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 2 Candidates:
Tierney Bates, 32, works in the Development Office for the University of Tennessee's College of Engineering. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Bates has a bachelor's degree in mass media communications and a master's in higher education administration from the University of Akron. He has lived in District 2 since he moved to Knoxville four years ago.
Duane Grieve, 63, is the founder and principal of Grieve Associates Architects. He was a part of the first graduating class in UT school of architecture in 1969 and has worked as the president of the local, state and regional chapters of the American Institute of Architects, as well as the treasurer of the national AIA. A specialist in historic preservation, Grieve was the chief planner in the restoration of the Miller's Building on Gay Street. He is the president of Scenic Knoxville and has worked on a number of municipal and neighborhood boards and task forces. Raised in Norris, he has lived in Knoxville for 36 years, all in District 2. He is married with three children and a grandson. Grieve was encouraged to run by District 2 Councilwoman Barbara Pelot, who pledged her support for him when he made his announcement.
Ken Knight, 49, is the general manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. He has been in the hotel business for 25 years. Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, he's been living in the Knoxville area since 1993 and has been living in West Hills for the past two years. He ran and narrowly lost against current District 2 Councilwoman Barbara Pelot in 2005.
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?
Bates: I would definitely support a repeal. One of the reasons why is we're talking about city sidewalks. This is just putting a Band-Aid over a bigger problem. I firmly believe we need to stand up as a community, get more buy-in, more communication to all residents how this affects us, how this affects the community as a whole. I think that's the thing that's lost here. I think going after these people punitively is handling it all wrong. We need to be able to communicate.
Grieve: Before I can say whether I'd vote to repeal, I'd like to find out why we're doing this. To me there is a problem when you go down Broadway and you have people sleeping on sidewalks and blocking sidewalks. Now, there are two things to this. I have a business on Emory Place, and I have people who want to come into my building. They shouldn't be blocked by someone sprawled across the sidewalk. There ought to be some way to take care of that problem. But I think it's much bigger than just, "Well, I'm going to give you a $50 fine for sleeping out front." We all know probably the person doesn't have $50 to pay, or they wouldn't be sleeping outside. We have to look into this problem and determine why and who and what does it affect. How can we solve the real problem of people sleeping on the streets, sleeping on the sidewalks. I don't think it's a light kind of answer until you understand the parties involved in it. I know I'm sort of going around the bush here, but that it is why it's not so simple to say yes or know.
Knight: I'd have a very difficult time supporting anything to repeal it. My first thought when that whole issue came up was, well, what about the rights of those people? But then I thought, what about the rights of the rest of the people who have a right to be able to walk down a sidewalk without having to go out into the street to get around the people who are lying there? What about the rights of the people who own a business who have a right to have their customers enter and exit a business without stepping over people or being afraid?
I don't see it as a discriminatory issue against the homeless. I see it more as just a right for people to have a right to use the sidewalks. The sidewalks are there for people to move on, not sleep on.
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?
Bates: One of the areas I would think of, being in District 2, is around where we're building the Brookview community out there by Bearden Hill. That area right there would give people access to transportation. It's close to jobs in that community. When you go out east, maybe something toward Asheville Highway. There's an opportunity for jobs out that way, transportation.
I think people in the neighborhoods are going to react the way they did to Flenniken. If this started coming out West into my district, there'll be some pretty strong opposition, too. The key here is communication, overcoming stereotypes about homelessness. Now, a lot of chronically homeless people are mentally disturbed or may have a drug problem. But if you've ever seen people have an opportunity to come up from that, and all they needed was a hand up, not a handout, they become contributing citizens.
Grieve: You want to look at the whole city. You don't just go to South Knoxville and say, "Well here's Flenniken School, an empty building that we can use for housing. So we're going to go after that." I think it should be spread out. You need to have a master plan that says where we're going to put the housing.
Still, sometimes you have an issue, and you try to be as open and transparent as possible, and we try to bring all the parties together. You're not going to. You're still going to have core groups that are going to be opposed to whatever it is, but all you can do is go through the Democratic process.
You've got enough apartment complexes throughout the city. For instance, I just now thought of this, but in the 2nd District you have a lot of apartment complexes. I daresay that if you took, say, 20 units out of a 100-unit subsidized housing complex and make that a piece of transitional housing you probably wouldn't see the difference. You already have the apartment complex where you can just meld that into it.
