City Council Forum, Emporium, Knoxville, October 2021
When last we tuned in, the primaries were underway and I reported on the candidate forum at the Phyllis Wheatly YMCA. In a strange season for the traditionally non-partisan races, the field this year featured incumbents and organized slates to both their left and right. The candidates to the left were present that night, running in districts one, four, and six. Missing that night were all the candidates running to the right in districts one, two, three, four, and six — all the districts in question this round.
Knoxville has an odd set of rules and traditions for council races which, in addition to being nonpartisan in the past, includes a primary without party designation coupled with the two candidates getting the most votes moving to the general election. Faced with candidates to the left, center, and right, the city voters spoke clearly, eliminating all the candidates to the left — affiliated with the City Council Movement. Additionally, every incumbent won the most votes.
An additional oddity of the system is that the primary allows voters to vote in their own district, while in the general election, everyone may vote on the representatives for each district. In other words, each district picks their top two, and the entire city chooses representatives from that slate. While each incumbent won their district, that will not necessarily translate across the city.
Last night I attended the downtown forum at the Emporium sponsored by the Arts & Culture Alliance, Old City Association, Downtown Knoxville Alliance, and Alliance for Better Nonprofits. Questions were submitted in advance and leaned heavily on the arts and homelessness. Candidates often shaped the question to the other topics they wanted to discuss. Some spoke in greater detail than others and so my coverage of their comments varies in length. I tried to catch the central points each made, but sometimes it was hard to make the connections between the question and answer.
One distinction was apparent without a word being spoken: five candidates were masked and five were not. The incumbents joined most of the crowd in wearing masks. All candidates were asked to remove them when speaking. Liza Zenni, Executive Director of the Arts and Culture Alliance asked the questions, which were submitted beforehand. Candidates for each respective district got the same questions, but questions varied from one district to another.
District One: Elizabeth Murphy vs Incumbent Tommy Smith
Ms. Murphy, when asked to introduce herself, focused her comments on “medical freedom” and “property rights.” She said Knoxville is on the decline, things are bad downtown, and police officers are resigning. She said a focus for her is to keep the city safe. When asked about public safety, she said she had talked to police officers here and to other departments across the state and said our salary rate is too low and we should increase funding for salaries and recruitment.
Asked if the city should be more open to working with faith-based and whether she would support that, she said, “Yes, 100%. Asked how she had served in the community, she said she moved back to Knoxville in 2017, she “worked on public policy in Nashville” (Her website says she is currently employed by a PAC.) two days a week. She mentioned medical freedom, once again, as a cause for which she has worked and touted her close relationship with Tennessee senators and representatives.
Asked to speak to the role the arts play in economic development, Ms. Murphy said electric buses are not reliable and are often empty. She said we should have smaller buses and move more of the city’s budget to non-profits.
She also mentioned (as did several candidates) the closure of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute as a problem for the community and seemed to suggest that her relationships at the state level might help bring state support to bear in helping ameliorate that issue. For her closing remarks, which were framed as “What is something else people might not know about you,” she spoke only briefly to say that she wanted to “know more about y’all,” and said she would meet anyone for coffee.
Tommy Smith spoke much more at length on each question than did Ms. Murphy. Asked to introduce himself, he said he had served the city his whole life, citing his work with the arts, non-profits, and businesses. He said Knoxville is “hitting its stride,” and pointed to the number of businesses moving here. He said he would rather live here than anywhere else.
Regarding public safety, he said council has “stood by police,” and said they have raised their wages every year and given out bonuses. He said that problems recruiting policemen is a national problem and that candidates can’t honestly advocate for increasing funding for police and for tax cuts.
Asked about the relationship between the arts and economic development, Mr. Smith said companies considering a move to Knoxville often want to know about quality of life and said he gets to paint the picture for them of arts growing in the city, as well as an entrepreneurial movement. He mentioned Big Ears and the Emporium as examples and repeated that Knoxville is thriving.
Regarding faith-based organizations, he said the city should, and does, work with them, saying many are doing good work and “serve when no one else does.” Asked about service, Mr. Smith named several organizations he has worked with, including Girls, Inc., and the Emerald Foundation. He said districts need representation by people who know the issues and suggested that is him.
