City Council Candidate Forum Features Eleven Candidates

League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

With eleven candidates running in four different races, it’s almost as difficult to stage a forum including them all as it is to stage a Democratic presidential debate this time around or a Republican presidential debate the last time around. Listening to two hours of answers was mind numbing and I can only imagine what it must be like to be on stage and attempt to remain alert.

As with the mayoral forum, the questions produced very little to distinguish the candidates. I got the sense that there were more differences than became obvious, but when one person expresses support for the homeless or opposition to gentrification and so on, it is hard for the others to resist following suit.

Rather than present the forum as it unfolded — each question was answered by every candidate before the next question was asked — I thought it might be more useful to group the responses to each question by seat. In other words, you get all the responses from the opponents for specific seats and then we’ll move on to the next race and how those candidates answered.

A couple of caveats are in order: I tried to get all the information I could catch and in the process I took eighteen pages of notes over the course of two hours. I’m certain I missed some parts and misunderstood others. Also, sometimes there just wasn’t enough specific or differentiating information in the answers to be worth reporting. With that said, here’s what I gathered:

League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

At Large Seat A: Lynn Fugate vs. Charles Lomax

Ms. Fugate said she is running because the issues are complex and hard decisions are required, while pointing out that she was chair of the Board of Education and chair of the Girl Scouts. Mr. Lomax said he was born and raised here, has a degree from UT, a masters in religion from Morehouse and a doctorate. He has served on MPC and has been minister at St. John Missionary Baptist Church for seven years.

The first question taken from the audience pointed out that being a member of city council requires knowledge of how government works and of preparing budgets and asked the candidates what experience they had in that regard.

Mr. Lomax said he has a heart for service and is charged with listening. Ms. Fugate, noting that the biggest job of the council is setting priorities through a budget pointed out that in 1990 she was part of a group that helped start the first affordable housing development group in the city.

Second Question: How would you ensure that you learn the opinions of your constituents and reconcile the diversity of opinion?

Ms. Fugate gave her phone number to the audience (this was followed through the night by several other candidates). Mr. Lomax focused on “accessibility and accountability.”

Third Question: Have you examined the budget and how would you balance the needs of the community?

Ms. Fugate said the job is prioritizing what is important and we need a plan with priorities to guide the process and that we must spur tax growth to increase our capacity to meet needs. Mr Lomax said he was glad police officers got a raise and that he would spend more on the homeless and affordable housing.

Lynne Fugate, At Large Seat A Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Fourth Question: Current city policy expels homeless people from encampments. How would you deal with this?

Ms. Fugate noted that the question of what to do with this issue hasn’t been answered, but pointed out  the need for a new ten-year-plan and said we must help people get off drugs, get jobs and get “back on their feet.” Mr. Lomax said we need to empower the people who are doing the work and that we can’t “criminalize homelessness.”

Fifth Question: Does public transportation need to be improved? How?

Ms. Fugate said she thinks it is good, but needs to be improved. Mr. Lomax said the same, but added that while he is glad for the new app, not everyone has a smart phone and that some of the stops are at awkward locations and he would like to see express buses to take workers to jobs.

Charles Lomax, At Large Seat A Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Sixth Question: Views on electric scooters?

Ms. Fugate acknowledged they are fun, but said enforcement is a problem and officers have other things they need to do. Mr. Lomax supports them.

Seventh Question: Address the issue of gentrification along Magnolia Avenue.

Ms. Fugate deadpanned, “That’s easy.” She had to point out that was a joke. She suggested alternative financing ideas like deferred loans to help people stay in their homes. Mr. Lomax advocated for “smart growth and development” and for growing jobs and wages.

Closing Remarks:

Ms. Fugate reiterated that the issues are complex and all citizens are important, while Mr. Lomax said, “I see what we have the potential of becoming.”

At Large Seat B: David Hayes vs. Janet Testerman

David Hayes introduced himself as a member of the City Council Movement along with Ms. Parker and Mr. Al-Bawi. He said he’s for grassroots, fighting gentrification and transformation, saying people need access to jobs, housing and democracy. Ms. Testerman introduced herself as a Knoxville native and noted her current role as the head of Young-Williams Animal Center.

