The East Knoxville Business and Professional Association hosted a forum for Knoxville City Council candidates from 8-9 a.m. on June 15 at the Jacob Building, Chilhowee Park. Radio host Hubert Smith moderated the event which featured candidates for the three at-large council seats. Some 30 to 40 citizens attended.
Format: After some preliminary news from the East Knox business chair, the presentation began. The ground rules were to allow candidates 30 seconds to identify themselves and then roughly one minute or less to answer roughly a dozen pre-written questions, read by Smith to the individuals.
The good news? You got to see and hear each of the seven candidates on their feet. Got to see ’em, smell ’em so to speak. Sort of take their temperature.
The bad news? Members of the audience were not asked or allowed to present their own questions to the candidates. This format is neat, tidy and efficient, with little time wasted. But it tends to be dry. No candidate was asked follow-up questions or grilled on some past action or their platform. In fairness, one might need two or more hours to pull that off. But you get a bit too much generic motherhood-and-apple-pie to satisfy your palate. Everyone wants safety, affordable housing, better business and job opportunities, holding the line on taxes…
The candidates: First, congratulations to those citizens who undertake running for local office. It takes a lot of personal time and forces you to dun everyone you know for a few bucks in order to print posters and signs, buy stamps and run a campaign.
Even with this too-ordered format – the League of Women Voters also champions such antiseptic election events – you did learn a bit.
For example, Cameron Brooks and Debbie Helsley speak from a union organizing, livable wage world and it punctuates their talking points.
Mathew Best speaks about his Chamber experience working with individuals to create job opportunities and wants to extend that more broadly to poorer communities.
Lynne Fugate and Tim Hill talk about prior community activity and public service involvement and continued work for city issues.
Bentley Marlowe touted his home-rebuilding experience in Mechanicsville after attending law school. Amelia Parker, also law trained, helped start a low-powered radio station and currently serves in a first term on city council with Fugate.
By the way, Charles Thomas, the District 5 incumbent candidate, is not opposed and was not on the panel.
What seemed missing from some of these candidates was an awareness of the real scope of the council job. Much of their time will be spent resolving zoning disputes and getting neglected services for various neighborhoods, plus working on and hopefully reining-in the city budget, which falls to them under the charter.
Fewer than half the candidates had read this year’s multi-million-dollar city budget. Several seemed unaware that the at-large seats they are running for make their responsibilities citywide, not just particular to troubled neighborhoods. What pleases Burlington or Five Points may not sell in West Hills, Fountain City or Sequoyah.
But it’s early. There is still time for them to grow and broaden their perspective. Let’s hope the next forum directly involves the public, and occasionally puts candidates on the hot seat, so we can see the stuff they are made of.
Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer, a gardener and a former member of Knoxville City Council.