citybeat (2008-10)

Downtown Unbeared

City Beat

As public art policy finally moves forward, Knoxville says goodbye to its least adorable bear (and the rest of them)

Breathe easy, Knoxville. The scourge of unregulated statuary may soon be kaput, if the cityâ’s recently formed Public Art Task Force has anything to say about it. No more half-sunk canoes or bucking broncos except those with city sanctionâ"all the result of a series of recommendations released by the task force last week.

Those recommendations are the first step in the long process of eventually creating a city policy and a seven-member â“Public Art Committeeâ” to oversee new proposals for public art and to review existing public art.

What wonâ’t get a review, though, are those downtown â“art bears.â” According to Bill Lyons, the cityâ’s Senior Director of Public Policy and Communications and a member of the task force, business owners responsible for the bears will be getting notice to remove them â“within the week.â” Once they receive notice, theyâ’ll have 30 days to take them down.

Those bears, after all, are the sculptures that got this whole public art policy thing going. Well, one of them at least: the now-infamous 9/11 bear in front of attorney J.D. Leeâ’s office on Gay Street, which appeared last May sporting a semi-glossy Sept. 11 attack paint job by Powell artist Kathy Wilder-Brown.

Since there isnâ’t a fully-formed policy, or even a committee yet, the city is using a sidewalk obstruction ordinance to enforce the de-bearing. But, says Lyons, it wonâ’t enforce that law to all sidewalk-blocking sculptures, not even the Remington Bucking Bronco that also sits in front of Leeâ’s office, not 10 feet away from the offending bear.

â“What do they expect us to do with them? Hide them, blow them up or what?â” says Lee, a lawyer who for the past six years has represented the families of 9/11 victims in federal wrongful death lawsuits.

That sculpture wonâ’t face review until there is a Public Art Committee and an ordinance in place. Which raises the question: Why that sort of selectivity? Is this whole thing just about getting rid of that one bear? Lee says he will comply with the city, but he wishes the sculpture were given the same review process under a formal public art ordinance.

Lyons is reluctant to say that itâ’s about the controversy; instead, he says, itâ’s the fact that the bear was part of a larger art program (2001â’s Bearfoot in the City) that has expired.

â“Had (the bronco) caused controversy when it was initially put there, we might be looking at it differently,â” he says.

Almost immediately after the 9/11 bear first appeared, the sculpture sparked a controversy that captured the passions of dozens of Knoxvillians, who, via the online forum Knox Blab, debated the merit of the shocking but cuddly critter and its right to be there. Downtown resident Michael Haynes was particularly opposed to the bear; he complained to the city about the sculpture.

â“That sort of revealed the larger issue that we really had no one looking after art downtown, which explains why statuary was starting to pile up in Krutch Park, in Market Square,â” Haynes says. â“The Veteranâ’s Memorial was slated to go into Worldâ’s Fair Park, things like that.â”

City officials finally got seriously thinking about the need for a real policy, placing a moratorium on all public art until one was put in place.

On Feb. 28, the task force, a 15-member body appointed by Mayor Bill Haslam, finally presented a list of recommendations for the management of public art installations in the city of Knoxville. The recommendations, drafted over a series of meetings between November and February and modeled after policies in other cities like Nashville and Chattanooga, were approved by Haslam Tuesday and will now go before City Council, which, if all goes to plan, will eventually create an official ordinance.

Number one on the list is the formation of a seven-member Public Art Committee. This committee, which would be made up of artists, art patrons, and at least one City Council member, will be responsible for enforcing the policy. The recommendations also list a set of potential criteria like artistic merit, budget, and feasibility for selection, maintenance, and removal.

Artist Wilder-Brown says sheâ’s troubled by the fact that her work set this all in motion.

â“I hate it. It hurts me, to think that my piece has caused the removal of so much wonderful artwork,â” she says.

Itâ’s the task forceâ’s position that a policy will help encourage the donation and installation of high-quality artwork in the city, but Wilder-Brown says she worries that a public committee will keep controversial art out of the city, allowing only for artwork thatâ’s â“acceptable to everybody.â”

But Lyons says she shouldnâ’t worry about that.

