By LANDON WOODROOF
When City Attorney Roger Horner first started work in Brentwood’s City Hall nearly 33 years ago, he was not yet an attorney and the City Hall building was not yet entirely in Brentwood.
“Back then City Hall was on Wilson Pike Circle in a building that straddled the Williamson County/Davidson County line,” he said. “We rented part of the building out to private tenants so we actually had to pay property taxes to Davidson County on the Brentwood City Hall building.”
Both Horner, who was first hired as the city’s finance director and city recorder, and City Hall were in a way displaced from the eventual positions they would inhabit in the heart of the city.
It may seem strange to draw a comparison between a person and a building, but to many of Brentwood’s staff and elected officials, Horner is more than just a friendly face or close colleague they see in the office or at meetings. He is an institution, a repository of knowledge about Brentwood’s law and municipal government just as resourceful and dependable as any place with four walls and a roof.
That institution, though, is leaving. Horner is retiring in February, although his last actual work day will be later this month. He will take with him a vast trove of experience and information, but his impact on the city and the people who work there will remain.
Horner, a native of Columbia, Tennessee, had five years of experience with a state agency when he came onboard with the City of Brentwood on Feb. 25, 1985. His background was in accounting, not law.
“Back then I was just 26, and my experience was on the state level so I had a lot to learn about municipal government and municipal accounting,” he said. “Fortunately back then municipal accounting was not as complex as it is now.”
Neither was the city. Longtime residents may remember, but, general friendliness aside, Brentwood in 1985 was in many ways different than the Brentwood of today.
“It was a much smaller city,” Horner remembered. “I think there were a little over 12,000 residents back then. Of course the [city] staff was much smaller. The library was in the old house on the Brentwood Methodist property now. We didn’t have a fire department yet. I think River Park was the only city park we had.”
Then, of course, there was city hall. In 1985, city hall was in the building on Wilson Pike Circle where the Mexican restaurant Mazatlan is located now. Before that, it had been in a little house on Pewitt Drive.
Horner noted that both spots became Chinese restaurants after being vacated by the City of Brentwood. The Wilson Pike Circle building later housed August Moon, while the Pewitt house became China Hut.
“Maybe one day there will be a Chinese restaurant in this building,” Horner said with a laugh from behind his desk at Brentwood’s current City Hall, which has been on Maryland Way since 1987.
Those early days were busy. Not only did Horner serve as finance director and city recorder, he also ended up working as the city’s de facto personnel director, since the city did not have a dedicated person for that position yet.
As far as issues were concerned, Horner recalled that a big story during that time involved competing plans from different developers for a mall in the area.
“One wanted to put a mall just south of Moores Lane, and one wanted to put a mall in the area where the Home Depot in Brentwood is now,” he said. “It was a really contentious issue. Standing room only, and people outside the meeting rooms because it was so crowded.”
While Horner had his hands full, he decided after a couple of years to chart a different path for himself.
“Since I was so young when I came out here, I just wanted to create some other career options beyond being the finance director, so I went to law school at night while I was doing that,” he said. “I can never imagine working full-time and going to law school at night now, but I was younger and more energetic then.”
He had classes that went past 10 p.m. on two, sometimes four nights a week. What makes the feat even more impressive is that Horner was a new parent at the time, having just recently welcomed Caroline, now 32 years old, in to the world.*
“It was really an intense time in my life,” Horner said.
Nevertheless, Horner persevered and in 1990 graduated and passed the bar exam.
While the journey to law school had not seemed pre-ordained back then, Horner later discovered evidence to the contrary.
“Somewhere along the line my mother dug up a what I want to do when I grow up essay that I wrote in the 6th grade, and I had written about how I wanted to be a lawyer,” Horner said. “And I didn’t remember that. I guess it was kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
A LEGAL LIFE
Up until around that point, Horner had worked under City Manager Frank Clifton, whose six-year term in that position had brought stability to a job that had seen an assembly line worth of office holders (11) in the city’s first decade-and-a-half.
About the time Horner got his degree, though, Mike Walker came to Brentwood from Oak Ridge, Tennessee to take over for Clifton.
Walker “really thought Brentwood was growing to the point that we needed a full time attorney and staff,” Horner said. At the time, Bob Jennings served as the City Attorney. He had a full-time practice elsewhere and worked in Brentwood as needed.
Horner became the full-time assistant city attorney.
Jennings “would handle most of the litigation and courtroom stuff, and I would handle most of the day to day matters,” is how Horner described their work balance. When Jennings eventually passed away in 2001, Horner took over as City Attorney full-time.
While working as an attorney for the city, Horner found that he had a special passion for law related to land use policy. It is what he pointed to when asked about some of the work he is most proud of.
“Brentwood has always put planning and zoning at the forefront and that’s helped prevent the growth from just being overwhelming,” he said. “It’s been interesting to be a part of that process.”
Horner also enjoyed work he did related to signs in Brentwood.
