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  The Year in Review


What If They Gave an Election and...

It wasn't exactly a landslide—heck, it was barely a tremor—but Mayor Victor Ashe coasted comfortably to his fourth and final term in office. Challenger (and former mayor) Randy Tyree tried to muster support from disenchanted city employees and others who have felt overlooked during Ashe's 12 years at the helm, but came up with just 31 percent of the September primary votes. The ever-ebullient Danny Mayfield, the youngest and only black member of City Council, also ran (partly, he said, because God told him to) and finished a distant third. With impressively straight faces, Ashe supporters said the sorry turnout (just 18,348, out of 99,000 registered voters) showed most people are happy with the status quo. Uh-huh. Get out much, guys? The globetrotting Ashe celebrated in his customary way—leaving town for weeks of traveling through Cuba and Southeast Asia.

Now That's Getting the Vote Out

Mayor Ashe's 87 year-old-momma Martha hangs her hat in Hobe Sound, Fla. these days, but she returns to help with the campaign every time her boy seeks election, which means she is here frequently. This election year was made memorable when she pulled out of the mayoral driveway, took out the side of a UT student's car and kept on trucking. The next day, the student's father located the First Mamaw's Volvo in the Ashe driveway, and KPD charged her she with failure to yield, not hit-and-run.

All the Sheriff's Men

Ooowee. Buford T. Pusser had nothing on Sheriff Tim Hutchison this year. Seemed like everywhere you looked, there he was. Especially if you happened to be one of the defense lawyers who got on his bad side, several of whom wound up accused of one impropriety or another. Love him or hate him—and there's plenty of people on both sides—no one could deny that Hutchison cemented his standing as a powerful man prone to demonstrations thereof. First he commandeered the jail phase of the new county justice center, on the grounds that he could build it cheaper and better than the Public Building Authority. (He was helped by acquiescent county commissioners, who—while still too unruly a group to qualify as anyone's puppets—treat the sheriff like their own personal E.F. Hutton. He speaks, they listen.) Then there was a series of blowups involving defense attorneys' rights to meet with their incarcerated clients, which may or may not have been triggered by one of the attorneys witnessing what may or may not have been a shakedown, subjugation, and hog-tying of a prisoner by the sheriff's SORT team, a black-garbed in-house jail security squad. Then there were questions about how much of a role Hutchison played in the controversies swirling around neophyte Circuit Court Clerk Cathy Quist, who was elected last year with help from the sheriff and his right-hand man Dwight Van de Vate. And that's not even getting into the fictional prisoner invented by the Sheriff's Department for the sake of "an undercover investigation"...

Quist's Quarrels

The Cathy Quist scrap book filled up quickly during the court clerk's first year in office. Elected in 1998 to replace 18-year veteran Lillian Bean, Quist spent her freshman year starting and/or putting out political fires.

Those keeping score can see a line of scrimmage separating Quist and Sheriff Tim Hutchison from the rest of the courthouse crowd. Law Director Richard Beeler, who also happens to be Quist's former boss, feels slighted by the clerk because she fired his wife and now wants to hire her own independent counsel (as in, independent of Beeler). Back and forth, Beeler and Quist exchanged blows before the County Commission over whether or not the clerk should be allowed to dump Beeler and hire her own lawyer.

Beeler's office represents all elected officials in the county. Quist withdrew her request to replace Beeler, but still says she can't work with the man. The clerk has had better luck resolving her differences with the Sessions Court judges, who threatened Quist with contempt of court if she didn't process warrants using the county's Justice Information Management System.

Now entering her second year in office, Quist remains the centerpiece problem of County Executive Tommy Schumpert's ongoing group therapy sessions. Schumpert continues to meet with Quist and others involved with the county justice system in an effort to smooth over problems and streamline operations. The most recent suggestion: Move 40 or so employees from Quist's office to the office of Criminal and Domestic Relations Court Clerk Martha Phillips.