â“The idea is to encourage art and not to be limiting. Thatâ’s going to be laid out in the final policy,â” Lyons says. â“We want there to be more.â” â" Charles Maldonado

Your Karma vs. Their Camera

Almost 100,000 tickets later, red-light camera evidence wins every time

Knoxville City Traffic Court typically runs five sessions a week, but one day a month the presiding judge can count on never once saying, â“not guilty.â” That would be red-light camera citation hearing day, the first Wednesday of each month.

Of the 99,779 tickets issued at 15 stoplights since Knoxville contracted with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc. to install cameras in April 2006, 425 recipients have requested court hearings, which cost an additional $118 if youâ’re found guilty, says City Court Supervisor Rick Wingate. â“But not many actually show up for the hearing, fewer than 100.â”

And all those who did appear were found guilty of running the red light based on evidence furnished by the camera.

â“There have been a few cases that reached the hearing stage but were dismissed due to a tag being misread, but thatâ’s the type of thing that would have been adjusted automatically at the ticket payment window without a hearing,â” says Wingate. â“No oneâ’s ever beat the actual citation for running the red light.â”

Video evidence, a technological advance also being used in police cruisers, is very hard to dispute, says patrol coordinator Capt. Gordon Catlett, who oversees the red-light camera program. â“You have photos of the red light being run, you have a picture of the vehicle tag and a video of what happened. As the comedian says, â‘Who are you going to believe, me or your lyinâ’ eyes?â’â”

The three people who are appealing their tickets in Circuit Court and the one whoâ’s lost in Circuit Court and appealing to the next level are not claiming innocence, says Wingate. â“They are approaching those cases more on the legality of the city using cameras to enforce the law, not denying the red light infraction,â” he says.

Maryville attorney Roland Cowden, for example, â“took the Fifthâ” at the hearing for the red light camera ticket he received in August, invoking his right against self-incrimination. He then filed an appeal in Circuit Court based on the red-light surveillance â“being done without warrant and without any showing of probable causeâ” and saying such tactics â“cannot but have a chilling effect upon our freedoms of speech and peaceable assembly guaranteed by the First Amendment.â”

In August 2006, attorney David B. Hamilton filed a lawsuit in federal court for a fifth plaintiff, Judy Williams, against all involved in issuing her ticketâ"from Mayor Haslam to Redflex to Michael Sullivan, the officer who signed the ticket. The suit claims the Red Light Enforcement program â“unlawfully deprives or hinders her access to the courts, a civil right.â”

A motion to dismiss filed by all of the defendants has that case â“on holdâ” nearly 18 months later, says Knoxville Deputy Law Director Ron Mills. The motion rests largely on Williamsâ’ proceeding directly to the federal appeal without going through intermediary challenge steps that were available.

How quickly that motion is decided is â“entirely up to the judge,â” says Mills.

With $1.17 million generated for the cityâ’s general fund two years into its three-year contract with Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., along with $2.13 million for Redflex itself, itâ’s unlikely any privacy arguments or due process issues will disband the system.

But Wingate feels confident that only guilty people are paying the $50 fine, because two humans also oversee the hotshot technology. â“The light has to be completely red when you enter the intersection,â” he says, â“with your front tire over a certain line. That will trigger the camera to take the picture. It is then downloaded to Redflex offices in Arizona, where someone watches the video and looks and verifies that you indeed ran the light. There are a lot that the Redflex folks determine, â‘No, you didnâ’t.â’â”

Next, Redflex marks the photos and the videos that do involve an infraction and downloads them back to Knoxville, where an officer reviews them once more before issuing a ticket.

Each ticket utilizes at least three pictures, including a close-up of your vehicle tag, says Wingate. â“We save a lot of people the $118 court fee because when they arrive for their hearing weâ’ll ask, â‘Have you ever seen your video?â’ Weâ’ll look at it and itâ’s not even debatable...itâ’s like the Indy 500, the brake lights donâ’t even come on. Weâ’ll ask, â‘So, when did you stop?â’ Usually those people just grin and are like, â‘Okay, hereâ’s my check for the $50.â’â”

And there is one other way to avoid paying a red-light camera ticket, says Wingate: â“If you receive a red-light camera ticket and you let us know you werenâ’t the one driving the car, weâ’ll give you a chance to â‘nominateâ’ the person who was driving the car to receive the ticket instead. But if they send the ticket back or ignore it, it comes back to you...itâ’s still your responsibility if itâ’s your vehicle.

â“Either way, you might lose a friend.â” â" Rose Kennedy


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