The first question taken from the audience pointed out that being a member of city council requires knowledge of how government works and of preparing budgets and asked the candidates what experience they had in that regard.

Mr. Hayes said that at 26-years-old he has dedicated his life to people and “the establishment and status quo is not working,” adding that he would include everyone in developing a budget. Ms. Testerman pointed to her history as an owner of a small business and said that “servant leadership is the pillar of every community.”

Second Question: How would you ensure that you learn the opinions of your constituents and reconcile the diversity of opinion?

Mr. Hayes said it’s not enough for ten people to make decisions and said we should have a democratic process involving everyone. Ms. Testerman said there are no “cookie cutter” answers and that we need listen and develop a long-term strategic plan.

David Hayes, At Large Seat B Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Third Question: Have you examined the budget and how would you balance the needs of the community?

Mr. Hayes said the budget is not equitable and he would reallocate resources. Ms. Testerman said she attended the budget hearings and was encouraged by the outcome, but would like to see more allocated to affordable housing.

Fourth Question: Current city policy expels homeless people from encampments. How would you deal with this?

Mr. Hayes called for more money for social services and resources for homeless and poor populations. Ms. Testerman told a story of working that day with a homeless woman to get temporary shelter for her pets and said we must expand resources.

Fifth Question: Does public transportation need to be improved? How?

Mr. Hayes said public transportation needs to be expanded and needs to be more equitable. He said we need better routes and noted that he stands with bus drivers in their quest for better pay and working conditions. Ms. Testerman said it is critical, as the city grows, to address infrastructure.

Janet Testerman, At Large Seat B Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Sixth Question: Views on electric scooters?

Mr. Hayes pointed out that alternative transportation is good but questioned why we aren’t investing in bikes and in other parts of town than downtown. Ms. Testerman expressed support for innovation, but said she has seen problems with them and “safety is paramount.”

Seventh Question: Address the issue of gentrification along Magnolia Avenue.

Mr. Hayes advocated for giving development contracts to minority owned companies and said the “working class is being pushed out.” Ms. Testerman expressed support for investment along the corridor and said the businesses that have put in equity now have an opportunity.

Closing Remarks:

Mr. Hayes repeated that Knoxville does not work for everyone, particularly black, brown and working class citizens, while Ms. Testerman expressed faith in economic growth, called for long-range plans and said we need a city that works for everyone.

At Large Seat C: Amy Midis vs. Amelia Parker vs. Hubert Smith vs. Bob Thomas vs. David Williams

In their opening statements, Amy Midis noted that she moved to Knoxville over twenty years ago and has been active in numerous community groups. Amelia Parker pointed out that she grew up in south Knoxville, attended UT and then American University for her law degree. She said she is concerned about disparities and wants to be a voice for equity and said the city must address poverty.

Mr. Smith emphasized that he is a Knoxville native, a graduate of leadership Knoxville and has had a long career in broadcasting in the city. Mr. Thomas said he was pleased so many people attended, mentioned his work with Dogwood Arts, Young Williams and his years on County Commission. He said when he was running for county commission he called the members and they didn’t call back and that has made him determined to stay connected and responsive to voters. David Williams introduced himself as a lifelong tutor with a Ph.D. in education

The first question taken from the audience pointed out that being a member of city council requires knowledge of how government works and of preparing budgets and asked the candidates what experience they had in that regard.

Each candidate mentioned experience of one sort or another. Ms. Midis mentioned a list of qualifiers. She is a corporate financial analyst for Covenant Health. Ms. Parker noted her work as legislative coordinator for Amnesty International and her work with Socm. Mr. Smith said he can compromise to get five votes. Mr. Thomas said he’s been in business all his life, brought hockey back to Knoxville and has worked on the development board. David Williams emphasized his work with neighborhoods.

Amy Midis, At Large Seat C Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Second Question: How would you ensure that you learn the opinions of your constituents and reconcile the diversity of opinion?

Knocking on doors was mentioned by more than one candidate and Ms. Parker pointed out that the job is part time and she mentioned twenty hours. Her implication seemed to be that she would be working outside meetings to stay in touch with constituents, though that was later repeated as a small attack when Mr. Smith said he would work full time. Mr. Smith said it is impossible to reconcile opinions he promised to “study, learn and listen and take the tough vote.”

