Town Hall East hosted a forum for city council candidates from Districts 4 and 6 on Aug. 7 at Eastminster Presbyterian’s fellowship hall.
District 4 had incumbent Lauren Rider and challenger Jim Klonaris. A third candidate, Jen McMahon, did not show due to a family issue.
District 6 presented challengers Deidra Harper and Garrett Holt. Incumbent Gwen McKenzie stopped by but left before the forum to attend a scheduled Lonsdale event.
After introductory remarks, the candidates laid out their positions on three issues from THE, then answered several written questions from the audience. Differences were apparent.
Lauren Rider, employed at Pellissippi State and a neighborhood leader who fought blight in Old North Knoxville, spoke about the initiatives she has been engaged in during her first 4-year term, emphasizing park and greenway plans, road paving, traffic calming, improvements at the Milton Roberts Rec Center, and adding some 900 jobs in the district, as well as the new investment underway at the former East Towne Mall site. Rider said the city has paid down some $54 million in debt during her term. She spoke about crime in East Knox stemming from drugs and gang activity, including crime in homeless camps. The need for more affordable housing is an ongoing concern, as purchasers fleeing states like California and New York are bidding up existing housing prices. Rider noted that police and crime comparisons with Chattanooga ignore that the state left Moccasin Bend mental health facility open there while closing Lakeshore here. She will be working with the council to assure community benefits and fiscal protection at the proposed baseball stadium project. She meets with the mayor monthly to discuss district issues.
Jim Klonaris spoke about his 35 years of business experience as a restaurateur with 230 employees, and his commitment to downtown. He expressed concern about the cultural change in Knoxville in the past 13 years that makes it harder for developers to want to start and establish businesses here. We no longer have a roll-out-the-red-carpet attitude to attract business, he said. Knoxville needs to cut some of the red tape to attract affordable housing development, especially single-family housing, as home ownership is the way most folks can accumulate wealth over time. He favors the ballpark development as a job creator good for the area, but wants to be sure that public monies are not put at risk. He believes the city should enlist the business community to invest in underserved areas. He described the east side poverty level as saddening and stressed the need to create jobs and more business opportunity to help address it.
The contrast between these two candidates was much greater.
Deidra Harper, a UT graphic design grad, focused heavily on the income level and lack of business opportunity for the black community which has some 42 percent of low-income individuals. She wants to see more focus on helping to create and fund black-owned business, such as using interest-free micro-loans, and incentives to get more affordable housing built. She asserts that council should have a greater role in establishing the city budget, now seemingly left entirely to the mayor. Harper said there is too little attention paid to marginalized population. She is concerned the ball park proposal is relying on city investment despite having wealthy private investment, and it might displace residents from neighboring affordable housing.
Garrett Holt, an accountant, spoke of his business orientation, including real estate. He said he wants to serve to help avoid too much spending and debt burden on taxpayers. He asserts crime is the No. 1 problem East Knoxville faces, as that discourages housing and business investment needed in the area. He noted that Chattanooga has some 50 more police than larger Knoxville. He agrees that making home ownership available is important, and that the rising prices are caused in part by insufficient supply. He says red tape discourages developer investment inside the city, and that most developers currently prefer to build in the county. Garrett sees the proposed ballpark as creating needed jobs in the area.
The meeting closed with some unanswered audience questions. Town Hall East will submit those to the candidates and will post their replies for folks to review, hopefully before the start of early voting (Aug. 11).
Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer, a gardener and a former member of Knoxville City Council.