The Year in Review
Annexation Boundary Dispute
For most of the year, our city and county governments took turns firing salvos at each other in what amounted to a border war. The fighting was precipitated by a 1998 state law requiring every county to adopt a Growth Plan establishing an Urban Growth Boundary within which a city would be free to annex over the next 20 years.
Mayor Victor Ashe predictably undertook to stake out as much additional turf as he could while County Commission, just as predictably, opposed any expansion on the city's part. As the hostilities intensified, Ashe went on an annexation binge, mainly going after territory that didn't figure to fall within the eventual UGB and therefore would become off limits. County Commission retaliated by voting to sue to contest the validity of commercial strip annexations by the city over the past 20 years.
But all of this escalation may have served a purpose, because the two sides decided in September to have a go at peace negotiations. After two months at the table, envoys for the city and the county were finally able to strike a compromise. The city would get a UGB about half the size it sought but would abstain from involuntary annexation of residents within this 47-square-mile zone for a period of seven years.
Do Not Pass Go
Bookending the rest of the political action this year were two attempts to resolve the ongoing dispute over whether Knox County needs a new jail and where it should go. In January, a petition drive (largely fueled by the K2K Internet forum) garnered 3,000 signatures calling for a re-evaluation of the whole State Street justice center plan. County Commission grumbled and grimaced but went along with the suddenly swollen public tide. Sheriff Tim Hutchison stepped down as the project's construction manager (a post he assumed following the removal of the Public Building Authority from the job in 1999), and Commission gave the whole mess back to County Executive Tommy Schumpert for study.
Schumpert spent most of the rest of the year huddled with consultant Bob Goble (and, presumably, Hutchison), and returned in October with a recommendation for a scaled-down jail on the City County Building lawn. That sent District Attorney General Randy Nichols back on the "we-don't-need-it" warpath, aided by Mayor Victor Ashe's warnings that the city wouldn't give up the greenspace. Before it came to blows, Commission again intervened and put it all on hold pending still more review.
The jail furor was a spectacular coming-out for the K2K Internet forum, formed in November '99 by downtown architect Buzz Goss and his wife Cherie Piercy-Goss. At the January Commission meeting, commissioners were greeted with large white binders full of K2K posts (compiled and distributed anonymously under cover of night by Dwight Van de Vate, chief deputy to Sheriff Tim Hutchison), in an apparent attempt to make the group look like pawns of Mayor Victor Ashe and his political allies. The effortwhich Van de Vate eventually owned up to, saying he simply wanted to educate Commissionfailed when County Commissioner John Schmid (an occasional K2K participant) dramatically hoisted one of the binders and said it should be circulated to local schools as an example of grassroots democracy. Within a week after the meeting, subscription to the forum skyrocketed.
Membership continued to grow throughout the year, hitting a current level of about 550 subscribers, who have now collectively written more than 15,000 posts on topics ranging from urban planning to school reform to a staggering array of pet peeves. The sometimes bitter, petty and personal tone of the discussion has scared off some people (although not Mayor Ashe, a frequent and sharp-digited contributor).
Save the Fort
For decades, Knoxville preservationists have faced a complicated problem: what's arguably Knoxville's most historic neighborhood is also the city's most densely populated neighborhood. And, for those who specialize in cheap housing, a very profitable one. Raze a couple of Victorian houses and you'll have a lot where you can build a boxy 100-unit apartment building and be confident to fill it by fall semester. Or, if you prefer, just let it remain vacant. An unpaved surface parking lot can earn thousands of dollars yearly in football parking alone.
But thanks to efforts by the Historic Fort Sanders Neighborhood Association, the mayor's office, and others, a majority of property owners finally settled on a compromise, of sorts: an NC-1 designation. It doesn't prohibit the demolitions that have pocked the historic neighborhood, but at least makes them more troublesome. City Council approved the measure on Sept. 13 in a special session on the front porch of the renovated Laurel Avenue home of HFSNA president Randall DeFord.
Nudging the Budget
The annual six-way tug-of-war known as the Knox County budget was in rare form this year. County Exec Tommy Schumpert proposed a $467 million packagethe largest in county history but, with no property tax hike, lacking sufficient new money to satisfy many interest groups. Most prominently, the Sheriff's Department and the big-gorilla school system both protested Schumpert's relative skimpiness in meeting their needs for new positions and pay hikes.
The sheriff was largely appeased by some salary bumps from Knox County Commission, but school Superintendent Charles Lindsey was less sanguine. Although the schools ended up with a little more than Schumpert originally proposed, Lindsey's plans to add art and language teachers in elementary schools (among other things) went by the wayside. Which set the stage for...
The Knox County schools' historically tense relationship with County Commission got even tenser this year, before ending on an apparent note of hope. Following his displeasure with the budget process, new Superintendent Charles Lindsey decided to mobilize his troops. He announced in the fall that groups of teachers and principals would be required to attend every County Commission meetingboth to educate the employees about the system that pays them, and to remind commissioners of the faces behind their budget line items. Some commissioners grumbled about the tactic.
