Daniel Brown, 63, is retired from the U.S. Postal Service. He has been an election poll worker for the past eight years. A fifth-generation Knoxvillian, he has lived in District 6 most of his life, leaving in the 1970s to attend Tennessee State University in Nashville, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history. He moved back in 1979.
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?
Brown: I do not support that law. First of all, this law, as I understand it, allows police to fine people $50. The people they're fining do not have $50. These are mostly homeless people. You're not going to collect on that. All you're going to do is fill up the jails with homeless people. I was at the City Council meeting when someone went up to the podium and talked about the situation in Oregon. I hadn't actually read about it, but I did hear about it at that meeting. That's the first thing. The second thing is the sidewalks are public. These are public sidewalks. So I'm not in favor of that.
I think we need to find some other way of dealing with homeless people on the sidewalks. They don't have anywhere else to go. That's why they're out there. I think it's a humanitarian issue. However, we have to have some safety for business owner and for people who just want to walk on the sidewalks. But, again, I do not support this fine for being on the sidewalks. Sidewalks are public.
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?
Brown: I don't have an idea for a particular place right now, but I do agree with the basic idea that this should spread throughout the city. If we're going to have this in the Ten-Year-Plan, it should not all be concentrated in one part of the city. That's why I think we're getting this reaction from people—some of the people—about this coming to their neighborhood. We're taking this whole school. That's a large building. So I say spread it around. I say north, south, east, and west. I don't know West Knoxville, I'm not sure if it has any type of facilities or places for homeless people right now. But it's a more affluent area of the city. Often, more affluent areas tend to not receive these types of things versus less affluent areas. That's an unfair balance.
On neighborhood reaction, you're going to have to be sympathetic to homeowners. For most people in this country, their home is the most valuable investment that they have. There's concern about the value of the property. However, those fears could be unfounded depending on how homeless housing is dealt with. If you're going to have smaller settings rather than such a large congregation of people, which we could do if this were spread out. Right now you're going to have a not-in-my-neighborhood syndrome.
I don't know if we should be planning a permanent thing because you hope that people who find themselves in that situation, we can help move them to a better state. They should be able to reach a point where they can find employment, they can purchase a home, or they can rent a place. These types of places would not have to be permanent. Eventually the need for them to be— I guess the hope that the need would eventually be non-existent might be a bit too idealistic because we're probably always going to have these problems.
As to the legal issue of the Fair Housing Act, I might have to study that a bit more, but we have to be very careful about that. We have to take the legal advice of the people we have so as not to violate the Fair Housing laws. Then the city would wind up being sued, and we'll end up spending money fighting that.
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?
Brown: Development incentives have to be studied very, very carefully. We were asked a question the other night about TIFs. My idea about that is that I'd like to see more—if there are going to be these incentives—I'd like to see them go to small business owners rather than large developers. I would prefer to work with the smaller business owners on those types of things.
The economy is a bit shaky right now—and that may be an understatement—so when it comes to that and to revenues, I'd like to see us increase incoming tourist dollars. We have a lot of natural resources in this area. Even with the economy, people are still traveling. They're still spending some money. I think we're going to have to—the tourist bureau, the council, and others—we're going to have to emphasize the things that would attract tourists here. I'm not saying I would recommend incentives going toward a hotel, though. I think right now we probably have enough hotels, and some of them are not full. I think we can probably get by without that. I'm not entirely sure what the occupancy rate is for the hotels in the downtown area, but I think we probably have enough of that. I don't think we'll need to build any new ones.
I'm thinking in terms of emphasizing things we have here for people who enjoy the outdoors, people who like to fish, things of that nature. In this part of town, you have a marker for Nikki Giovanni who was a Knoxville native and a poet. You have the Alex Haley statue. Right down the street from that, you have the Beck Center which is getting ready to expand. You have a great park, Morningside Park right there, which is about to get a few additions from private money. I think if we emphasize just those four places, you might find that people will come just to visit those places. I'm talking about people coming from a relatively short distance—maybe three hours, four-hour drive. I'm speaking not just of African Americans, but everybody would be interested in that, because those are treasures. We have to emphasize and market what we already have.
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?
Brown: That's a difficult question because I don't want to support any tax increases. Nobody wants a tax increase. Well, I think it would have to be something like police or fire protection. Those are key things. Those are very, very important things. After that, I don't want to mention the schools because that would be under the county. So, off the top of my head, I'll leave it at those two things.
What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city's nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?
Brown: You want to try to avoid a tax increase if at all possible. It would depend on the overall economic status, the overall situation, not only locally but also nationally. I think that they came up with a pretty good budget last time, considering all of this. I don't think anyone wants to increase taxes, if at all possible. Like I said, you want to maintain those basic services. These are basic things people need.
