At a recent meeting in Fountain City, Mayor Bill Haslam (as noted by the Shopper News' Jake Mabe) told the crowd one of the lessons of being mayor has been "forget all that Republican and Democrat stuff." City elections are non-partisan, so it is easy for Haslam to forget about party, but maybe we should heed his advice at other levels. Forgetting the ingrained reasons to not get along could be productive; it has been for Knoxville.
While the county has clouded the front page, the city is basking in sunshine. Not only does City Council conduct its business thoughtfully and openly, the mayor has brought city residents together. Progress is apparent in all parts of town, momentum even. The sun is so bright Knoxville was declared a Solar City by the federal government and given $200,000 to invest in solar technology and training.
Downtown bustles with people and projects, and it has kept local character even as regional and national chains get on the bandwagon. Fountain City is getting a skate park and the South Waterfront a park and a riverwalk. Magnolia and Fifth are better connected to traffic, and the new bus station may bring more life to the sunny side of the downtown bluff.
Policy Director Bill Lyons has done yeoman's work building and sustaining dialogues within and among Knoxville's communities, and Haslam listens, respects disagreement and seeks resolution, all things so hard to do when all that Democrat and Republican stuff is in the way.
Instead of the loyalty games of leave-only-Ashes politics, Haslam hired his opponent to reform and revitalize the Community Development department. Madeline Rogero has assembled a talented staff and brought innovation to housing and neighborhood efforts, but it was Madeleine Weil who won the Solar City grant.
Hired last year as deputy director of policy development, Weil learned of the opportunity just months before the deadline, during discussions at an Energy and Sustainability Task Force meeting. Luckily, the same group included all the pieces she needed to assemble a successful application. She got TVA to commit to a $100,000 matching grant, Oak Ridge energy experts to volunteer technical assistance, and five other partners to join in the last-minute application. Knoxville was one of 12 cities chosen for the second and final round of the DOE program.
That sort of collaborative, opportunistic success is what Haslam has achieved time and again.
He may have taught the suburbs that downtown is what malls try to mimic, but it was dozens of pioneers led by David Dewhirst and Leigh Burch, plus outlaws like the Wests, who made the real thing good again. Haslam eagerly credits them, and he does a great job staying out of the way when communities (and his staff) can solve their own problems. That is more than most politicians manage.
Perhaps city voters can hold a referendum next year on whether unpaid years in office count against term limits. Since Haslam has declined all but a dollar of the mayor's salary, this would give him another term, like he got redshirted.
Failing that, City Council should show its gratitude for the savings by voting to feed Haslam free lobster lunches once a month during his final year, as long as he puts them on a p-card to save on bookkeeping expenses.
Knoxville has been a mirror image of Knox County, and it is obvious which side is trapped in the funhouse. While Paul Pinkston performs amazing feats of backwards logic, Joe Hultquist researches transportation innovations in other cities and dreams of regional passenger rail. The South Waterfront is growing; South Knox County is sprawling.
Is it just a coincidence that the collaborative, non-partisan government gets things done?
(Disclaimer: While I had nothing to do with the grant application, I am a member of the Energy and Sustainability Task Force.)