NASHVILLE — It was an abrupt and disappointing end to a mayoralty for which many in Nashville had once harbored great hopes.
On Tuesday, Mayor Megan Barry brought her two-and-a-half year run as the city’s first female chief executive to a dramatic close, pleading guilty to a felony charge of theft of property and announcing her resignation. The move capped a turbulent five weeks in which she acknowledged having an affair with the head of her security detail, and faced persistent questions about whether she misspent taxpayer money.
Ms. Barry, 54, had wowed Nashville’s large contingent of liberal voters during a 2015 election with her support for gay rights and a promise to bring a world-class transit system to a city where rapid growth and a burgeoning reputation as a hub for young creatives have generated both excitement and anxiety.
But Ms. Barry’s wonkish policy goals were eclipsed by details of her affair with former Sgt. Robert Forrest Jr. of the Metro Nashville Police Department, who led the mayoral security detail before retiring in January. Mr. Forrest also pleaded guilty on Tuesday to the same charge as Ms. Barry’s.
A contrite but forthright Ms. Barry admitted the affair on Jan. 31. But questions lingered about the city business trips that the pair took, often alone, at taxpayer expense. More recently, reports surfaced of their numerous early-morning meetings in an S.U.V. in a city graveyard. And a special agent for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation disclosed in court documents that the bureau had discovered nude photos of a woman on Mr. Forrest’s city email account. In the documents, the agent indicated a suspicion that the photos were of the mayor.
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Nashvilleans have obsessed over the story in recent days. In a #MeToo era in which power dynamics and questions of workplace relationships have also been subject to fresh scrutiny and debate, some have puzzled over the ramifications of a married woman in a position of authority engaging in a consensual relationship with a subordinate.
For others, the news was also distressingly personal, coming months after the city rallied to help Ms. Barry mourn her 22-year-old son, who died of a drug overdose in July.
On Tuesday morning, a visibly shaken Ms. Barry read a prepared statement at City Hall, in a room packed with reporters. She spoke of an optimistic city that would continue its positive trajectory.
“It is a continued climb that I will watch, but I will watch as a private citizen,” she said. “And I will be tremendously proud nonetheless.”
Moments earlier, in a courtroom across the street, Ms. Barry had agreed to serve three years of probation and pay restitution to the city after pleading guilty to the theft charge.
In a court document, the Bureau of Investigation indicated that it was looking closely at the 26 out-of-town trips Ms. Barry had taken with Mr. Forrest since April 2016, which was roughly when the affair began. Ms. Barry and Mr. Forrest, who was also married at the time of the affair, were the sole travelers for 10 of the trips, according to the document.
As part of her probation, Ms. Barry was ordered to reimburse the local government $11,000 in “unlawful expenditures” used to pay Mr. Forrest’s travel expenses. She paid the restitution on Tuesday, prosecutors said.
Separately, Mr. Forrest also received three years of probation on Tuesday. According to prosecutors, Mr. Forrest must give back $45,000 that he was paid improperly “during times when he was not performing his duties.”
After the guilty pleas, Glenn Funk, the local prosecutor, met with agents from the bureau and told them they could close their investigation. If Ms. Barry and Mr. Forrest complete probation successfully, they can petition the court to have their criminal records expunged.
Vice Mayor David Briley was sworn in as mayor on Tuesday afternoon, providing what will likely be ideological continuity at City Hall. Like Ms. Barry, Mr. Briley is a Democrat and a known quantity in city politics, having served eight years on the consolidated city-county council.
Mr. Briley, the grandson of Beverly Briley, who served as mayor from 1963 to 1975, supports the multibillion-dollar public transit plan that might had been Ms. Barry’s signature achievement. Voters will consider the plan in a May referendum.
A Vanderbilt University poll last year showed that Ms. Barry enjoyed a 72 percent overall approval rate. A similar poll taken by Vanderbilt after her admission of the affair put her approval at 61 percent.
Many residents seemed willing to initially overlook the drama in her personal life, but there remained a lingering concern that the complications extended beyond questions of romance and into matters of public funds.
The editorial board of The Tennessean, the major local newspaper, called on her to resign in a Feb. 28 column, arguing that Ms. Barry, a former corporate ethics and compliance officer, had “arguably violated” an anti-corruption executive order she had signed in 2016. The Tennessee Tribune, a publication that focuses on African-American issues, called for her resignation on March 1.
The City Council voted last month to create a special committee to investigate the trips. On Tuesday, Councilman John Cooper, a frequent critic of Ms. Barry’s policies, said the committee would probably continue its inquiry, focusing on the way city expenses are handled.
“I do think that, as much of a complicated tragedy as this is as a personal story, Nashville will survive this,” Mr. Cooper said.
At the Hotel Indigo, a short walk from City Hall, news of Ms. Barry’s fate traveled fast. Casey Rauscher, 30, a valet parking attendant, said that he thought Ms. Barry had done good work as mayor, making sure the city’s growth was “positive growth.”
But he also said she was right to step down. “I don’t think you should be able to steal in political office and get away with it,” he said.