citybeat (2006-37)

Against the current of downtown revival, most of the Knox County Clerk’s courthouse offices are on their way out

TEP organization seeks to block amendment denying marital rights to gays

Wednesday, Sept. 6

‘Hard To Get To’

As of last week, you can no longer get a driver’s license renewed at the old Knox County courthouse, or anywhere else downtown. And if Knox County Clerk Mike Padgett has his way, other services, including the motor-vehicle tag renewal services, will also be moved, perhaps to some of the suburban locations where the county already operates offices.

Padgett says it’s partly because patrons of the City County Building have lost access to the City County Building parking garage, for post-9/11 security reasons. He adds that three handicapped spaces on Main Street were surrendered to the KAT transfer station, and that they have problems with the ADA requirements.

Also, he says, security checkpoints are soon going to make it harder to get in and out of the 120-year-old courthouse building.

“It’s very hard to get to the downtown location,” he says.

He adds that, due to road work, there’s soon to be a problem with “accessibility to downtown. It will be almost impossible for the community to get here.”

He makes downtown sound like a briar patch, and to be fair, many Knox Countians used to driving everywhere and parking by the front door think of it that way, too. But somehow 20,000 commuters park downtown every day, retail seems to be growing, and most of the city’s most popular events in recent years have been those held downtown.

The county offices’ slow evacuation of downtown seems to be swimming against the current, in a day when more and more people are living downtown, and movie theaters and retail attractions promise to draw more visitors. But Padgett says it’s just “logic” to get out of the old courthouse.

The county’s Motor Vehicle Registration office, where motorists obtain and renew license plates, in the old courthouse appears to be pretty busy. Though the old-fashioned counter in the big Victorian room is staffed by several attendants, there’s often a long line, especially around the beginning of the month. They have a take-a-number policy, and they often need it.

Padgett says the downtown drivers’ license office down the hall was the county’s least popular such station, serving about 35 customers a day. “The Five Points office is already serving more than that,” he says.

 “There’s less business here than in any of our locations,” he says. They pay $175,000 a year. “It’s a lot more expensive than our other locations,” he says. “You have to think of it as a business.”

“I hope to get out of this courthouse altogether,” says Padgett. Besides the drivers’ license and motor-vehicle offices, the county business-tax office is also in the courthouse. “People complain to me  day in and day out,” about parking, he says. To downtown boosters, the downtown parking issue seems like yesterday’s problem. But he sounds exasperated. “People say they have to find a place to park, pay $5 to park, then walk two blocks.” (For the record, $5 is the all-day rate at Dwight Kessel Garage; it’s easy to park for much less than that.)

“We’re growing by leaps and bounds,” he says of his office’s responsibilities. He says the county’s investigating potential sites to move offices currently housed in the courthouse. 

“People have the option of the five other locations.” He mentions county offices at Farragut Town Hall, on Chapman Highway, in Halls, and at Five Points, which are all open on weekdays, 8 to 5 p.m., and Knoxville Center Mall, which is open 13 hours a day, from 8 to 9 p.m., and on Saturday from 10 to 4.

Thanks in part to its long hours, the Knoxville Center Mall location serves about 300 customers a day. “It’s the most popular drivers’ license station in the state of Tennessee,” says Padgett.

He doesn’t think the community will miss having a downtown license station. “The Five Points Plaza is the downtown location,” he insists. “It’s less than a mile and a quarter from here.”

That’s not very far, in a car. The problem with many people seeking drivers’ licenses is that they don’t already have one handy.

Five Points, a traditional East Knoxville business center, has been subject of some admirable government-sponsored boosting in recent years, but few consider it to be downtown.

“It’s on the bus line,” Padgett says, as it is. But for most Knoxville residents, it would call for a transfer—that is, catching two different buses to get there.

He admits, “UT students who’ve lost their ID won’t be able to walk up here anymore.”