He reiterated that point in his closing remarks and added as a rebut to comments made about the budget, that city debt is the lowest it has been in 20 years and the tax rate is the lowest it has been in thirty years.
District Two: Kim Smith vs. Incumbent Andrew Roberto
Andrew Roberto asked to introduce himself focused on experience and spoke of how hard he’s worked on council and how much he has learned to be more effective. He said it is important to work to solve problems and to look for solutions.
Asked how he would evaluate a non-profit’s request for a building permit, he said we have great non-profits who are willing to give. He said he would listen to their request and match it to the needs in the community. Asked about what we need to do regarding homeless issues, he said first we need to remember we are speaking of human beings. He said we need to focus on supportive housing, as well as helping people avoid homelessness. He noted that the current city council has hired social workers to help with that effort.
Asked for his vision of Knoxville as a destination for the arts, he said the arts support our quality of life and that he supports all our arts programing, saying seeing it and experiencing it makes us a better place. Asked to recall a time he has championed an unpopular idea, he mentioned being on the short end of several 1-8 votes on council during zoning discussions, but said it is important to work with others.
In his closing remarks, Andrew said that “experience matters,” and that council members have to be willing to listen and find solutions. He took the opportunity to refute some of the statements made earlier, saying that there is $63 million in the city’s reserve fund and that they have paid down the debt by $54 million over the last four years, including an additional $12 million this year. He pointed out that the city has a AAA bond rating and that the electric bus expenditure for the city was around $600,000 out of a nearly half billion-dollar budget, with the bulk of the cost of the buses covered by federal dollars.
Kim Smith introduced herself by saying she has lived in the area for 34 years and works in private education with New Hope Christian School. She described herself as a “fiscal conservative” and said she wants the city to “swing in a positive way.” She said Knoxville’s budget is unstable and said we could see a tax increase as a result.
She said if confronted with a request for city support for a non-profit’s building project, she would evaluate their “core values.” She said we have to re-prioritize our spending and “focus on essentials.” Regarding homelessness, she said we need to have resources and shelters and that panhandling is a problem.
Regarding Knoxville as an arts and culture destination, she said it is important for bringing people together and added, “I am for it.” Asked for an example of when she has proposed an idea that colleagues resisted, she said we have to have our “facts together.” She said sometimes we disagree and being passionate, she would “continue to push.”
In her summary, Ms. Smith said that she is running out of a concern for public safety, saying there is “record crime” and KPD needs help and are unfunded. She said she is running because “I am fiscally conservative, and we need to fund essentials.” Finally, she said, she is running because the homeless need help, but not “with handouts.”
District Three: Nick Ciparro vs Incumbent Seema Singh
Nick Ciparro described himself as a guitar player and business owner. He said he was sleepy because he’s been working long hours. He said an increased property tax is coming “whether you believe it or not.” He said the police issue is not fixed and referenced the child shot in Londsdale and said, “because police are overworked and make mistakes.”
Asked about using arts and culture for business recruitment, he said he is probably the only candidate who worked in the Old City, where he worked as state manager at Blue Cats and managed the Valarium. He said as an artist himself, he believed in the venues, but said the city can only foster a good environment for them to work in.
Regarding affordable housing, he said he had met with developers. He noted that Smith and Wesson “just came here running from policies we are embracing.” (Smith and Wesson just announced they are moving a large portion of their operations to Maryville.)
Asked how we combat panhandling, prostitution, etc., he said we “don’t want to be aggressive.” He told a story of a homeless person who was paid to take out the trash at Blue Cats and helped stop a robbery at Barley’s. Regarding panhandling, he said we should “incentivize it not to happen,” and that the city should “work with KARM a little more.”
Regarding what he sees as the most pressing current issue, he said public safety topped his list. “You can’t have a city in a war zone.” To combat the problems, he said maybe cameras in “certain locations” would help. He said that a lot of crime stems from economics and drug abuse which he said, “you see every day in the Old City.” He said outreach programs are needed.
