City Council Candidate Forum, West High School, Knoxville, October 2023
I almost subtitled this article, “Do you care?” There is significant evidence to suggest that Knoxville voters are generally unconcerned with who represents them for the next four years. The over-18 population of Knoxville is about 156,000, with most of those people presumably eligible to vote. Only 103,829 are registered and active. Of those, only 16,648, or about 16%, bothered to vote in the primary. That’s 16% of registered voters deciding who will govern our city for the next four years. While early voting starts today, you likely won’t find long lines — or probably any lines.
I attended the city council candidate forum and grew even more depressed. The event was live streamed on the League of Women Voters’ Facebook Page and the portion currently posted there has 3 reactions and 2 shares. And physically present? As the event began, I counted less than thirty people not on the stage, many of whom helped with the event or reported on it. The West High School auditorium sat largely empty. As I sat taking notes, I wondered how many people would bother to read the resulting article.
For however many of you clicked that link and made it this far, I’ll share some of what the candidates had to say in response to questions from the audience. Present for the forum, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters and other groups and moderated by Scott Barker of Compass, were Lynne Fugate (running unopposed for At Large Seat A), Debbie Helsley and R. Bentley Marlow (running for At Large Seat B), and Tim Hill and Amelia Parker (running for At Large Seat B). Charles Thomas, running unopposed in District Five, declined to attend.
Ms. Fugate introduced herself by saying it has been an honor to serve and she looks forward to serving again. She noted her thirty years’ residence in Knoxville, her involvement in the development of the Nine Counties, One Vision plan and her years as a banker, working with local businesses. She said experience matters. You can learn more about her here.
Ms. Helsley noted that she retired from Bell South and that she was Communications and that she served for a decade as president of Knoxville’s Communications Workers of America Local 3805. Mentioning her background as a neighborhood advocate and working with Mayor Rogero, along with a passion for housing affordability, she said, “We need a Knoxville that works for all of us.” You can learn more about her here.
Mr. Marlow described his twenty years as a developer, starting with a renovation of his own home, spreading to restorations of others in south Knoxville and now to building new homes. He mentioned his passion for missing middle housing and the proposal he presented to the Planning Commission. He noted that greater density increases tax revenue to allow expansion of city services. You can learn more about him here.
Mr. Hill pointed to his development work with Hatcher/Hill, but also noted his involvement (as chair) with the Knoxville/Knox County Planning Commission, as well as the Sports Authority Board. He also mentioned his concern for the homeless in the form of being a founding board member for Care Cuts. You can learn more about him here.
Ms. Parker said she is running because “we have so much work left to do.” Originally from Knoxville, she left for law school, but returned to help build a more healthy, safe city. She wants to help build a “stronger economy” and mentioned her passion for affordable housing. You can learn more about her here.
The first question referenced all of the above, asking the candidates what they would do to increase voter participation. Focusing on the candidates, Mr. Marlow suggested that they need to leave the extremes and speak to voters in the middle, while Ms. Parker said they need to focus more on the issues that mean more to citizens. Mr. Hill suggested aligning city elections with other elections. Ms. Helsley and Ms. Fugate suggested a focus on younger voters, with Ms. Fugate advocating for stronger Civics Education in schools. She added that people tend to know their rights as citizens, but to neglect their obligations. She suggested we need to stop vilifying those with whom we disagree politically.
Asked which programs they would support to increase affordable housing, Hill and Fugate agreed that expanded federal help is needed. Parker advocated for an expanded Homemaker’s Program locally and said TIFs and PILOTs should be used to encourage affordable housing within larger projects. Fugate said the city is doing about as much as it can do with current funds, but that incentives along corridors might help. Helsley said we need more density and mixed retail along the corridors, she also mentioned a concern with controlling the cost of rent and the need for a long-term plan. Marlow said we have a supply/demand issue in housing due to two decades of slow construction. He said that has produced a shortage of skilled workers required for construction. He added we needed to look at the missing middle in housing because that’s where we’ve lost ground.
City Council elections have traditionally been non-partisan but have become increasingly so in recent years. Candidates were asked their opinion on the topic. Fugate said she didn’t think we could stop it, but it would be best if it remained non-partisan, adding “We are neighbors trying to make the city better.” Hill agreed, saying he wished the parties would remain uninvolved.
While sparks for the night were few, some flew during this series of questions. Marlow pointed out that he is independent and has not gotten outside money like his opponent, Ms. Helsley. He said, “Potholes do not identify as an R or D. I am a pragmatic problem solver. Ms. Helsley replied that she is a Democrat and “so is my opponent.” She said that while she is proud to be a Democrat, the local party has not endorsed her, and it would not impact her capacity to serve either way.
