Nick Della Volpe didn't get the memo that neophytes are supposed to be seen and not heard.
The new 4th District City Councilman wasn't a half-hour into his first full City Council meeting when he started stomping on toes. He says it wasn't his intention to tick anybody off when he announced that the owner of Vic's Package Store ought to think about paying his back property taxes before asking the city to rubber-stamp his liquor license renewal, but he wasn't exactly shocked when nobody thanked him for putting in the time to research the owner's background. And he says he didn't take it personally when least one colleague (plus City Council's counsel) reacted strongly to his not-so-gentle suggestion.
The reaction came because liquor licenses are awarded by the state, and the Certificate of Compliance that City Council is required to issue for license renewals is, legally speaking, a rubber-stamp affair. At-large council member Chris Woodhull was visibly annoyed at Della Volpe's meddling and said it made him wonder what was next, asking applicant Victor Jernigan if he'd gone to church last Sunday? Shortly thereafter, Della Volpe, who is a recently retired lawyer, got a politely pointed memo from City Council attorney Charles Swanson about the (im)propriety of his remarks.
Della Volpe is unfazed:
"That's a bunch of namby-pamby nonsense. In business, if you want something from me, I'll say ‘But first I want something from you.'
"Why aren't we taking the opportunity? Because we're afraid he's going to go out and hire a lawyer and pay him $10,000 to sue us? Heck, the guy's going to pony up the $2,500 and pay his taxes. If you're always conservative, that means you're leaving too many things on the table. Law, like a number of sports, is played with leather balls.
"I'm a newbie, but I'm not shy. If I've got this guy coming to me to approve an application at the same time he owes taxes to the city, I'm going to point it out. Even if we can't deny them a license just because their taxes aren't current, they might not like the publicity they get from being behind on their taxes," he says. "Why not ask some guy who's asking for things to make sure he's got his best foot forward? I'm going to get a resolution drafted to urge that the law be changed. Frankly, I think this was an opportunity missed."
First District City Council member Nick Pavlis, who held an at-large council seat from 1995-2003, was elected at the same time as Della Volpe this go-around. He has some mixed feelings about Della Volpe's style: "Nick has certainly come out of the gates swinging, but in the campaign, he made the promise that he was going to be an active council person and he's fulfilling that. He has a lot of pertinent questions during the meetings, and he's addressing issues outside the city's normal purview, like schools, for example. But I'll say this, and I'll say it to him personally—at times I wish he wasn't as talkative as he is, although I know he's working hard to represent the people that elected him."
But Pavlis isn't holding his breath waiting for Della Volpe to put a governor on his mouth. The liquor license controversy was just the opening salvo.
Della Volpe stays in close touch with his constituents by scheduling community meetings across his far-flung district and by communicating through an extensive e-mail list. Like his 4th District predecessor Rob Frost, Della Volpe has issues with the Knoxville Utilities Board's tree-trimming policies. He would like to see them set up an appeals board with more power to deal with citizen complaints than the new advisory board KUB has set up, and he publicly invited KUB chief Mintha Roach to come talk to City Council about it. Roach's friends grumbled that the new council member had "hauled Mintha in" for the purpose of embarrassing her about something that had already been decided; but for Della Volpe, the issue is far from settled.
A couple of weeks later, after Halls resident Mary Langdon raised complaints about the way KUB crews had hacked a stand of white pines in her back yard, Della Volpe's e-mail list got this message:
"Good Lord, I hate to see that our friends at KUB have not made much progress in their style or delivery of service, or in their consideration of the homeowner whose yard has been trashed. An intelligent company would have immediately gone out and made reparations for this atrocity, replanted her yard if necessary. Saying ‘gosh, it was a mistake,' just doesn't satisfy the victim or redress the injury to her property.
"This incident reinforces the need to have an independent appeal board."
In early February, news broke that Planned Parenthood had acquired a new East Knoxville office, triggering a storm of protests and demands from anti-abortion activists. An e-mail from Della Volpe took dead aim at an issue that cooler heads prefer to avoid:
"Planned Parenthood is apparently gonna move into the old doctors' clinic on Cherry St. Frankly, I believe they do a lot of good for women who can't afford medical help on family planning and women's health issues.
"I've already heard from on agginner preacher. Evil abortion service, yada yada.
"I am more interested in your views. (I think the preacher needs to leave a women's decision about her body to her)—but I stand ready to hear your wisdom on this issue."
