Metro Pulse City Council Election Guide: District 1

We see what the candidates have to say about local issues (combined and condensed version)

On Wednesday, Sept. 2 early voting began for this year's City Council district primaries; 14 candidates are competing for the nominations in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th Districts. Our Sept. 10 print edition features (edited) interviews with the three candidates from District 2. In our Sept 17 issue, leading up to election day on Sept. 22, we will be running the District 6 Q&As. (Since District 4 and 1 candidates are going straight to the general election, we'll be posting those only online.)

Read the full candidate interviews at our complete 2009 Knoxville City Council Election Guide.

District 1 Candidates:

Robert Marlino, 47, works as a production manager for Smee+Busby Architects. A native of Oak Ridge, he has been living in Knoxville on and off since the 1970s, living in District 1 for the past four years. He came here to attend the University of Tennessee, where he earned his bachelor's degree in architecture. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Knox Heritage Society. He currently serves on the Knoxville City Council's Transportation and Mobility Committee. Marlino has two children.

Nick Pavlis, 54, served as an at-large member of City Council from 1995-2003. He is now the director of government relations for Charter Communications in Tennessee and Louisiana. Prior to that, he worked for A&B Distributors, a local gourmet food distribution company, for 26 years. Pavlis is married and has lived in Knoxville his entire life. He has been in District 1 for almost four years.

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?

Marlino: My answer to the question at the forum was yes, I would have voted for the passage of this ordinance. That doesn't answer your question, but with questions of legality, there are many different tacks you can take on that. I have not actually read the ordinance itself. I've just gotten background from people in the community. The ordinance is trying to address a behavior like people blocking sidewalks and stuff like that. It's a public nuisance type of ordinance. It's for the residents, and it's for the businesses downtown that have had problems with that.

If the ordinance should be reevaluated, I think my tack on that would be, rather than repealing it, but modifying it if necessary to enhance its effectiveness. What the police are basically doing is talking to homeless advocates, talking to the homeless to say, "How is it going? How is this affecting you?" All of this needs to be looked at and, if necessary, revised.

Pavlis: I would support it because of one of the reasons you've mentioned. As long as people are not obstructing foot traffic, to tell people where they can or cannot sit, I just have a real problem with that right there. I also have a problem with it because it was specific to certain areas. And at the end of the day, I do not think it's enforceable.

I've been through that area four or five times this week, and there seem to be an inordinate amount of people sitting on sidewalks. So we charge them $50. I believe that probably we're not going to get that $50. Meanwhile, we're taking our police off the streets for whatever amount of time it takes to get them booked. They're taking up administrative costs with our city courts. And I can't agree with it for those reasons.

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?

Marlino: When I have spoken to people who have made suggestions about where to put the housing—in every case—they've said it needs to be near public transportation. It needs to be close to services, like shopping and things like that. But one of the things that is key that I've heard mentioned a lot, is it needs to go into a neighborhood that is relatively stable, possibly somewhere with a higher concentration of owner-occupied homes. The reason why is that the success of these programs, studies show that this is where these programs work best. They work small-scale and in relatively stable neighborhoods. Putting high-density housing into a bad area, it tends to fail. Do I have any ideas where we could put transitional housing? I don't have a list, no. I believe it's definitely worth studying, and what I would like to see is a more comprehensive plan. I would hope that a plan that comes before council would include several sites rather than council voting on just one site.

I think a lot of the controversy that happened with Flenniken—in speaking with the neighbors, speaking with community organizations—there was a lot of issue of a high concentration of this type of housing in that area. Also, one big issue that kept coming up along those same lines is the question as to why areas that didn't already have a lot of permanent supportive housing weren't given consideration first.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think a lot of people believe in permanent supportive housing in this city.

So, number one, that fairness issue has to be addressed. Number two, I think there are many cases—particularly with Helen Ross McNabb doing the management of a very successful program—there are many cases where this adds a lot to the community. It's an asset. You could be doing a building project or a clean-up project, and you say, "Hey we need some guys." And they send them. It can be very community involved. There's a selling that has to go on, but I think we can definitely say that small-scale, permanent supportive housing is not going to wreck your neighborhood. If it's well-managed, it's not going to negatively affect your neighborhood. It can be an asset to your neighborhood.

