Knoxville's Task Force Influx

Local governments are sprouting advisory groups to deal with thorny issues. Will they work?

What do these things have in common: the problem of chronic homelessness in Knoxville; the controversy over development of property on Midway Road; the mounting cost of the city's pension plans?

If you answered, "They are all big, complicated issues with competing interests and thorny political ramifications," then you are: A) some kind of local-government geek; B) correct. If you added, "They have recently been or are about to be handed off to a task force or committee or citizens' group for further study," then you're really paying attention. You might also be wondering whether any of these groups are actually going to be able to get anything done.

It's a fair question. There are plenty of jokes about the tendency of politicians to punt on controversial issues by appointing some blue-ribbon panel or other. (Like this definition of "Committee," attributed to Fred Allen: "a group of men who individually can do nothing but as a group decide that nothing can be done.") And the local experience with task forces in recent years has been mixed, with some producing clear results and others faltering in various ways.

"They can be [effective]," says former Mayor Victor Ashe. "It also can create the illusion of progress when it's a myth."

Bill Lyons, the city's senior director of policy and communications, says Knoxville had a string of successful task forces under the administration of former Mayor Bill Haslam. He cites the neighborhood task force that led to the creation of the city's Office of Neighborhoods; the 5th and Broadway group that reached consensus on a redevelopment plan for the area now known as Downtown North; and the South Knoxville waterfront plan, which came from a long public process.

"Generally," Lyons says, "it can be really useful when you have a public policy question or a choice to make and you have a wide variety of people come in with different interests."

The three current examples all meet those criteria, in different ways. The Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness had gotten bogged down in trying to find places in local neighborhoods for its "permanent supportive housing" complexes. County Mayor Tim Burchett and acting city Mayor Daniel Brown put the brakes on the effort and handed it off to the issue's leading citizen voices—neighborhood activist Ron Peabody and TYP supporter Stephanie Matheny—to form a committee. They have named the initial members and held their first meeting on March 5. The group plans to meet through the summer and come up with a recommendation (or several of them) by the fall.

The yet-to-be-formed pension plan task force is a slightly different case. Initially, Lyons and other administration officials proposed a group made up of city officials, city employees, and financially astute private citizens to discuss the looming cost of public pension obligations. But the group planned to meet in private, where Lyons argued conversations could be more candid and compromises more political feasible. That led to protests from some City Council members and mayoral candidates (including Marilyn Roddy, who is both). At the March 8 Council meeting, Lyons announced the city was dropping the effort and would let Council name its own task force. Brown has since suggested that Councilman Joe Bailey head up the new group, which has yet to be named but will hold open meetings. Council will consider a resolution on the issue at its meeting on Tuesday.

And then there's Midway Road. After the Development Corporation's attempt to rezone about 380 acres off the Midway exit at I-40 for a business park was defeated in December—for the third time in 10 years—Burchett suggested that some kind of committee might be useful in figuring out what to do next. Up stepped Gloria Ray, president and CEO of the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation. Ray was at the December County Commission meeting where the Midway vote was held and says, "It was painful to watch." So she approached Burchett and Commission Chairman Mike Hammond and offered to pull together a group to come up with possible options and compromises for the use of the property. The task force includes representatives from the local community groups that fought the business park, as well as the Development Corporation, the Chamber, and assorted people Ray recruited from the scientific and creative communities to provide outside perspective.

The Midway group met for the first time last Friday. Ray says 16 people attended. "It was very civil," she says. "No one got mad at anybody." This was mostly an informational meeting. Ray says she hopes to hold two more over the next few months and come up with some ideas to pass back to Commission. Bob Wolfenbarger, the head of a group called the 8th District Preservation Association and one of the most outspoken opponents of the business park plan, says that after the first meeting he is "cautiously optimistic." He adds, "I'm impressed with the folks that are at the table and the skill sets we can utilize."

Of course, such task forces often carry only as much weight as local politicians are willing to give them. Neither the homelessness group nor the Midway committee is working in any official capacity; both will merely make recommendations that City Council or County Commission will be free to adopt or ignore. The pension task force, whatever form it takes, will face an even steeper political climb—any change to city pensions must be approved by Knoxville voters, which can't happen until the 2012 general election at the earliest. That will be well into the administration of the next city mayor, and under a City Council with four new members, none of whom may feel bound by the task force's work.

Former County Executive Tommy Schumpert has seen a lot of task-force effort go for naught. During his tenure in the mid-to-late 1990s, a large committee of judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials tried to come up with a comprehensive plan to solve a host of problems, including jail crowding and inadequate courtroom space. The proposed solution was a unified downtown Justice Center, to be located on State Street. The plan got as far as the county actually buying the property for the center, before it ran into interlocking problems: political power struggles that pitted Sheriff Tim Hutchison against assorted adversaries; the vocal skepticism of Attorney General Randy Nichols; and a nascent push for downtown redevelopment from developers and property owners who weren't sure a palatial jail was the best use of real estate. The plan eventually died. The property now holds a parking lot and a recycling center.

"I thought it worked well," Schumpert says of the justice task force, "and we went a long way with what their recommendations were. So, it's hard to tell."

A more recent illustration of the limits of task forces is the Ridgetop and Hillside Protection Plan, which came from nearly three years of work by a group of about two dozen people selected to represent an array of interests, including developers, environmentalists, and neighborhoods. The plan was adopted by the Metropolitan Planning Commission in December. But after opposition from Burchett, the Chamber, and many developers, it has currently stalled in County Commission. One problem the plan faces is that the task force was formed under the administrations of two mayors—Haslam and County Mayor Mike Ragsdale—who are no longer around to advocate for it.

And there's the rub, says Wolfenbarger, a veteran of many such groups. "They generally work extremely well given realistic expectations," he says. "But the elephant that's always in the room is the political dynamic. And the political dynamic is often unpredictable."