Parker had a slightly different take. She said that when she ran, it seemed parties were not to be involved, but since then they have become involved, and she doesn’t think it is healthy. At the same time, she said, how candidates approach problems will always be informed by their political perspectives.
Since much of the city council business involves zoning and land use, the candidates were asked how they’ve prepared themselves to deal with that fact. Helsey said she had learned from meetings and would continue to do so. Marlow and Hill said they have been involved for decades through development and working in and with the agencies and other groups involved. Parker said she became engaged during ReCode Knoxville and has worked to learn more, including attending conferences to learn what other cities are doing. Fugate said she knew some before joining the council, but has studied, read, and learned. She said, “It affects homeowners more than maybe anything else.”
One audience member wanted to know what steps each candidate would take to improve the functioning of the KPD. Parker said the shortage of officers must be addressed and that work is underway on personnel policies due to past issues and that she would like to see police get the training they need. She also supports removing the portions of their jobs involving social/mental health issues so they can devote themselves to dealing with crime.
Hill, also noting the department is short fifty officers, said we need to support Chief Noel and follow his lead. He said he supports the Real Time Crime Center and the co-responder program. He added that he is involved with starting a foundation to fill the gaps in police needs. Fugate, while saying “we must support our officers who are out there every day,” added a list of things council has done in the last several years to help support the group. She pointed to increased salaries, body cameras, Violence Interruption work, and a new program at Fulton High School to help stir local interest in law enforcement.
Marlow said we are down closer to sixty officers and pay remains inadequate. He said the co-responder training needs to be expanded. Helsley largely agreed and acknowledged their difficult job.
LGBTQ safety increasingly presents itself as an issue and an audience member wanted to know the city could do to make more safe spaces for its LGBTQ community. There was general agreement that the city does more to support organizations providing safe spaces than to provide them directly and support was expressed by most to expand those efforts. Hill said, “Everyone deserves love and respect.” Marlow said the city can set an example in its hiring and treatment of LGBTQ employees. Parker said the city needs to take that responsibility more seriously. She said there should be monitoring and data collection to support action by the city.
Noting there is a complete lack of medical facilities in Knoxville east of Fort Sanders, an audience member wanted to know how the candidates might propose to change that. A general acknowledgement was shared that the city doesn’t build medical facilities. Marlow said the emphasis might better be on how to fix the issues with adequate ambulance service, and Helsey noted that until recently the same was true in south Knoxville. Parker said the administration would have to take the lead on any efforts and Hill said the state has to be involved in certifying the need. Fugate said the city is left only to use its influence, perhaps through the Chamber.
An audience member referenced the priority Mayor Kincannon has given to Vision Zero (seeking zero deaths by automobile in the city) and asked if the candidates would support increased funding for this. All agreed they would support it, except Parker who said she’d like to see what we’ve spent so far, wants to see a balance to priorities in the budget, and would like to see “a good plan.” Fugate noted that the council doesn’t determine levels of funding and Marlow said council does have some power over requiring better design, which would speak to the objectives of the program.
The fact of Knoxville’s growing Hispanic population prompted an audience member to ask what the city could do to offer welcome and more support to this group. Consensus throughout the group included the benefits of hiring translators (the city has), translating forms into Spanish (the city has), and supporting groups like Centro Hispano and Bridge. Marlow added that we need similar support in other languages and a robust ESL program in the schools. Parker framed it as a civil rights issue and said she’d like to see an office of Civil Rights in the city.
Calls to 911 which often involve mental health issues and may be misassigned to the police prompted one audience member to ask what each candidate would do to improve appropriateness of response. Everyone agreed that more training might be needed to direct calls away from fire and police only. Parker mentioned alternative response teams freeing up officers, Bentley repeated that we have limited ambulances which ties up KFD staff who must respond to medical emergencies. Fugate said the public also needs to be trained because their primary impulse is to ask for the police.
Each candidate was then given an opportunity to offer a closing statement:
Parker: I’m running to continue working on issues like budgets, alternative response teams, accountability, and housing.
Hill: I hope you’ll get to know my business contributions, volunteer work, and public service.
Fugate:I am running for re-election for the same reason I ran before: I love Knoxville and want to serve my city.
Marlow: Emphasized visiting every fire station, riding with police and said he cares deeply about the city.
Helsley: I am mighty when it comes to advocating for my neighbors. I serve the community and want to be sure it is part of the conversation.
For the three (maybe four?) of you who made it to the end of this article, thank you, and I know you are going to vote. Please pull along some of your friends.