At least one customer last week, a UT student just arrived from Alabama, finding the redirecting map on the closed office, set out walking in the direction of Five Points.

There have been rumors in the courthouse that the vacated space would be used for a “history museum” of some sort, which caused some consternation in the history center, hardly three blocks away. The county’s archivist and historian say they haven’t heard such a project discussed, and Padgett doesn’t mention that possibility.

“This is a courthouse,” he says. “They need the space for more courtrooms.” Still, the immediate future of the large vacant space on the first floor isn’t obvious. Several in the county referred questions to Public Building Authority Director Dale Smith, who said he was unaware of the vacancy—as did staffers for both the city and county mayors, was well as the CBID.

Padgett says the county will maintain the County Commission Library in the courthouse, and the marriage-license department. “It’s a tradition to get married at the courthouse,” he says. “You probably couldn’t get rid of those two things.”

Unequal Rights Amendment

Former Connecticut resident Bill Folley and his partner moved to East Tennessee for the same reason many people do—the cost of living is reasonable, and it’s a good place to raise a family. The couple is expecting twins in 2007.

It’s ironic, then, that many Tennesseans would ensure that they might never recognize their family unit as such, by voting for a constitutional amendment that would deny even the possibility of legal marital recognition to gay and lesbian couples. Folley and partner Bill Myers will see their children born via surrogate in February.

“When we considered the move, people asked, ‘Are you sure? It’s really conservative (in East Tennessee),’” says Folley, who took residence with Myers in a Bearden-area home early this year. “But we knew there are good people everywhere you go. And if there’s a problem here, we want to be part of the solution.”

On the advice of friends, the couple contacted the Tennessee Equality Project on their arrival in Knoxville. TEP is a two-year-old organization fighting for equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians; their present objective is to defeat a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would prevent such arrangements from ever being legally recognized in Tennessee. The amendment will be decided on the Nov. 7 general election ballot.

Folley and Myers became active with the equality project, and recently hosted a fund-raising reception at their home off Northshore, to raise money for TEP’s awareness campaign. They also befriended co-founder Jenny Ford, a self-employed lobbyist who now represents TEP in Nashville.

“When the resolution to ban gay marriage in the state Constitution first passed the General Assembly,” says Ford, who had previously lobbied for the American Civil Liberties Union, “there was really no gay and lesbian lobby in place in Tennessee to fight it. People realized they had no way to legislatively stop this kind of assault on their rights.”

Ford says she found the plight of the state’s gay and lesbian community “compelling,” but walked away nonetheless, until state gay/lesbian activists Rhonda White and Randy Cox convinced her through their persistence to take up the cause.

“They told me, ‘This is wrong.’ And I finally started to listen,” Ford says. “We don’t see this as an issue of ‘gay rights.’ We see it as an issue of equal rights.”

Ford says TEP is registered as a 501C4 non-profit, with an affiliate Political Action Committee. See the TEP websites at TNEP.org, and votenoon1tn.com.

Folley and Myers have already faced down one disappointment in the ongoing nationwide battle over marriage rights. Seeking to have their union legally recognized, the couple traveled to Massachusetts in May 2004 to take advantage of that state’s new law granting legal recognition to gay and lesbian marriages. But their happiness was later crushed when a judge used an old statute—originally enacted to discourage interracial marriages—to rule that the new law wasn’t applicable to non-residents of the state.

Now they are seeking merely to ensure that their new home state doesn’t eliminate outright the possibility of their enjoying a legally recognized union here. “It’s a hard road,” Folley says. “Right now, it’s all about baby steps.”

Adds Ford, “Bill and Bill are planning to have a child here in our great state. And yet people want to go to the ballot and discriminate against them and other tax-paying citizens. I find that disturbing.”

 

SEVEN DAYS

Wednesday, Sept. 6

Thursday, Sept. 7

Friday, Sept. 8

Sunday, Sept. 10

Monday, Sept. 11

Tuesday, Sept. 12