Asked to reveal something about himself in his closing he said he loves comedy and that he had run for city council in 2003 because of his opposition to the convention center. He said our mayor is a “problem” and a “puppet to the previous mayor.” He said she is “raking in money on her husband’s projects.”
Seema Singh confessed she ran on anger in her first campaign, but learned anger doesn’t get things done, saying “we have to work together.” Born in India, she has lived in the U.S. since age ten. She said we are not all the same, but we have to work together and, in fact, need different viewpoints.
She said the arts serve many functions from economics to unifying the city. She said they bind us together and serve us both emotionally and economically. Asked how to address the lack of affordable housing, she said it is being worked on, and that Knoxville is doing better than some other cities, though more progress is needed. She said we need more total housing, which would bring prices down and one way to get that is through more density. She said the other side of the equation is that people need jobs and jobs that pay well enough to afford housing.
Regarding panhandling and related issues, she said addiction and mental health issues must be addressed, along with housing. She said we may need to start with organized camps with social workers present to help guide the homeless to services. She said that would provide areas that are safer until resources are available to provide long-term shelter. She said she supports the police, but that we need to address needs before people become victims. She added of the homeless, “They are our neighbors and our friends.”
Asked to reveal something voters may not know about her, she said she was the chicken mascot for WIMZ in the 1990s. That meant she worked in the For Hill Building and that walking up the hill was scary at the time and Market Square was uncomfortable. She left Knoxville for fifteen years after that and when she returned the city was far better. She said the city is going in a positive direction and simply saying, “Give me four years and I will make it all better,” is easy. She said character and competence matter.
District 4: Jim Klonaris vs Incumbent Lauren Rider
Jim Klonaris said he has lived in Knoxville for 48 years and for 35 years has been focused on growing businesses. He said he entered the race out of frustration. He said he has watched Knoxville decline over the last 15 years and said it is hard to do business with the city. He said he is frustrated with the level of crime in the city.
Asked what he would do to promote his ideas if he was not elected, he said he enters every venture expecting to win. He said he has learned a great amount being on the Mayor’s Business Advisory Committee, has met with policemen, and with Burt Rosen at KARM, and said he would continue to use those relationships and to build businesses.
Asked what makes him pro-business, he said he is a “serial entrepreneur who has “mentored over 150 young people.” He said we are no longer a city that welcomes entrepreneurs and that he is the most pro-development candidate. He said development “raises revenue without taxing the hell out of citizens.”
Asked if he would support moving the McClung Warehouse site into private hands for development, he said he would. He said the city should not own buildings and that developers would love to have that space. He said we shouldn’t let developers take advantage of TIFs and PILOTs, but developers can’t do their work if the city is hard to deal with. He said developers want to follow codes, but not have unnecessary red tape. He said there is a culture issue with the Mayor and the City Council who he said are simply a rubber stamp for the mayor.
Asked how he would deal with homelessness, he said half of the homeless don’t want help and we should help the other half. He said we should do more to work with KARM and that “leadership” is not involved with them. He said, “This group falls on big government.” He told the story of a recent clean-up effort in the Old City in which 186 needles were found in a two-hour period. He said leaders should “solve it or we will go down the toilet.”
In his summary, Mr. Klonaris reiterated that he has started 17 businesses in the last 35 years, telling the story that in 2007 he was approached by “movers and shakers” to come to Market Square and start a business. He said he and his wife moved downtown and fell in love with the city, “even those on the street.” He said the benefits we experience today were not the product of the last five years, but of fifteen years ago.
He concluded that we have experienced a cultural shift from a more conservative city and said the trajectory has changed. He said if you like deterioration, continue down that track. He said we need sidewalks and lighting. “It’s easy to spend a half million on artwork when you need better drainage. Let’s fix the problems before we continue to use this kind of money.”
Lauren Rider said she has been in Knoxville for sixteen years and sees it as a “fabulous place.” She said she has seen the city move forward during this time but said the pandemic has presented difficulties. She said it shined a light on issues here and elsewhere. She said we must address mental health and addiction issues.
Asked how she would press forward with her issues if she didn’t get elected, she pointed out that she was involved in neighborhood issues before being elected and was involved with KAT and zoning issues. She said, “I have a lot of passion for my community and would continue to work.”