Mr. Williams suggested inviting students to council meetings to ask questions about the issues. Mr. Thomas, noting that he is determined to stay in touch pointed out that as part of county commission he held monthly meetings at different places across the county for forty-five consecutive months and said his intention would be to do the same on council.

Amelia Parker, At Large Seat C Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Third Question: Have you examined the budget and how would you balance the needs of the community?

Ms. Midis said she attended all the budget meetings and would like to see affordable housing focused on. She also said she would start early on the budget for the following year. Ms. Parker pointed out that the fund balance for the city has ranged from $3 million to $93 million and currently sits at $77 million and that while we talk about bringing baseball to the city, three thousand people are on a waiting list for affordable housing.

Mr. Thomas held up the budget document and quoting from it said expenditures are growing faster than revenue and that the next mayor may face hard times. Regarding revenue, he later promised he would not raise taxes under any circumstances and Mr. Smith said the same thing. Mr. Williams said private enterprise can often do more than government and said Knoxville could have had what became the Talledega Speedway and that he brought the promenade to downtown Knoxville. (According to Wikipedia, it was built in 1960 and I thought it predated that.)

Hubert Smith, At Large Seat C Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Fourth Question: Current city policy expels homeless people from encampments. How would you deal with this?

Ms. Midis said, “It is an awful problem. The day space made problems for the north and especially the south.” She said we need more housing and mental health support. Ms. Parker said she worked at the downtown public library and befriend a number of homeless people and made a documentary about them during college. She said, “Housing is a human right. Homeless have been chased out of downtown. I never thought I would see that.”

Mr. Smith said that he was shelter manager for Volunteer Ministries when it was on Gay Street. He then made his pledge to oppose raising taxes and said, “We will never be a Ford plant city.” Mr. Thomas said he was behind getting the Behavioral Center and wryly noted that St. Mary’s could have been converted to housing for the homeless. Mr. Williams said his father was homeless and it “is a shame,” the way we treat the homeless population.

Bob Thomas, At Large Seat C Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Fifth Question: Does public transportation need to be improved? How?

Ms. Midis said we need to make sure it is safe to get to bus stops from neighborhoods and that bus rides should be free for those under eighteen. Ms. Parker said we need to help those who need transportation and to commit to address climate change through emission which she said is urgent.

Mr. Smith said he worked with “KTA” and we don’t need to expand free rides. Mr. Thomas said great cities have great transportation and that workers need to get to jobs. Mr. Williams said we should get UT students involved in developing ways to make it better and that one idea would be for businesses to provide incentives for people who ride the buses.

David Williams, At Large Seat C Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Sixth Question: Views on electric scooters?

Ms. Midis said her sixteen-year-old daughter required her to support scooters in exchange for her daughter’s support for her candidacy. Ms. Parker said they were poorly introduced and called for docking stations and public input. Mr. Smith said they are a nuisance and the problem is enforcement. Mr. Thomas suggested that we want people to ride bikes and questioned whether we should be enriching these companies while people drink and ride scooters. Mr. Williams questioned whether there was a demand and said he is afraid someone will get hurt.

Seventh Question: Address the issue of gentrification along Magnolia Avenue.

Ms. Midis expressed hope that improvements on Magnolia help lift residents and businesses, while acknowledging that renters are being displaced and calling for more rental housing and support. Ms. Parker said, “We have a growing gap between the wealthy and the middle class” and an even bigger gap between the wealthy and the poor. She said it had to be addressed through the budget and advocated for making loans available to businesses and to “rebuild the black business sector.”

Mr. Smith said, “I can’t explain it. How do we raise people up?” Mr. Thomas said he lived on Magnolia Avenue from age four to college and he would favor freezing property taxes and rent control. Mr. Williams asked, “Maybe mixed use?” He suggested we “Do things at Chilhowee Park” and said he supports “people re-doing houses.”

League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Closing Remarks:

Amy Midis said she feels more of a sense of community here than she has ever felt before and wants to make sure the community continues to grow and prosper. Ms. Parker emphasized that she wants to use her experience working with all people.