We have to take the Fair Housing Act very seriously. But, for example in Flenniken's case, there are some parts of it we may have considered. Is it going into a pretty disadvantaged area? You can't have a protected class infringing onto another protected class, from my understanding. I think the neighborhood concerns have to be first.

Pavlis: I don't specifically know because I'm not privy to all the real estate listings or what have you. I do know, for example, that over there off of Northshore Drive, there's a vacant apartment building with 60 units. It's close to the bus lines and other services they say that they need.

My thought is this: Without being discriminatory, abiding by federal law, we need to sit down again and say, "Okay, we need to do this just like we do the road-paving." It should be equally spread out throughout the districts.

You go and talk to people on the front line, and you explain things to them. Now, I think [Ten Year Plan Director] Jon Lawler has a tough job, and his team, they're all good people, but I don't think they handled this well politically. Any good business person can stop in a five or ten-year plan. For me, at Charter, we do this all the time. We go in and we reassess.

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?

Marlino: TIFs and PILOTs should only be used as a catalyst to revitalize an area, in this case the South Waterfront for instance. We need to get investment in there, and we need to work on the infrastructure, so a TIF is a perfect solution for that. Do I think TIFs have been overused? Using them for suburban areas, for shopping centers, there has been controversy about that. I would not support that. In areas that have a momentum going, like downtown, I would say we have to look at them as individual case-by-case projects. Overall, in areas with that momentum, I think we should really look at cutting back TIFs and not doing that. But, we have to look at doing this for developing areas.

Pavlis: I think TIFs, number one, should be used as a last resort, if it's the only way that a project will go forward. In addition to that, I want these projects to be part of a master plan. When I was on City Council before we gave TIFs out for things like downtown revitalization. I would support it for that. I would support it for the Broadway/North Central project. It's wonderful what's going on up there. I think it needs to be for a larger, more encompassing project that the city is behind, not individual projects. These projects still provide jobs. They still have an economic benefit.

Now, in this market, real estate—residential real estate—is where it is right now. And considering that, it would have to be an awfully good project. I would have a really hard time supporting a TIF for any residential development. Obviously, Cityview's the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the corner. I can't think of anybody who's looking to do anything like that right now, though, to be completely honest.

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?

Marlino: Probably police and fire services.

Pavlis: Fire and police, anything related to public safety.

What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city's nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?

Marlino: I would definitely want to work with all the nonprofits in the city, but that doesn't merit a tax increase. I'd be very willing to work with them—to help them restructure—to get them through a difficult period, but that doesn't merit a tax increase. Parks and Rec, well, if the maintenance of the parks is suffering terribly, then maybe that's something we have to look at. If we're facing a situation where we're having to put a moratorium on services—athletics or something like that— in some of our parks, I would tend to favor something in the way of a public-private partnership to find some additional funding.

Pavlis: The last thing that I would want to do is cut back services or personnel. If it meant looking at grants, extensions of greenways, new parks, these are things we can live without if we need to. Those would be last resort efforts. But when it comes to personnel and services, I think everything else in front of that needs to be looked at. I think people understand that right now. And as much as I hate it—I love the arts, these nonprofits are all great causes—but at the end of the day, the city is here to serve its constituents. That's the ultimate thing.

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?

Marlino: I'm all for it. I think the HOPE VI program has worked great for College Homes. I've worked with Mechanicsville community organizations a lot, and that was a big, big boost for that neighborhood. And Walter P. Taylor is probably in the worst shape of any of that type of building in the city right now, so I'm all for it.

Generally, HOPE VI projects work out so they may have the same number of units, but they may be mixed income units. And I support that, a mixed income community. Now also, KCDC has many houses on the private market that they provide vouchers for. Plus, the federal government provides tax credits for low income housing. So, I haven't studied the numbers, but I don't think there's an overall loss of low income housing in the city. To answer your question, I don't think it's absolutely necessary for KCDC to keep the same number of low income housing units to make up for Walter P. Taylor.

Pavlis: I agree with the plan. I was in the Mechanicsville area today where they took down College Homes. The yards were nice; the homes were kept up. It just seems to be such a huge success.

I think, yes, trying to keep the same number of units is important. I don't know where else they can go. Again, I support this project. It's going to encourage development, individual home ownership, it'll encourage new businesses to establish themselves. At the end of the day, it strengthens the neighborhood. I don't care if it's the 1st District or the 6th District or wherever. As City Council members, we're all responsible for the well-being of the whole city, not just your district.

