Brenda Palmer, 63, is a graduate of Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, where she got her bachelor’s degree in history. She has a master’s degree from the University of San Diego in history education. Now retired, she was involved in education as a teacher or administrator for over 30 years. She was involved of the reopening of two high schools in Florida. Recently she has served as an alternate on the board of the County Tax Equalization Board. She has been living in Knoxville since 2003. Palmer is married with two children, two stepchildren, and three granddaughters.
Read other candidate interviews at our 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.
On July 14, the city passed an ordinance making it illegal to sit or lay on public sidewalks downtown. One month before that, Judge Stephen Bushong in Oregon ruled that a similar Portland law was unconstitutional. He based his ruling on Oregon state law, but he also told the city’s attorneys that enforcement of the law could very well be challenged as a first amendment violation. Similarly, the lawyer arguing against the ordinance and citizens seeking its removal said that it was discriminatory, since it was specifically designed to target the city’s homeless population. If you are elected, will you support any action to repeal this ordinance in Knoxville?
Palmer: First of all, a judicial ruling in Oregon doesn’t have applicability to Knoxville. I’m not a legal expert, and I would need some advice from the city’s attorneys in that regard. It has been passed. Should it come up for review, I’d have to look at that situation at the time. I do understand that there are places for the homeless population to go. I also understand that there are businesses that need free and easy access into their facility. I know, for example, that the manager of the Salvation Army store spoke in favor of the ordinance because they felt that their store on Broadway was losing business because of people hanging around outside the gates there.
So, if there were not places to go, and there were not alternative programs for those who are truly chronically homeless—not the hangers-on who wear the guise of homelessness to engage in illegal activities—that would be one thing. But people who are chronically homeless truly have places where they can be. At the same time, we have business owners. We want to support growth of business in the inner-city as well as the outer-city of Knoxville. We should give those people consideration, too.
If this came up again before the City Council, I would have to listen carefully to the arguments, and I would carefully look at the alternative places for the chronically homeless to be before I could vote yes or no.
Converting South Knoxville’s Flenniken Elementary School into a supportive housing facility has been a controversial project since its inception. In the candidates’ forum on August 27, many candidates said we ought to, so to speak, “spread the burden” of supportive housing throughout the city rather than concentrating it in a few core areas. Do you have any ideas as to places where we could put more supportive housing? What happens when its neighbors almost inevitably have the same concerns? Does the need for this type of housing and the fact that the Fair Housing Act does not seem to permit the city to deny this type of housing simply based on these types of objections outweigh business and political interest here?
Palmer: I don’t have another location right off the top of my head. I do know we do have housing in several parts of town. I know that people who move into this type of housing sign a lease just as you would in any apartment complex, and that the people there have the support services that will help them make the transition into a different lifestyle than being chronically homeless.
I can’t say that it should go here, it should go there, it should go someplace else. What I do know is that whenever any kind of a project that can cause neighborhood unrest or concern—whether it’s residential areas or businesses—there needs to be a great deal of dialogue. It does not need to be something that is just plopped down.
I worked on similar topics in Florida. With some of the things that we were going to do, when we laid the groundwork and got the information out openly and transparently, issues that could have become hot-button issues did not become so. We have a Ten-Year Plan that includes both the city and the county, and one of my concerns is that the city is doing far more than its share to address chronic homelessness. I would be very interested in seeing when is the county going to step up and get involved with this seriously and not leave it up to the city.
The long and short of it is we have the Ten-Year Plan. I have read it carefully. I have read reviews of it from this year. I really think we need to give it a chance. I’ve seen it too many times that we’ve had a plan that took three-to-five-to-ten years. Then after a couple of years, we had some kind of turnover, and we went in another direction, and it never had a chance to work. I think more than anything else that we need to help the people of Knoxville and Knox County understand what the plan is, and maybe get rid of some of this serious hype that comes from a lack of knowledge.
You’ll be coming in to an iffy real estate market if you’re elected. Foreclosures continue to be high in the area and around the country, and recently, City Council lowered the property tax rate from $2.81 to $2.46 so as to be in accordance with state tax equalization law. On top of that, a lot of people continue to be unemployed or at least a bit more careful with money, leading to decreases in sales tax revenues. All of this seems to spell potential revenue issues in the future. Given all that, are local incentives, particularly for higher-end projects, a wise idea right now, especially considering the recent foreclosure of a partly TIF-financed project like Cityview at Riverwalk?
Palmer: First of all, Knoxville and Knox County are not nearly in the type of dire straits as national statistics would lead people to believe. We need to have that up front. We don’t need to make the generalization that the real estate market here is like the market in Florida or California because it absolutely is not.
Now, getting back to the TIFs and the PILOTs. Those particular programs have very specific wording in the laws that brought them into place. They need to be examined closely so as to ensure that any project that is financed with these dollars really falls clearly into the language of those programs. In some instances, probably more in the county than the city, those definitions have been extended beyond what they should be. But you have to look at those projects and what they will do to address a need in an area before you can proceed with that type of funding. I don’t think that any group should be so comfortable as to think that this would be an automatic.
I can certainly understand taxpayer concern about these, and I have shared those concerns in the past. I can’t comment on past practice. In the future every one should be carefully examined. If these projects are not going to produce what they’re supposed to produce, I’d have to think long and hard about voting for it.