Now, in this type of process, we do have to be very careful about the implications of the Fair Housing Act. From what I understand from the city's law department, we do have to be very careful so we don't open up the possibility of a lawsuit.
Knight: I don't have any ideas for specific locations. I think it's important that we spread these permanent supportive housing locations everywhere in the city. My concern with the South Knoxville issue is that's a very, very fragile neighborhood. I went to a meeting just this Monday night with homeowners there who were opposed to it. We need to make sure we're not forcing this down people's throats. I can almost guarantee you the people in that neighborhood are not going to be supportive of the people who end up living there. So that makes its likelihood of success far less. But I think you need to keep them in areas that are far more densely populated than that neighborhood so, regardless of the people that we're putting there, they're more easily absorbed into the fabric of the neighborhood.
I think most people's initial reaction is to be against it regardless. We need to do a better job on the front end, educating them, talking them about facts and figures and statistics and exactly the safeguards that are there for the individuals who'll be living there as well as the individuals who are going to be living around them. If we do that, there might not be that immediate fear on the front end to keep them from supporting it on the back end. [In reference to the FHA] I think we have to worry about what's best for Knoxville, and worry less about what's being mandated to us by someone a long way from here who knows absolutely nothing about us or our people or our city.
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?
Bates: One of the things I'm not sure has been mentioned enough is we have an opportunity to encourage the University of Tennessee to build over there. Build condos, build housing for students, things like that. I think that would offset more of the city's costs, and it would get people engaged in that area. If we look at benchmarks set by schools and cities working at this—I'll give you an example of where I'm from—Ohio State in Columbus. They built a whole new area designed around not only quality of life for students but for faculty and staff. I know that if the University of Tennessee were offering housing in that beautiful South Waterfront area right across the bridge, that's a unique opportunity. There's a lot more we need to fit into our discussion. More university involvement should probably be a part of it.
Grieve: Let's take a condo project as an example. There are those developers who are using these right, and those who are not. If a project is such that an investment from the city is going to increase the investment on a piece of property to where the taxes will go up, and depending on whether we go with a PILOT or a TIF, we have to look at these projects individually.
I think to say, I'm not going to do PILOTs and I'm not going to do TIFs is a bit shortsighted. We have to ask, does it fall within the realm? I think that sometimes these things stretch the rules. Sometimes we have a certain district where these things are allowed. Now, all of a sudden, there's another project that falls outside of it, so we increase the district. I think we have to be careful about that.
Knight: I still think that there's a place for them in specific instances and in specific locations. Using downtown as an example, I think that in the beginning when downtown was very depressed, they were a real catalyst in making some things possible and getting downtown to where it is today. Now downtown can kind of stand on its own two feet and they're less of a necessity, and maybe they're being used or requested by some developers to take the risk out of a project. The risk should be with the developer not with the taxpayers of Knoxville because if it does very well the developer gets all the good stuff, so it's not fair for the taxpayers to shoulder that burden.
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?
Bates: We'd have to look at city services, and how we can be more green, more energy-efficient, before we talk about tax increases. That's one thing I'm talking about a lot—going green in terms of energy use, expanded recycling—and it's something that could potentially reduce our costs. I think we really ought to be a leader when it comes to that, especially having a major university like UT in our backyard.
Grieve: You have to understand what the priorities of a city budget are. You need to have police. You need to have fire protection and all the safety measures that go along with those. We need to have good services for our people. I would talk to my neighborhood groups and find out what their priorities are.
Now, back to priorities. Nobody wants their police cut. Nobody wants their fire budget cut. Police want more. Firemen want more. Now beyond that, I think we may have to face some tough decisions. But remember, our debts are good. We have a rainy day fund that's doing well. The taxes are lower, but remember the taxes are lower because the value of these properties went up. What would I cut? I don't know.
Knight: I would say it would have to be basic services of safety. I don't think we want to cut the size of our police force. I don't think we want to cut the size of our fire department. We have to pick up the trash. Those are probably the three best examples of things that have to happen. We can't let the city fall into disrepair or the streets not to be safe or those types of things.
What about non-essential services and budget items like, say, parks or the city's nonprofit grants? Are those ever worth a tax increase?