Eventually, however, things seemed to calm down. The board agreed to split the cost of an auditor with Commission, and Commission agreed to support 14 new positions in the school system.
Lindsey took one more assertive step late in the year when he pulled the plug on the school system's four-year-old contract with the Public Building Authority. PBA took over school construction management following a series of controversial school projects in the mid-'90s, but neither the agency nor the school board has ever been entirely happy with the relationship. For his part, PBA head Dale Smith (elsewhere weighed down with difficult downtown development proposals) seemed just as happy to withdraw.
EZ Does It
The year began with the arrival of a new director of the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement and ended with her departure. During her short stint, Sherry Kelly Marshall guided PNI through the early stages of its ambitious "Empowerment Zone" plans. When Knoxville received EZ designation last year (worth up to $100 million in federal funds over the next decade), it was clear there would be some wrestling over how best to use it. Some early projects have gone aheade.g. a career development center at the new Pellissippi State campus on Magnolia Avenuebut the big emphasis this year was on getting organized. PNI and its partner, the Center for Neighborhood Development, are putting together Zone Advisory Councils to prioritize projects in the seven designated EZ zones (which span from Old North Knoxville to Vestal, and from Burlington to Fort Sanders).
Things got sticky late in the year, though, with proposals for $2.5 million in "brownfield redevelopment" (specifically, a business park adjacent to Mechanicsville, and the Coster Shop rail yards along I-275). A group of African-American business owners asked why some of the money couldn't go to the Five Points area in East Knoxville; they also accused PNI of not using any minority-owned agencies as subcontractors. That left PNI officials frustrated, not least because there has been active minority participation at every level of the process. The argument seemed to come down to a simple matter of whose project should go first. In the end, the PNI board voted to go ahead with the brownfield developments (which were part of the original EZ plan approved by the feds), but promised to make Five Points a priority in future phases. Marshall, clearly angered by what she called "nasty" allegations of racism, announced in November that she was taking a new job in her hometown of Cincinnati. Her parting words: "I've never seen a community that was against so many things and in favor of so few."
Things were relatively static on the billboard front in Knoxville until a new sign company, Rocky Top, tried to move in on the turf long staked out by the city's outdoor advertising behemoth, Lamar, and its small-fry competitor, Douglas. A resultant surge in billboard permit applications provoked Mayor Victor Ashe to declare a moratorium on new billboardsa moratorium that Rocky Top is now challenging in court.
To validate the city's posture, the mayor appointed an eight-person billboard task force. Without dissent, the task force, which included a Lamar representative, recommended a permanent ban on any additions to the 472 billboard locations that are presently permitted in the city. And after some postponements, the Metropolitan Planning Commission on Dec. 14 endorsed an ordinance incorporating the ban.
But whether City Council will go along with it may be another matter.
No Blacks Need Apply?
It may not have been racism, but it sure looked and smelled a lot like it. And since City Council members wouldn't explain their 5-to-4 vote against giving a beer permit to a black family that wanted to open the Platinum Lounge nightclub in the Old City, it'd be hard to blame anyone for making the assumption. It all started when Barley's Taproom and Pizzeria owner Doug Beatty saw his new neighbor's window covered with rap posters. He then wrote letters to the Beer Board (a.k.a. City Council) concerned about what kind of clientele the Platinum Lounge would cater to. The applicantsBaffin Harper Sr. and his daughter-in-lawsaid they'd be playing a mix of blues, urban, jazz and rhythm and blues. After a couple of meetings, several rumors, a few conspiracy theories, and a lot of questions from both sides, the board narrowly voted against the permit. The nay votes refused to say why. The Harpers didn't give up but quietly kept working at renovating the building (their progress was slowed in part because they also run a landscaping business, doing work for the city). They opened in early December. They say they bear no hard feelings, and plan to eventually reapply for a beer permit.
TennCare on the Brink
Tennesseans collectively are among the unhealthiest set of people in the country. About the only thing that's sicker is the state's TennCare program for providing health care to the indigent and those who otherwise can't get health insurance.
Even after pumping an additional $1 billion into the $5 billion program over the past two years, TennCare teeters on the brink of collapse. The infusion of more money was intended to shore up the managed care organizations that run the program on the state's behalf, especially by enabling them to pay more to get and keep enough doctors in their networks. But doctors have deserted two of the three largest MCOs in droves, and the largest, Blue Cross, has served notice of its intent to get out of the program altogether. Attempts to recruit new MCOs to pick up the slack have so far been unavailing because they haven't been able to enlist enough doctors to provide adequate networks.
Push will come to shove when TennCare's 1.3 million enrollees are allowed, as required by law, to select the MCO of their choice for the year ahead. Right now, there isn't nearly enough MCO capacity to go around. To which conservative critics of TennCare's budget-busting costs would say, "Lop them off the rolls."