Give us a for instance. What would have to be on the chopping block in order for you to support a tax increase in a budget?
Palmer: Well, I can’t give you a threshold per se. Obviously we need to feel safe and secure in our city, and those services would have to be the last to be chopped. Above and beyond that, I think we’d have to look at all our revenue sources. Perhaps some of them could have a better collection rate and make up the difference.
I’m not a person who can say I would do this or that. Until I can see what all the options are, I’m not going to back myself into a corner by saying we should chop this or that. We just have to look at all of the things we were doing, what was effective, what we could maybe live with less of. I don’t know the entire operations of the city, and I don’t know the circumstances under which something like that would happen.
What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city’s nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?
Palmer: Some of that grant money comes from other sources. The city simply acts as an agent to disperse those funds.
Once again, we come back to what makes a great city. Parks are important. Recreation is important. Every city has a flourishing arts program. Now, I’m not going to sit here and tell you I would not fund this or not fund that unless, once again, I have the particulars. It’s difficult. If I say I would do this or that, it may not be the appropriate circumstance at the time. I realize you want specific answers to these questions, but I am a fair and open-minded person. I want to look at the big picture.
I’ve done that before when I was in a school district and I was managing budgets and when I had grant programs I was managing. If we had some issues, we would always weigh the best possible scenario and what would be the worst. I don’t see why I wouldn’t continue that practice.
Is the city’s plan for a HOPE VI replacement for the Walter P. Taylor homes a good one? Is it a priority for you to maintain the same level of KCDC housing units as we have now?
Palmer: Obviously, the Walter P. Taylor project needs some attention. We’d obviously need to proceed with this plan and hope that it will do the best it can do. Do we need to maintain the same level of housing? I do not know the need for public housing, and this is something I’d need some input and some workshops on before I could answer that question.
Is the Magnolia Avenue Corridor plan a positive sign that the city is putting its attentions toward an area that has arguably been politically neglected? What else can or should be done beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?
Palmer: Hold on, I don’t know that it’s been politically neglected in the past. I think the city is looking at all areas that need attention, and it can’t focus on every area at the same time. Magnolia just happens to be one part of that particular issue. If there’s an area that needs attention, then the city focuses on that. The needs of the Magnolia Corridor are no different than the needs along Western Avenue in the Third District or along Clinton Highway that borders both the Third and the Fifth Districts. I’m assuming that Magnolia is just one of those corridors that will all be addressed—like Broadway or Cumberland—in some kind of order so that they’re all addressed so these arteries are attractive, inviting, and get people into our great city.
Planned Parenthood recently backed out of a move to move to a facility in Bearden following a large and well-organized movement protesting its move there. Now, before I get to the question, let me present two givens so they will not have to be included in your answer. (1) People have every right to protest Planned Parenthood if they feel that what they do is wrong. (2) What Planned Parenthood does is perfectly legal. So should city government have taken a greater role in perhaps mediating this dispute?
Palmer: I don’t see that the city has any role in that at all. I’m concerned with the legislative issues, and this isn’t a legislative issue. I don’t see as a City Councilwoman how I’d have any role in that dispute. That is between two private parties, and I don’t see how the city should have any part of that. There are plenty of private entities that could have played a role in helping these two parties come to the table. I don’t think it’s the city’s role.
An attendee at the August 27 forum expressed some concern that, as she sees it, City Council is too often a “rubber stamp” for mayoral policy. It was a comment that really seemed to resonate with the audience. In your opinion, have what some have categorized as an overly friendly media environment when it comes to the mayor, as well as his family’s deep and significant connections, and now his gubernatorial campaign, produced a situation where it is politically difficult for City Council to go against mayoral policy? In other words, is it at all possible that the mayor's too popular for our own good?
Palmer: This question, I just don’t know where this is coming from. The mayor’s the mayor, and City Council is City Council. And each needs to do what is best. It’s the mayor’s job to run the city. It’s City Council’s job to either set the guidelines and to work within those parameters. So, whether or not the mayor is running for governor, as long as he’s running the city and the city is moving forward with momentum it has, City Council needs to consider everything issue by issue. Some people probably believe that Council is too friendly with the mayor. Some people probably believe it’s not friendly enough. We’re going to have five new Council members after this election in November. They’ll deal with the reality of the times, not hypotheticals that could be or could not be. I don’t know if that answers your question, but, once again, I can’t comment on what’s occurred because I’m not a member of the body. I have not been privy to the information they have in making the decisions that they do.
Have you seen the Hillside-Ridgetop Task Force’s preliminary recommendations? Would you be in support of policies that, in the interest of the long-term benefits of environmental stewardship, might limit a property developer’s ability to “maximize” a hill or ridge property?
Palmer: I have attended the presentation, and I’ve lived in other parts of the country in which developers have made excellent use of hillsides and ridge tops, using the best practices in doing that. Until that group comes out with a very specific policy, it would be very premature of me to say, “yes I would do this” or “no I would do that.” It’s being studied. We have a task force that’s given a presentation at public hearings. Now we need to let them get back to work and see what they’ve come up with based on the input they’ve received.