“Along with that, Brentwood has always been really picky about signs, so I’ve helped to develop our sign ordinance over the years,” he said. “And we’ve been sued about that, and we’ve been successful defending about that.”
He remembers a particular case involving a developer who wanted to put billboards on Interstate 65 in Brentwood that were bigger than what city law allowed. The city refused the request and was sued. The case made it all the way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which ruled in favor of Brentwood in 2005.
FONDLY REMEMBERED FRIENDS AND COLLEAGUES
While Horner’s legal work has been fulfilling throughout the years, so, too, have been the many friendships he has forged with the city employees and officials who share City Hall with him.
“The staff is really cohesive and supportive of each other, very collaborative,” he said. “Everybody just works really well together. And your work family becomes a part of your extended family … Over the years you celebrate weddings and children and grandchildren and graduations. The opposite side of that coin is you lose some people along the way, and you have to say goodbye to some close friends.”
The years are full of fond memories, many of them humorous, like the following anecdote he recalled from early in his time as city attorney.
“When I worked downstairs, a lot of times I was one of the first ones here,” he said. “I would come in and make instant oatmeal and start coffee. When my wife and I found out we were expecting our son, that happened a little earlier than we were planning on. I must have been rattled because I put oatmeal in the coffee maker. I looked away and Margie the receptionist came in and asked, ‘What’s wrong with the coffee?’ And when she found out later that my wife and I were expecting she knew that explained why I was a little bit discombobulated.”
The value that Horner places in workplace camaraderie and friendship is coupled with a respect for others’ devotion to their jobs and their ability to do those jobs well.
“I think they take a lot of pride in Brentwood even if they don’t live here,” he said. “There’s a concerted effort to provide good government and good services to the people” of Brentwood.
Horner particularly singled out for praise several of the people with whom he has worked the closest during his tenure with the city.
“All three of the city managers I worked with, each of them I felt was the right person for the right time in Brentwood’s history,” Horner said. “And Bob Jennings, the city attorney I worked with, was a great mentor. He was fun to work with. Bob never…if you asked Bob a question, instead of giving you a direct answer he’d tell you a story. He was a great storyteller. Sometimes you’d wonder, ‘Where are we going with this?’ but eventually you’d come full circle and realize he’d answered your question in a roundabout way.”
Horner’s kind words for his colleagues are reciprocated by a number of city staff and elected officials.
City Manager Kirk Bednar spoke of Horner’s uniquely authoritative handle on many aspects of Brentwood’s municipal government.
“There are two parts of Roger,” he said. “The legal knowledge and experience, which is probably a little easier to replace because there are good attorneys that have municipal experience, but what is irreplaceable is the 30-plus years of knowledge of the city and why we do the things we do the way we do them; what things have been tried in the past and didn’t work.”
That command of local government history makes Horner “an incredible resource beyond just getting legal answers from.”
At a City Commission meeting in November where Horner formally announced his retirement, several commissioners took some time to recognize him for his service.
Commissioner Anne Dunn called Horner “our poet in residence” and recalled the first time she met him, back in the 1980s.
“The first time I ever saw you I was a protesting resident and you were the enemy, but you had this sweet and angelic face and it was hard to be angry with you,” she said. “Of course, you weren’t an attorney then but you attended the meetings. And it was a pleasure to get to know you as a City Commissioner.”
Commissioner Rhea Little highlighted some aspects of Horner’s personality and professional conduct.
“I appreciate your balanced approach always in judgment,” he said. “I very much appreciate it when you were asked a question, you often knew the answer, but you would pause and say, ‘I’m pretty certain it’s this, but let me research it a little further. And your kind and good demeanor, which has been a great benefit not only to the city but the citizens of Brentwood, so thank you.”
THE ROAD AHEAD
Horner is not giving up on legal work altogether. Instead, he is accepting a position with the Thomson Reuters Corporation.
“In my new job I’ll be creating and editing some new online resources that will be of help to municipal lawyers while they’re doing their research,” Horner said. The job is a perfect fit for someone with as extensive a background in municipal law as he has. Other attorneys will be able to consult Horner’s online writing to help them understand issues, instead of just trying to do all their own research from scratch.
Horner’s impending departure was a surprise even to him. He had not planned on leaving the city so soon.
“It’s a little bittersweet,” he said. “I had kind of set 2025 as my target date, but I always knew I was in a position that I had the freedom to retire and still take another full-time position. An unexpected opportunity just came my way, and it felt right so here we are.”
Horner is modest about the storehouse of Brentwood-related knowledge he has amassed since he first started. He said anybody who was in such a role for such a long time would become an expert. True or not, Horner is that expert for the City of Brentwood. How does he feel about that, just a couple of weeks away from his final day?
“I guess it’s nice to be in that position,” he said. “Hopefully I’m leaving enough documentation behind that they won’t have to have my brain here.”
*A previous version of this article identified Cheryl Horner as Caroline’s mother. Caroline is Roger’s daughter from a previous marriage. Roger and Cheryl have a 16-year-old son, Sam.