Seeking Vision Through Heavy Lenses
"Nine Counties. One Vision." has been described as a regional initiativea sort of grand committee on committees for the metro areacreated in early 2000. It is sponsored by several area foundations and businesses to build a consensus view of the future in a region noted for its past lack of consensus views. More than 3,600 people participated in 20 public meetings held in Anderson, Blount, Grainger, Jefferson, Knox, Loudon, Roane, Sevier and Union counties, the nine involved, last February and March. The group has come up with some observations and recommendations, mostly general in nature. Among its reported findings: Knoxville needs more sidewalks to be adequately pedestrian-friendly.... The work continues.
Rock the Vote
One of Mayor Victor Ashe's favorite Y2K refrains was the need to increase voter turnout in city elections. The level of participation in mayoral and City Council elections has been plummeting in recent years, and Ashe fingered the "off year" nature of city elections as the grinch that stole citizenship. (The last mayoral election was in 1999, for example, and the next one will be in 2003). The remedy Ashe advocated was the notion of changing the election cycle to coincide with state and national election cycles, and he introduced an ordinance to that effect, which passed on first reading. But a funny thing happened; included in the ordinance was a mini-term to take the election cycle into an even-numbered year, but which also looked a lot like a loophole that would allow Ashe and any other city official to sit out a year and then return to the office from which they had just been term limited. Before the final reading, News-Sentinel editor Frank Cagle exposed the ordinance as an attempt to get around term limits, and it was withdrawn at the next meeting.
Victor's Fiery Valentine
So whose case cost the taxpayers more this yearZoo Man or Victor Ashe? We don't really know the answer to this yet, but we suspect that the mayor may just have the edge over the serial killer, because this was the year he had to finally defend himself against the civil rights suit filed in U.S. District Court by five city firefighters who were punished for supporting Ashe's opponent in 1995. On Valentine's Day, the jury ruled that Ashe had acted illegally when he transferred, demoted and otherwise screwed with the jobs of firefighters Bill and Frank Potter, Gary Sharpe and Kenny Scarbrough for supporting a mayoral candidate who was not Ashe. (The fifth plaintiff, Red McGinnis, that rarest of civic servantsan apolitical fire fighterwas transferred in order to make room for other political transfers.) Ashe and city Law Director Michael Kelley denounced the jury and claimed the jury's failure to award compensatory damages as a victory. Some weeks later, U.S. Magistrate Bob Murrian slapped Ashe with an injunction forbidding him to mess with the firemen for the rest of his term.
Bushed and Gored
As presidential election years go, it was an unusually intimate one for Knoxville. One candidate was the first major-party nominee from Tennessee since 1844; the other was an old college chum of Mayor Victor Ashe's. Few remember the last time that both major-party candidates visited Knoxville in the final days of their campaigns. George W. Bush visited a hand-picked audience at South-Doyle Middle School, but declined a scheduled visit with most of the actual students, who remained sequestered in their classrooms. Three days before the election, Al Gore met with a huge crowd at the airport, one declared the biggest political gathering in memory. Predictably, Gore played the obvious card by inviting South-Doyle students to join him onstage.
But Gore lost his home state and, therefore, the election. The fact that Republican Knox County (including the South-Doyle ward) went for Bush surprised no one, but that mere fact masks a much more complicated picture. The wards of city-limits Knoxville picked Gore by almost 4,000 votes, roughly a 10-point margin.
Quist Quest Detoured
Cathy Quist, whose face appears in Webster's alongside the definition of the term "beleaguered," had another hard year as clerk of the Knox County Circuit and General Sessions Courts. Things got so tough in terms of management responsibilities in that office that the criminal side of the sessions court clerkship was taken up by Martha Phillips, clerk of the county's Criminal and Domestic Relations Courts. And Quist signaled that she will not likely seek re-election in 2002 by applying for the job of Oak Ridge city attorney. Although she became a finalist for that position, the Oak Ridge City Council turned her down, leaving her to twist in the City County Building wind for a couple more years. Her predecessor, the indomitable Lillian Bean, whom Quist defeated for the post, must still be smirking.
Humane Society Euthanizes Itself
The Humane Society of East Tennessee ran what looked like a regular bluff on Knoxville and Knox County early this year, saying it had to have more public money to run the local animal shelter or it would have to shut the facility down. In a rare example of city-county agreement, the governments called the bluff and decided to start up their own shelter and provide for its operation directly. A new city-county shelter is being built off Sutherland Avenue, and its governing board has hired the former director of the Oak Ridge shelter to operate it. Hey, maybe that opened up another job opportunity in Oak Ridge. Are you listening, Cathy Quist?
Knox Election Glitches
Compared with the swells of protest that surrounded Florida's presidential balloting, Knox County's election day difficulties were nothing more than, uh, dimples. Yet while there were no doubts about the accuracy of the county's electronic vote count, there was considerable confusion over whether certain voters were duly registered or where they were supposed to vote.
Most of the confusion could have been avoided if there had been adequate numbers of adequately trained election officials with adequate lines of communication between polling places and Election Commission headquarters on Nov. 7. But all of these seemed lacking. And better voter education is also needed. The Election Commission is in the process of retaining a consultant to lend a helping hand on both accounts.
December 21, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 51
© 2000 Metro Pulse