City Council meetings get testy when changes to employee pension plans are on the agenda. One of the lighter moments in a recent round of such negotiations came after City Council member Nick Della Volpe persisted in interrupting Knoxville Firefighters Association president Kevin Faddis, who had the podium. Faddis kept protesting that it was his turn to speak, but to no avail, so he appealed to Della Volpe's colleagues.
"Finally, I said to the them, ‘If y'all would cut his light off, we could save all kinds of money on electricity—hundreds of thousands of dollars,'" he says. "It got a few chuckles."
But not everyone is laughing. By the end of this week, crews of off-duty city police officers will begin putting up signs saying "Fraternal Order of Police Volunteer Lodge #2 asks our friends and supporters to say ‘NO' to Della Volpe, Knoxville City Council District 4." Sources predict that the firefighters will likely follow suit after an endorsement vote later this month.
Opposition to sitting City Council members seeking re-election has been sparse and largely ineffective in the 12 years since term limits took effect, as the unintended result of limiting local elected officials to two four-year terms has been to guarantee incumbents an eight-year term. This year, two incumbents, Della Volpe and Dan Brown, will face opposition. Brown, who served a relatively controversy-free year as interim mayor after Bill Haslam left office early to move to Nashville, isn't expected to have much trouble dispatching perennial candidate Pete Drew. But Della Volpe's opponent, Knox County Sheriff's Office employee Rick Staples, is picking up support from city employees who are unhappy with Della Volpe's positions on issues concerning pensions and pay.
This could mark the first time that large numbers of city employees have officially opposed an incumbent since 1975, when challenger Randy Tyree ran against sitting Mayor Kyle Testerman. (A move by dissident firefighters to support challenger Ivan Harmon over incumbent Victor Ashe in 1995 generated a storm of legal action, but had little effect on the race, which Ashe won handily.)
Della Volpe seems surprised to hear that employee groups are gearing up to oppose him, but says that won't deter him from speaking his mind on tough fiscal issues like pensions. He says he's somewhat puzzled because he, unlike Marshall Stair and Duane Grieve (who is also up for re-election), voted for the hybrid plan negotiated by the employees groups and the administration.
"I'm sorry they feel that way, but I'm not representing [city employees]. I'm representing the citizens of Knoxville and I've got people in my district who are living on a fixed incomes," he says.
FOP president Mark Taylor says the organization's bylaws do not allow endorsements in a city primary, but he confirmed that members of the local lodge have voted to oppose Della Volpe, primarily because of pension and pay issues.
"He comes across as nonchalant and cavalier," Taylor says. "We are part of the community, and a lot of these issues—benefits, pensions—are very important to employees. You need to be mindful that you are advocating changing things that affect people's living standards and livelihoods."
Taylor says the police officers he represents are not only upset by Della Volpe's positions—like pushing the administration to challenge a state Supreme Court ruling that employee benefits, once vested, cannot be reduced, and calling for a vote to repeal the automatic 2.5 percent annual raise instituted by former Mayor Randy Tyree—but by his tone, which they describe as "dismissive."
"I'd say we are equally as unhappy with Mr. Della Volpe's positions and the manner in which he presents them," Taylor says.
Former FOP president Brian Moran, who has also served as president of the state FOP, is one of the city's most politically active police officers. He has posted a picture of the anti-Della Volpe sign on his Facebook profile and is blunt about his reasons.
"Della Volpe is the most difficult City Council member I've had to deal with in my 18 years of working for the city," Moran says.
Faddis says although he is personally supporting Staples, he will abide by the will of his membership.
"Nothing personal against Nick Della Volpe," Faddis says. "But I'm supporting Rick all I can. He's got bright new ideas. We don't want any kind of negativity toward Nick."
Rogero has not weighed into the 4th District race, but the contrast between her silence on the Della Volpe campaign and her enthusiastic support of unopposed incumbent Nick Pavlis is striking. This shouldn't surprise anyone who's been paying attention to her administration's public clashes with Della Volpe over issues large (like pensions) and small (like organizing a parade for the Fulton High School football team after it won a state championship). Despite the fact that the new Loves Creek Greenway is not only in Della Volpe's district and is also a project that he worked on for years prior to taking office (including a considerable amount of physical labor), the official press release announcing the greenway's grand opening Monday didn't mention Della Volpe's name.
Staples, who works in the rehabilitation department of the sheriff's office and who is new to politics, is getting strong support from the Knox County Democratic Party, but says he doesn't see himself running "against" anyone.
"I'm running for an office, not against anybody," he says. "I'm a listener and a blue-collar guy who can relate to the people out there who are struggling."
Della Volpe isn't backing down. He says the pension debt will continue to balloon, and he will continue to push for reforms. He points to former KPD Deputy Chief Gus Paidousis, who retired this year when Knox County Schools hired him as security chief at an annual salary of $90,450.
"He's 53 years old and will be drawing $64,000 a year (in city pension benefits). I don't begrudge him, but that's a lot of money for someone who's 53. If this guy lives to be 83, I'll be shocked if you don't get to about $2.5 to $3 million. These are discussion that need to be had, and if they don't like somebody talking about it, go vote for somebody else."
Early voting in this year's City Council elections starts Sept. 4. The primary is Sept. 24. Both candidates will proceed to the November general election.