I really would not like to cut back on cultural things in the city. And there are many other needy nonprofits of other kinds throughout the city. Still, I'm going to stick with trying to avoid a tax increase if at all possible.
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?
Brown: The Walter P. Taylor Homes have been there for a number of years. They're now out-dated, but the first things I'm concerned with is that the people who are residents there, who live there, that they will have some housing to go to. We don't want to add to the homeless situation. They did a similar project in Mechanicsville, with a HOPE VI replacement. I'm hopeful that some of the residents presently living at Walter P. would be able to afford the HOPE VI houses that will be built. That's one of my concerns. I don't know if replacing every unit is going to be realistic. I'm not sure of the details of it. I would have to look at the scope of it.
But I think it's a needed thing. Based on how it's been done before, I'm confident it will be done correctly. I hope nobody will be displaced when this happens, and I hope some of the people who are there will be able to afford these new homes.
I'm from that particular neighborhood, and I remember when there were houses there before Walter P. Taylor was built. I went to Eastport School, and I believe that's a part of that, to convert that into housing for the elderly who are in Walter P. Right now, that is my voting ward, and that's where I went to school. It's been sitting there empty for years. Here again, hopefully that is done correctly. My main thing is that I hope people won't become completely displaced.
Another thing I'd like to see has to do with that park by Eastport. There's a small park there. When these houses come up, some of them will have children. They're going to have yards, but they will still need a park there. They could maybe replace part of the Eastport field. Hopefully, that can be used as well.
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, if anything, should the city, as a public entity, be doing beyond Magnolia to improve infrastructure, the economy, or simply the standard of living in this part of town?
Brown: I'm excited about it because I think that will make that particular area look better and help to bring new business in. Now, I'd like to see Martin Luther King—which runs parallel to Magnolia—be included as part of that corridor plan, as much as can be done financially. Martin Luther King is a mix of businesses and houses. So I'm hopeful that once the Magnolia is completed, that some funding—if there is any funding available considering our financial situation—some would be sent over to Martin Luther King.
In this particular area, there are a lot of abandoned homes. HOPE VI is going to be good, since it's going to be new housing. We don't have a lot of new housing. Young professionals that come to this city, they might go out to Holston Hills. But in between Holston Hills and downtown, there's not a lot of new housing, which I'd like to see. I'd also like to see more renovation of present houses. You have some good houses that have been abandoned and have almost come down. We should revive some of the older neighborhoods. I'm not sure how much city funding would be available, but maybe there could be some kind of public-private partnership to help out with that.
Every neighborhood probably wants the same thing, but especially in this area. Right in my own neighborhood, there's a house right next to me that's empty. It's for sale. Somebody had it, and they lost it. The bank has it now. These empty houses cause the neighborhood to go down. Then, when you have these houses turn into rental properties rather than a single family buying the property, that makes it go down, and the whole neighborhood goes down. So, I'd like to see some new housing. The city or the government could be involved in that. And here would be a good place for incentives.
More and more people are moving downtown. There are so many people living downtown. I think a lot of people are trying to get away from the suburbs. In the 6th District, in East Knoxville, that's only a few minutes drive from downtown.
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?
Brown: I don't think that the city government has a role to play in that. No.
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?
Brown: I think that anybody on the Council—and this isn't easy for me to say, I'm not on Council—I think it's important for people to maintain their own integrity and their own independence in their thinking and in action. And that they cannot be swayed by political influence. Whatever comes before the Council—whatever questions, whatever issues—people on Council must maintain integrity. I remember the lady asking that question, and I think we all responded to it. I can't answer any more than what I just said. It may be easy for me to say this being on the outside looking in, but if I'm elected, I'm going to maintain my integrity.
I will not be swayed by the fact that we have a mayor who may become governor in the future. Maybe some people look ahead to that based on some political ambitions they have for themselves. But when it comes time to vote, those kinds of things should not be primary, nor even secondary. They should vote on an issue on its own merits.
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?
Brown: I haven't seen it. I have basically followed that in the news. I have not been to the meetings.
At this point right now, I think I would support those policies. There's a balance that will have to be achieved. And these kinds of questions can come back to haunt you, so to speak, but I'll just tell you my thoughts on it at this point. We have to be good stewards. I'm not—what do you call it—a tree-hugger. I'm not, but I do respect the environment. We have to be good stewards of where we live, and we have to do it in a balanced way because we need development. But it has to be done right. That's how I look at it. I think I would tend to support this if it had been properly researched. Now we're not saying we should stop development, but over the past many, many years a lot of this development has occurred without any thought about the future. Now we are where we are, and we have to do something about it.