Asked what makes her pro-growth, she said we need successful businesses and that neighborhoods want to have successful businesses nearby. She said she is willing to look at issues slowing development and work to make development easier.
Asked about returning the McClung Warehouse site to private hands, she said that she would support this, as well as the same for other properties. She pointed out that this property is owned by the city because the previous owner violated codes and allowed the building to burn twice. She added that his negligence hurt property owners and businesses around him.
Regarding the homeless, she said we once had a 10-year plan, but it got tabled. She said the long-term struggle is to get more supportive housing. She mentioned a tiny home village she visited in Savannah that was built specifically for homeless veterans as a possible model. Noting that KARM does not allow anyone with addiction issues, she said we need a low-barrier shelter.
Ms. Rider concluded by saying that 75% of the city budget is for employees and asking what others would cut. She noted the budget had been increased for the police and that salary comparisons are being examined. She said the issues with police recruitment are national. She said some of the local problems are because the previous police chief didn’t hire for two years and she said council, at the request of the police department brought back the HR department.
She said “record crime” is happening across the nation and ascribed some of that increase to COVID-19 taking away jobs and structure. She said Knoxville is a model city for pension funding. She said the city needs help to work with the homeless issues from the state, which has more money, and that the city is working with VMC to add more supportive housing.
District Six: Garrett Holt vs. Incumbent Gwen McKenzie
Garrett Holt said he was born and raised in Knoxville and graduated from UTK. He said he has long planned to run for office, saying, “I’m not that into politics, but public service.” He said we have an “amazing city, but very real issues.” Among those he counts the budget and police issues. He said, if elected, he would work hard, be responsive, and leave the city a better place.
Asked about experience handling large sums of money outside government, he said he has an accounting background and worked with large companies managing a large real estate portfolio. Asked if he would vote to raise taxes, he said the first place to look would be how to cut expenses and promote growth. He said he would not say never, particularly if services were jeopardized.
Regarding dealing with the various homeless issues, he acknowledged the complexity of the issue, he said we should “deal with the influx and the resources that attract them. He said in the long term, we need to help with mental health and addiction issues and that the state has to be part of the solution.
He said he is largely in favor of the stadium, but it “needs to be done properly.” He said it will bring hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and we need to incentivize it. He said we are a different place than thirty years ago when we lost our team.
Asked to close with something voters don’t know about him, Garrett said he is a jazz musician and was valedictorian of his graduating class. He said any accomplishments he has attained it was because of placing a priority on achieving that goal. He said he wants to make Knoxville better and that while we are taking steps forward, we are facing issues and things are not where they should be.
He said he’s learned a lot as he campaigned over the last eight months, mostly by talking to voters. He said the police feel unsupported and noted that four murders of young people have happened in recent months in the sixth district. He said that who governs matters. He acknowledged he can’t solve every problem but said he would focus on safety and growth and making Knoxville a place people want to stay.
Gwen McKenzie said she has lived in Knoxville since 1968 and she currently works as Executive Director of the Legacy Housing Foundation. She said that following college she volunteered for many organizations, including the Love Kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, and others. She said a lot of progress has been made in the city and that downtown is thriving, though we have issues.
Regarding managing finances, she said she managed $10 million for a national call center and now manages finances for the non-profit for which she works. She said whether she would vote for a tax increase would depend on what that increased revenue would support.
She said a primary issue for her is homelessness and that there needs to be enforcement. She said there must be consequences for lewd acts and other illegal activities. She said we need more mental health services and that requires state money. She said, “more enforcement must be demanded.”
She said she is in favor of the stadium and that “if we are serious about economic growth, we need economic development.” She said she hopes local labor can be used and that she expects jobs to go to those in her district.
In concluding, she said “You’ve heard passion, objectives, and concerns.” She said there is no culture shift, but there is an effort to make races partisan. She said no one (once in office) can bully the city into doing anything. She called service on the council “a learning process,” and said each member only gets one vote and you can’t do anything alone. She said the current council is no rubber stamp for the mayor and often has heated debate, but then must make a decision and move forward.
Early voting begins October 13, and the general election will be held November 2.