Mr. Smith repeated his promise to never raise taxes. Mr. Thomas said he put the Christmas Parade together and operated it for 25 years and committed to balanced budgets. Mr. Williams said, “We need nice guys in politics. I want to help people solve problems.” He offered to start on the spot if people brought their problems up to him.

Fifth District Seat: Charles Al-Bawi vs. Charles Thomas

In this race it’s Charles the Attorney vs. Charles the Attorney. It could be confusing. In his opening statement, Mr. Al-Bawi introduced himself as such, mentioned his work representing children and said he wants for everyone what he wants for himself and mentioned a safe community as an example. Mr. Thomas in his opening statement pointed out that he represented this district on council in 2011 and listed his service on MPC, the Greenway Committee, Legacy Parks Board and more.

The first question taken from the audience pointed out that being a member of city council requires knowledge of how government works and of preparing budgets and asked the candidates what experience they had in that regard.

Mr. Al-Bawi talked about his work with Project Grad as a teacher’s aide and with the Londsdale Resident’s Association as well as voter registration drives with the Urban League. Mr. Thomas talked of his year on council, his work with the Hillside Ridgetop Plan and with curbside recycling, as well as the MPC.

Second Question: How would you ensure that you learn the opinions of your constituents and reconcile the diversity of opinion?

Mr. Al-Bawi said he would use surveys, polls and canvassing, while Mr. Thomas promised to promote accessibility, civility and participation.

Charles Al-Bawi, 5th District Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Third Question: Have you examined the budget and how would you balance the needs of the community?

Mr. Al-Bawi said poverty, substance abuse, violence and mental health must be the focus. He said we should support families and children and prioritize social services. Mr. Thomas agreed and noted that he went to all the budget hearings and would like to see more for affordable housing. He added that we need to grow the tax base and he thinks TIFs and PILOTs have helped.

Fourth Question: Current city policy expels homeless people from encampments. How would you deal with this?

Mr. Al-Bawi said we need more transitional housing and that this is an emergency. Mr. Thomas noted the struggle surrounding the issue and said he would examine programs receiving block grants to work with the homeless and that we need to develop a plan and allocate more money.

Fifth Question: Does public transportation need to be improved? How?

Mr. Al-Bawi noted that 7% in the city have no car and said we need to help them. Mr. Thomas said that transportation has been a passion for him for years, noting that it impacts jobs, pollution, traffic and quality of life. He pointed out that he sat on the KAT board for five years. He also said the public needs to step up and support it more.

Sixth Question: Views on electric scooters?

Mr. Al-Bawi expressed his disapproval, but said he would listen to people and look at the data. Mr. Thomas questioned whether it is really serving a practical purpose and while acknowledging some people enjoy them and that he is trying to keep an open mind, indicated his impression is negative.

Charles Thomas, 5th District Candidate, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidate Debates, News Sentinel Building, Knoxville, July 2019

Seventh Question: Address the issue of gentrification along Magnolia Avenue.

Mr. Al-Bawi expressed support for those living there, now, and suggested property tax relief for the elderly and those on fixed incomes. Mr. Thomas said wage inequality and distribution of wealth are the root problems. While pointing to the Affordable Rental Development Fund, he acknowledge that the problem is a big one.

Closing Remarks:

Mr. Al-Bawi called this a “historic election” and said all citizens are important and that we should “love your neighbor as yourself.” Mr. Thomas noted that two of the biggest issues are in his district – St. Mary’s and the recent fire at the recycling center and suggested he is the one to deal with these.

Final Word: Early voting starts August 7 and the primary election day is August 27, with the general election to be held November 7.

Comments

  1. Stephanie Hall says

    Whoa! Really impressive summary! Thanks so much. It will be interesting to see where the races go.

  2. Thanks so much for doing this for all of us, Alan. It is helpful to see a summary of sorts. I appreciated your earlier article on the mayoral candidates, as well. Your blog is such a service to Knoxville.

    • Well said Judith. Without Alan’s notes and coverage of local affairs by Knoxville Compass I’d be in the dark on local happenings. I truly appreciate both sources of local events.

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