He subsequently added an amendment acknowledging that "there is a real moral issue presented by the abortion question," but defended the clinic, which he said "mainly provides health care to women (who can't afford a private doctor) about gyn issues, birth control, ongoing sexual health that usually don't approach that issue. To the extent that abortion pills are made available (this is not a surgical site), that is arguably for the affected woman to decide."
He ended by saying that abortion "…is the individual woman's issue to grapple with, and that society shouldn't force her to utilize savage or unhealthy means to do so. That issue would make a great thesis topic or theological debate. I don't think it amounts to a reason deny a location decision…at least, that is the question I posed to you…"
Trees, taxes and abortion pale, however, in comparison to another fight Della Volpe waded into at about the same time. This one started with a constituent complaint from Alice Bell/Spring Hill Neighborhood Association president Ronnie Collins, who was unhappy his membership had been left out of the loop in discussions about opening a "School in the Mall" for high school dropouts at Knoxville Center. Della Volpe, who has had long-standing concerns about the relationship of schools to center city neighborhoods, proposed that Collins invite Schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre and the owners of Knoxville Center to meet with ABSHNA. He also started talking to McIntyre and School Board Chair Indya Kincannon (a constituent of his) about his concerns. Here is an excerpt from an e-mail to Kincannon and McIntyre:
"When middle class families move west to get their kids into the latest grade or high school built out there (with language labs that teach Chinese and other languages, and have enhanced science classes, access to Oak Ridge engineers, etc.)—we lose the competitive drive that comes with students motivated at home to learn, kids reinforced by parental encouragement to excel to get into college or careers. Some people vote with their feet, and move.
"When we create an inner city ‘Magnet School' as a solution and it focuses on native dance or the performing arts, we may scratch an itch to learn something of cultural value, but we are not preparing kids for the competitive real world of high tech performance careers that science and math help create. We also damage neighborhoods: by pulling out some of the best people who have homesteaded and rebuilt there; people who were willing to make sacrifices in order to move nearer to a school that would give their kids important education life tool. These homeowners were the ones who spend money in local businesses and help foster and glue together the fragile fabric of these neighborhoods.
"Inner city and old neighborhoods have charming homes, convenient to the business center, that can be restored and become some of the best resources of our city…. If our schools fail to attract or retain families, we continue to weaken them. "
Della Volpe also urged the neighborhood group to keep up the pressure:
"Collectively, I think that Town Hall East, Alice Bell/Spring Hill and North Hills need the school system to explain why our area seems to be a step-child (school-wise) compared to West Knoxville, where they keep pouring in new school money, year after year. The population shifts west seem [to] follow that school building trail, as parents elect to move to help raise their kids in a better environment. We all know the hard way that Educational Opportunities make or break neighborhoods.
"I am reminded of the Myth of Sisyphus, where the cursed man is doomed to keep rolling that stone up the hill…."
So let's review: Della Volpe challenged City Council protocol by becoming the most outspoken member at his very first meeting. He has taken on KUB tree cutting, abortion protests, and questioned the school system's commitment to inner-city schools—all in his first month. Do his supporters think he's a tad prone to pop off too quickly?
Carlene Malone, who held the 4th District seat from 1991-2001, was one of Della Volpe's strongest supporters. She says she's good with what he's doing.
"I couldn't be more pleased. I think he brings the kind of energy that we need," she says. "It's easy to cruise along in a get-along, go-along mode but he obviously sees himself as an advocate for his district. His heart is in the right place and he's smart and energetic as can be. I think that's spectacular. "
When asked if he is sometimes too quick to pop off, Della Volpe's answer is atypically brief: "Yes."
But when it comes to specifics, he doesn't back down. Take education, for example. Since the city doesn't run the school system, most City Council members have taken a hands-off approach to the issue, perhaps considering it one less sticky wicket to deal with. Not Della Volpe:
"Sticky wicket? I don't care. Not if we're talking about the health of our neighborhoods. I can name 20 families that came to Holston Hills at the same time as we did. Their kids get to be school age, and they'd move west or they'd move to Maryville. Seventy two percent of the city's sales tax receipts go to the schools, and we need a little love at some of these older schools. Why can't we build a Hardin Valley Academy-style school in the area of East Town?
"Maybe a smarter person would keep his mouth shut, but I think it's important for people to know when things are in progress. I view myself as a conduit for information. I'm here as the surrogate for all those people who can't go to all those bloody meetings."