Bates: I'm a taxpayer, and I don't want to pay any more taxes. To say we'd have to increase taxes, I'd have to see what I'm getting for it. What is my return on my taxes? Without a specific situation where I could see and I could demonstrate to people what we get in return, I wouldn't want to say.
Grieve: If we can save several hundred thousand dollars by having groups take care of their parks and greenways, that would be a great way to cut that budget.
When it comes to funding some of these nonprofit organizations, I think we have to ask ourselves, is this really the responsibility of government? Or is that the responsibility of the private sector? I pay taxes and you pay taxes. You may not want your portion of these taxes to go to the symphony. You may want it to go to greenway programs. Maybe what we have to do in a tough, tough year is cut those, and say to the private sector, "Folks, you're going to have to step up." We might have to get lean and mean.
Knight: I would not raise taxes to cover grants for nonprofits.
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?
Bates: It's a good idea. We've seen it with Mechanicsville. At first, a lot of people were worried or discouraged about it, that it was going to displace a lot of people, and that didn't happen. And I don't think it will here. I think that's a great opportunity to jump-start that neighborhood. I think there are going to be more developers, more realtors wanting to go into that part of town if they see new, nice housing.
But yes, I think it's important that when we build these new housing developments, we try to maintain the same amount of housing units.
Grieve: I think one of the questions I would have is how much federal money is going into it, as opposed to local money. I think any time we can upgrade any of our facilities, we should do that. The density of people there and this sort of thing, I don't know enough about it to give you a good answer. That is one thing I have not looked into in terms of what we do and what we don't have.
Knight: The HOPE VI project is a good project. The type of project that they're talking about works much better than the old way of doing things. So, I think if the money is available, that's a good project for the city. I'll be honest I've never thought about keeping the level of housing the same. I think that everything that KCDC has is being utilized, so I we probably need to do everything we can to keep it at at least that level. I wouldn't want to do anything that would people out on the streets.
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?
Bates: Well, come on, we know it's been neglected. The timing is right for the city, if we're going to grow the city, to grow in all directions. East Knoxville is a hidden gem. There's a lot of history. East Knoxville, Holston Hills in particular, used to be one of the really premiere parts of the city. We have to get a lot more buy-ins, make sure when we market this city, we market the whole city, not just West Knoxville. I live in District 2, West Knoxville. When I first moved here, not a soul told me about anything else other than West Knoxville. We cannot just concentrate on one part of the city.
Grieve: We've got a real vibrant, exciting downtown that's growing. And, all of a sudden, things are starting to happen—whether it's South, whether it's Cumberland Avenue, whether it's Broadway or Central. Things are really starting to happen on those corridors.
We have several smaller businesses out there where the proprietors are fixing up older buildings. That begins to happen, then some of what I call these disenfranchised neighborhoods, we can start to place some extra emphasis on these neighborhoods. You go out to the park there, and then you come back this way [downtown], there are some voids there that can be looked at, can be worked on. Should the city help? Absolutely.
So yes, we need to figure a way that we can subsidize the infrastructure in these areas, but, again, the pie is only so big.
Knight: It's important that the city spreads its dollars throughout the community. No community should be left behind. Yes, I like the Magnolia Avenue plan. At this point, there has just recently been started a Magnolia Avenue Business and Professional Association that had their inaugural meeting a few weeks ago that I attended. I don't know if that organization would have been formed were it not for the city's plans to improve things on Magnolia Avenue. I think that adds some life to that business community and brings them together for a common cause to improve things because the city can't do it all. Each of those individual business owners has to do his or her part.
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?
Bates: I think the city should have stepped in more than they did. One thing I've thought about, though, is why not put a service like that downtown? Why not have certain things we're putting in certain parts of the city, we could have them downtown. Planned Parenthood is one of them. I think this did present a unique opportunity for the city to step in and maybe help Planned Parenthood find a location downtown.
Grieve: Now, you had a situation here where Planned Parenthood found a space they wanted to move into. They had a legal right to move there. There were no code problems, no zoning issues. So, what involvement should the city have? Only if they were asked to be involved. I don't want the city involved in my business. I think you have to be really careful with where you get involved and where you don't get involved. That is a situation where the city should be even more careful because you're dealing with a highly emotional issue.
