery. It was wrong, and it’s still wrong.”
However, he noted that any attempt to move the statue would need the approval of the property owners (the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Daughters of the Confederacy), and advocated for a community-based decision.
“The real final issue is that racism and prejudice has no quarter in our life anymore,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. But let’s get along together, let’s recognize that some people like it and some people don’t, and let’s if we can come together and figure out a way to either move it, but with the recognition that it may just stay there like it is if the majority of the people including the owners say that it should remain.”
Cesternino said the city should focus instead on fighting the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately affects Black youth in low-income areas.
“Let’s stop talking about a statue,” he said. “Let’s go to the Sons of Confederate Veterans and say, ‘OK, you may not move it, but will you sponsor a minority scholarship so a child can get an education that can’t afford one tomorrow?’ ”
Cesternino said the city’s new fire station headquarters across from Coles Ferry Pike was originally bought to house a free community center for area youth, and that he wants to create a place where children can go after school.
“I’m the father of six children,” he said. “If I do not find something good for them to do, they will find something bad all on their own. So let’s get a mayor, let’s get a city, let’s provide leadership and let’s not be reactive. Let’s be responsive.”
Ash said he has negotiated a series of meetings between members of the Black community, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Daughters of the Confederacy about the statue’s placement.
“I can’t think of any problems that can’t be solved by coming together and having rational conversation, and that’s what we did,” he said. “Up to this point, we have not really come to a decision, and honestly, I don’t know if we will or not. We have two points of view, both good points of view, and I don’t know if anybody wants to move or not.”
Ash’s suggestion is to leave the statue on the square and build another honoring a member of the Black community, and that he would want the Wilson County Black History Committee to make the decision.
“The statue is not the problem,” he said. “Racism is the problem. Racism is a plague that covers the United States everywhere … we have racism in every community. I’ve lived long enough to see institutional racism done away with. It’s not the law of the land anymore where Black people can’t vote, can’t do this, can’t do that. That part has been taken care of. Now we have individual racism. That is a matter of the heart.”