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?

Marlino: Yes, I do. I think Magnolia Avenue is a terrific street. I think we need to look at other corridor plans definitely. In the 1st District, my district, we had the Chapman Highway Corridor Plan, which needs to be revived. I think we need to look at all our major arteries and ask what we can do to improve the attractiveness, the traffic flow, and development along those corridors. I'm sure you're aware that there's a big national movement, especially among younger people, to come back into the city. We can prepare for more high-density development in closer-in areas. As long as we plan for it, it will happen.

Pavlis: The 1st and the 6th Districts have a number of the same issues. I've walked around in the 6th District as well. They both suffer from codes violations. There's a lot of rental properties—number one—that aren't kept up very well. There's a lot of blighted properties, and with that comes crime.

This plan is obviously a very positive sign. Beyond that, I'd like to see more codes enforcement, the clean up of blighted areas. The infrastructure seems to be pretty good over there. I don't see a lot of need right there. But, again, same thing with the 1st District. You take care of these blighted properties. You encourage home ownership. You get people moving back in instead of moving out of.

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?

Marlino: It is a tragedy what has happened in other cities, with the violence that has erupted over this, which I absolutely do not support. Knoxville is not a radical city. It's been spared a lot from radical elements on both sides. It's been spared a lot of the violence that's happened in other cities. But we need to always be conscious of that. So, should the city have been involved in some kind of mediation. Again, like Flenniken, I think that the neighborhoods should be able to come together on something like this, so the people who live there can express their opinions about what services they want to come in. The city needs to take a little bit more initiative in guiding services and development in its neighborhoods. I think this would be a perfect case in point where the city should have talked to the neighborhoods, ask them what they think of it. And I think the city should try to take the side of the neighborhood.

Pavlis: No, I don't. People have a right to gather peacefully, as long as they've got whatever permits they may need. So long as it's not violating zoning ordinance or building code, a business has a right to be where it wants. That's it as far as the city's concerned. Beyond that, I don't think that's the city's role to mediate that sort of thing at all.

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?

Marlino: Well, I think... That's an interesting way to put it, is what I'm thinking. I think the mayor is very popular. I think he has overall done a very, very good job, and I think everybody sees that. Now individually, can you oppose him on certain things? Absolutely. The way politics work is that the mayor, if he has a project he's very supportive of and he asks council for the support, you'll have to make that judgement. Am I going to support the mayor over another group? You have to make that judgement. Maybe it was a predictable answer—but it's how I feel—everybody at that forum said, "We're independent thinkers, and we'd have to take each project by its own merits." For instance, if I were on Council, and I know the mayor supported Flenniken, I would have absolutely voted against the appeal on Flenniken because people in that neighborhood were affected. Again, I think the mayor's great. I think he's done a really good job. I would love to support him in a lot of his initiatives, but everything would have to be looked at individually. You have to weigh your conscience and think about a district. That is what it is to be a Councilman.

Pavlis: No, I don't think that's the case. I served during the Ashe administration for eight years. I saw what that was about. This Council is open, it's transparent. They discuss issues. I think they vote their conscience. I don't see that. I served in an environment where I was an outsider in that I couldn't be counted on as a vote for the mayor. I don't see that in this Council or in this administration. I commend them. I don't always agree with them, but I really think they've discussed things. Council has had a lot of input. There have been numerous workshops.

Knowing Bill Haslam as I do, I don't think he's the type of person who pushes too hard. But, you know, if he has an agenda he believes is right, he needs to push it. I admire him for going out there and getting five votes, but I don't think they use their political—sure they're powerful people—but I just don't see Bill operating that way. I just truly don't.

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?

Marlino: I'm all for developers maximizing their property but with certain protections in place. The Task Force is looking at policies that protect the hillsides and the ridgetops from the type of really harmful development that's gone on. I think it's been proven in recent developments that whole ridgetops are sometimes obliterated. We can't just go with what is profit-intensive because we're losing our natural beauty.

Pavlis: I'm a huge supporter of hospitality and tourism. And Knoxville—the whole state of Tennessee—really relies on tourism dollars. That's a huge amount of money coming into our town. And people come to East Tennessee for its natural beauty. So, I think we've come to a time where we're going to have to be very creative to preserve people's right to maximize their property, but also, we also have to say that it's our hillsides and our terrain that bring people to East Tennessee. It needs to be preserved.