insights (2007-03)

The Things We are Creating

"Stronger, safer neighborhoods” heads the list of Mayor Bill Haslam’s goals for his administration. But recent disarray, both within the city administration and in its contracted relations with two neighborhood support organizations, have raised concerns in many quarters about the effectiveness of the city’s commitment.

The disarray emanated in large part from the city’s Department of Community Development when since-departed Renee Kesler was its director. On her watch, the not-for-profit Center for Neighborhood Development, which received city funding for a highly regarded program known as Transforming Neighborhoods Together (TNT), was disbanded. And Kesler high-handedly attempted to impose a restructuring on the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement to whom the city has looked for governance of $25 million in federally funded Empowerment Zone grant and loan programs. Moreover, there was a widespread sense of unresponsiveness on Kesler’s part to other neighborhood organizations and their concerns.

“The perception was that this administration didn’t know what it was doing with neighborhoods, and that led folks to feel we needed to do something different,” says City Councilman Bob Becker.

In response, and even prior to Kesler’s resignation in November, Haslam named a Neighborhood Task Force to “advise the mayor on ways that city government could better work with neighborhoods and neighborhood organizations.” The task force, composed of 11 neighborhood representatives and three City Council members, has met 10 times since its formation in September, with Becker presiding, though he’s not formally chairman. What’s evolving is what Becker colloquially calls “The Things We Are Creating.” And following the task force’s Jan. 10 meeting, it’s taken the form of a draft set of recommendations that, subject to revisions, are due to be presented to Haslam by Jan. 31.

The linchpin is creation of an Office of Neighborhoods within the city administration, headed by a director who has both “a thorough understanding of the process and structure of city government” and who “understand(s) and appreciate(s) the crucial role of neighborhood organizations in…aggregating and articulating the interests and preferences of those whom they represent.”

Functions of the director would include:

• Maintaining an office that is open and responsive to neighborhoods and provides quick and helpful responses to questions and concerns.

• Establishing and maintaining an effective, two-way culture of communication between city government and neighborhood organizations and their representative umbrella organizations, including having representatives at their meetings to listen to concerns and share information about forthcoming city projects affecting the neighborhood.

• The ability to convene working groups as appropriate, internal to city government as well as across governmental agencies, to address major issues relevant to neighborhoods.

• The word “proactive” permeated the task force’s discussion of the new director’s role in addressing issues encompassing zoning, drainage, traffic, and blighted properties. Helping new neighborhood organizations get formed and others grow stronger through resumption of the TNT program was another point of emphasis.

While creation of a separate city-funded successor to CND isn’t contemplated, there’s a belief that yet another entity, the Council of Involved Neighborhoods (COIN), can be helpful in this process. But COIN’s outgoing president Whitney Stanley is clear that it shouldn’t accept public funding or otherwise become beholden to the city.

It was left unclear to whom the new office of neighborhoods would report in the city’s hierarchy. But a logical choice would be to place it under newly appointed Director of Community Development Madeline Rogero. Haslam pulled a major coup at year’s end when he enlisted his worthy opponent in the 2003 mayor’s race to assume the helm of the department that Kesler had left in a shambles. Rogero had campaigned in no small part as a champion of neighborhood interests, and she would have been an ideal candidate for the newly envisioned post if she hadn’t, to her great credit, agreed to take on Haslam’s more challenging assignment.

Even before the Neighborhood Task Force submits its recommendations, Rogero and her immediate boss, Deputy to the Mayor and Finance Director Larry Martin, are expected to seek City Council approval of fundamental changes in the Empowerment Zone program. What’s contemplated is city assumption of administrative responsibilities for the program. Those have been vested in the embattled Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement (PNI). City funding of PNI and hence its three staff positions would be terminated. Yet PNI’s uncompensated board of directors would awkwardly retain governance over how what’s left of the $25 million in EZ funding gets allocated in order to satisfy the terms under which Knoxville got the federal money in the first place.

Since half of PNI’s board members are appointed by COIN, the city’s ability to carry off this transition without a lot of rancor will also have a major bearing on perceptions of how its treating neighborhoods.

With Rogero on his side and his task force’s recommendations in place, however, Haslam should be able to enter his campaign for reelection this coming fall with his goal of stronger neighborhoods ringing truer than it has of late.