When someone is appointed to a term on the Knoxville-Knox County Metropolitan Planning Commission, the job has historically been that person's as long as he or she wants it.
This was not the case with Rachel Craig, whom County Mayor Tim Burchett last week declined to appoint to a full term, despite her expressing her desire to stay on. (Craig has served on MPC the past two years, appointed after Nick Pavlis stepped down to run for City Council.)
The change came as no surprise to Craig, she says. What was a surprise to her is whom Burchett picked to replace her: Jeff Roth, the vice-president of Quality Machine and Welding and a resident of Karns. And it's not Roth personally that Craig objects to—it's the Karns part.
"I AM upset that I am not being replaced by someone from south Knox county," Craig, a resident of the Island Home neighborhood, posted on the website KnoxViews.com. "In the recent past, MPC has had 2 appointees from south of the river - one City appointee and one County appointee. A couple of years ago the City appointee decided he was ready to step down, and he was replaced by someone not from south Knoxville … Now I'm being replaced by someone from west Knoxville. Which means that MPC will have 15 Commissioners, not a single one of whom lives south of the river."
Unlike City Council members and county commissioners, the MPC members are appointed by the mayors at their own discretion. State law encourages racial diversity, saying the appointments should "strive to ensure that the racial composition is at least proportionately reflective of the region's racial minority population." But there's nothing about geographic diversity (or any professional qualifications, for that matter).
MPC deputy director Buzz Johnson says he doesn't see an issue with the state not requiring appointments by districts. "You need a committee to consider the community as a whole," says Johnson. And Burchett says that was his thinking when it came to selecting Roth.
"I think it's important just to get the best people for the job—people who understand growth and want to see it happen," Burchett says. He also makes no bones about why he didn't reappoint Craig, who has a master's degree in urban and regional planning. "I don't think she represents my personal philosophy about things," Burchett says. "[Roth] comes from a pro-business background, and I think that's very important in this economy."
When asked if he could not have found a potential MPC commissioner with that same philosophy from south of the river, Burchett dismissed the geography as unimportant.
"East, west, north, south—we're all a part of the same community," Burchett says.
Burchett acknowledges he was given a list of names of potential South Knoxville replacements for Craig by Grant Rosenberg, the county's director of community development. He says he looked at the list but chose to ignore it.
"It's not Grant's decision, it's not the board's decision. It's my decision, and I made it," Burchett says.
There are over 40,000 residents south of the river, and geographically it's one of the largest sectors of the county. Later this year MPC will vote on updated South City and South County Sector Plans, which will determine how future development will proceed in the area. Craig says South Knoxville is "a big black hole for most people in town," and that she often spent a lot of time on the commission explaining details of her community to others less familiar with it.
"It's really useful to hear different perspectives," Craig says. "No one person can know everything." She adds that the entire commission's knowledge of different parts of town often factors into discussions. She also notes: "I always spent a fair amount of time explaining to other South Knoxvillians what was going on, and answering their questions."
Craig isn't the only one upset. Pavlis, who represents South Knoxville on Council, told the Knoxville Focus this week that he was angry about Roth's appointment. (Pavlis is on vacation this week, so we were unable to reach him for comment ourselves.)
"I don't think anyone believes it's fair or right or just for an entire community to have no representation on a body which has great influence on matters affecting neighborhoods and communities," Pavlis is quoted as saying.
Bill Lyons, the city's director of policy and communications, says there is a feeling in the city offices that it's "definitely something that's a legitimate concern." But unless someone steps down in midterm, the city won't be appointing any new members to MPC until next summer, when there will be a new mayor.
Burchett's in the same boat, but when asked if he'd look strongly toward a candidate from south of the river if anyone were to step down midterm, he said he wouldn't.
"But I have no animosity to the people in South Knoxville," Burchett says. "I mean, they helped me get elected mayor."