To me I can see both sides. We need to allow people to express their opinions. We also need the services Planned Parenthood provides for those people who want those services. It should be legal. It should be above-board. It should be able to happen. I think the city can only do so much in this type of situation.
Knight: I'm not sure what role the city could have played in that. I'm not sure why the folks in Bearden would be opposed to that facility being there. I think that's an issue where the sides are so far apart, and they've been far apart on it for a long time, and they're going to be far apart on it long after me and you are long gone. So I don't know how you mediate that. I don't know what role the city could have played in that. They don't really have any authority to do anything. I don't know if that's something the city should be involved in.
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? [Note re: Mayor Haslam's gubernatorial campaign. For whatever it's worth, Duane Grieve and Ken Knight are both contributors to the Haslam for Governor campaign. According to Haslam's most recent campaign finance filing with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, Grieve has contributed $250 and Knight has contributed $1,000.]
Bates: I'll say this. What the mayor has done is something we've needed, which was to bring some visionary leadership and management to the city. There's not much more we can say. He's only got two more years here, maybe less depending on the gubernatorial election.
This Council, which will only have one or two years to work with him, will have to concentrate on how to carry that torch but also be our own independent thinkers. Now, I got into this race without anyone trying to recruit me to run, like one of my opponents. I think independently. I not only think independently, but I think about my district's residents as individuals and, of course, as constituents who vote.
Grieve: No, I don't. I think number one, the mayor's done a good job. Number two, if you really think about it, we're really fortunate to have someone of his stature and his means that has decided to go into politics. I also think it's fortunate to have a businessperson in that position. Would I go against the mayor? Absolutely. I have no problems with that. It doesn't matter if it's you or whether it's Bill Haslam. And if Bill were sitting here, he would know that. I don't think that because he's a Haslam, that that has anything to do with how I feel about an issue. I know the Haslams, and I think they've done a lot for the city. But I think how I feel about a situation will depend on how my constituents feel about that situation and how the residents of the city feel about it.
Knight: I have no idea. I think the current mayor is a good man and has, overall, done a good job. As far as to whether there's pressure to vote his way, I think that can best be answered by the nine people who are currently on Council. From my own perspective, if I'm elected, I have to live with each and every vote. So, I'm going to make the vote that is the right vote for the people I represent.
I didn't really understand the purpose of the question at that forum. To me that's a way of being critical of the administration without actually being critical. It's being critical of the administration by asking 14 people who have nothing to do with it. It's kind of a back-handed slap in the face.
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?
Bates: Yeah, I think so because when we think about what's important to us as a city, development has to be closely watched. I'm also a fan of impact fees. If you're going to disturb the environment, develop on hillsides, I think we have to think about impact fees. If you're building in my community, you are impacting my community. And we should do what we can to make sure that it isn't negative. There are things that are more important than the bottom line.
Grieve: We have got to be able to come up with a balance between property rights and what is good for the city. There's no difference between what they're trying to do, and what we already do inside the city. Say you have a vacant lot in the city that's going to be developed. They have to be set back a certain distance on each side. There's only a certain area they can build. It's got to be a certain height. There has to be a certain relationship between building and green space. So, all you're saying is, how do we develop? How do we go beyond what we already have?
Now I don't know a whole lot about [County Commissioner Greg] Lumpy's [Lambert] project, but if he's zoned agricultural, he can't put a high-rise apartment in there anyway. Now, where you get into trouble is in a situation in which current zoning ordinances would allow someone to build a 30-story building. Then what you need to do is appeal to his senses.
Knight: There needs to be another conversation at the same time. If we're going to take property that currently has the ability to produce property taxes off the table, then we have to have the conversation of, "We know you want to save the ridgetops? But at the same time, are you willing to do it if at some point we have to raise the tax rates to make up for the taxes we're not going to generate from that ridgetop."
I think far too often, we make decisions based on the argument, that, yes, this makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense to do that. We are fools to cut off the tops of mountains in our area. That is total neglect. Yes. But I think we need to understand the long-term consequences of doing that, and we need to have that discussion as part of the other discussion. People need to understand that in order to build up tax revenue and keep the tax rates low, we are going to need to have more density in the areas we are going to develop. That's just doing the math.