The move would consolidate criminal proceedings and presumably make life better for everyone, especially Quist, who has yet to get her arms around the clerk's office. Quist thought hiring Commissioner Mark Cawood to help with collections would help. But after only a month, Cawood—who, as a commissioner, would have been responsible for appropriating his own salary—resigned from his $25,000 a year, part-time job.

PBA Becomes a Political Football

For years, the Public Building Authority managed to maintain an apolitical MO amid all the political masters that it serves. It built the City/County Building and the Dwight Kessel Garage and renovated the Andrew Johnson Building. Even after it took over "hot potato" responsibility for school construction in 1995, PBA was initially heralded for its professionalism in bringing order out of chaos in the management of new school building projects. It has also overseen the $15 million renovation of the Miller's Building, the $50 million expansion of McGhee Tyson Airport and the planning of the $160 million new convention center and refurbishing of World's Fair Park.

But a proliferation of projects of this magnitude beget an influx of project managers with six figure salaries, and PBA began to get flak for what some earthy county commissioners perceived to be its high falutin' ways. Then came last spring's shoot out with Sheriff Tim Hutchison over the design and cost of what's loosely called the county's new justice center. When PBA tried to hold the line at a $72 million facility previously approved, Hutchison took his case to County Commission for an expanded, $90 million jail and sheriff's headquarters and succeeded in wresting control of the project and its budget away from PBA. Adding insult to its injury, PBA got blamed for the run-away, $1 million cost of a new baseball field at Karns High School.

Thus, the once above-the-battle entity became a political punching bag. County Commission rejected the reappointment of business and civic leader Jim Haslam II as PBA's chairman, and his rejection was quickly followed by the resignation of its sage and savvy CEO, Mike Edwards, who said, "I want out of all this craziness."

While Haslam lingers on as chairman and Edwards has agreed to serve as a consultant, their lame duck status leaves PBA crippled at a time when strong leadership is needed most. On Jan. 10, a grand design for downtown redevelopment is due to be unveiled under PBA's aegis. But until successors to Haslam and Edwards have been named to take the helm, the grand design could bog down for lack of steering.

You Call This Justice?

Contrary to any impressions otherwise, 1999 was not the Year of the Justice Center. We have just lived through the Decade of the Justice Center (JC). And, so far, lived to tell it. Controversy surrounding this project, the roots of which were planted in a Knox County Jail prisoner's federal court suit alleging unconstitutional overcrowding way back in the '80s, just seems to go on forever. Raising money to make prisoners more comfortable being only slightly more popular than barbed wire enemas, the court-ordered jail was controversial enough in its own right, and the issue was still hanging around when Tommy Schumpert was elected county executive in 1994. Soon thereafter, the project began to grow, and the jail became a JC, the proposed location of which bounced all over downtown before finally landing on State Street. This year's brouhaha began to escalate when Sheriff Tim Hutchison got mad at the Public Building Authority and took over the $90 million project. Then Attorney General Randy Nichols, a former JC proponent, had a Damascus Road experience and realized that crime rates are falling at such a rate as to render the project unnecessary. He, lawyer Herb Moncier and County Commissioner John Schmid have waged word war ever since. At year's end, demolition was proceeding.

Not On My Estate, You Don't!

Coexisting with telecommunication towers is one of those Problems of the Modern Age that didn't get much attention until the city issued National Wireless a permit to build one of those little babies right in the heart of Sequoyah Hills. The Sequoyans got on the horn to the mayor and a stop work order was issued quicker than you can say campaign contribution (despite a warning from an advisor that "special treatment" for this tower would not be well-received by the public). The project was quashed, for the time being, when the Board of Zoning Appeals and City Council sided with the neighborhood, which then filed suit against the city. National Wireless has intervened in the suit, which the company's lawyer, Steve Roth, says is an interesting piece of litigation, because the plaintiff (the neighborhood) and the respondent (the city) "are actually working hand-in-glove." Efforts by Sequoyans to find a tower site in South Knoxville were spurned by County Commissioner Nookie Pinkston who fired off protest letters to everyone from Jimmy Duncan to the Pope.