I am often asked if I enjoy serving on Chattanooga’s City Council. Truthfully, it’s a very tough question. I “enjoy” beach walking and old Jimmy Stewart movies. Serving on City Council has required 60-80 hour weeks, night/weekend meetings, responding to thousands of emails, phone calls, speaking engagements, reading reams of documents and intense research. It has not been fun, joyous or glamorous, but it has been educational, intellectually stimulating and a deeply satisfying professional experience.
City Council members have 2 jobs and both are equally important. There are individual district duties and there are voting responsibilities that every Council person has for the welfare of the entire city.
Providing good legislative service requires HOMEWORK. Any rooster can sit on a dais and crow “aye.” A “nay” vote is more difficult. Knowing the basis for a vote is where the rubber meets the road. The privilege of casting 1 of 9 votes should produce an insatiable desire to be informed enough to make an appropriate decision. I have a very Pollyanna view of what government should be: ethical, affordable, efficient, and accountable. I am not a member of MENSA International and I’m totally “glib challenged.” These natural shortcomings are interwoven with the ever present concern that comes with knowing citizens live with the consequences of the council decisions that I help make. Perhaps this is why I am a risk adverse, analysis prone, tightwad that asks questions. These qualities have not endeared me to a few folks at City Hall.
My 10th grade civics teacher told our class that both the legislative and executive branches work for the same people. I’m not so convinced about that today. When I began my term in 2009, I learned many in government feel acutely threatened when asked questions. Naïvely, I never imagined anyone would be perturbed by questions about public matters. I believe if someone wants to spend the public’s money, they should have no qualms answering questions to help determine:
Is this a public “need” or a private “want”?
What will happen if the city does not do this now?
What has this accomplished and how do we know it has?
What are the benefits, consequences, costs and liabilities both now and later? What is the basis for those conclusions?
Is this “must have” an essential function of local government?
Four years ago, I promised District One residents to use common sense to facilitate transparent, accountable, affordable, and efficient government. While I have done that, sadly I have not achieved all I hoped to accomplish.
I failed in a long crusade to change Public Work’s brush pick-up policy. Residents hate seeing a truck drive by 3 brush piles only to pick up one pile and come back twice for the other two.
I failed to gain any Council support for limiting city council service to two consecutive four-year terms. This decision would have been more correctly made by voters in a referendum. Politicians are self-conflicted when it comes to approving “term limits.” There are many talented people who could serve well on City Council.
I failed to gain Council’s support for moving city elections to coincide with state and federal elections. Reducing the City’s election costs, combining voter’s trips to the polls and the likelihood of increasing voter turnout for local elections, failed to convince Council it was a good idea. The majority disliked the idea of allowing citizens to make the decision in a voter referendum.
Better Budget Priories
I had only limited success convincing fellow city council members and the Mayor that we needed to reduce non-essential city expenditures and focus more on critical city infrastructure. Over $7 million dollars will go to repair and EXPAND the 21st Century Waterfront project. Meanwhile, only $1.7 million is allocated to citywide road repair. Poor road conditions are obvious to most citizens. The Public Works Department and 3 scientific studies concluded the City Council should set aside $5 million (annually) for road maintenance. Given dismal economic circumstances, we need to focus city time and treasure on city “needs” first and city “wants” last. Although many Chattanooga taxpayers wholeheartedly support this economic approach, special interest groups are quite effective at diverting funds to questionable or poorly timed projects and expenditures. While basic road maintenance lags, other projects and expenditures leaped forward. City Council bought a Blue Rhino, a Green Roof, began construction on a new recreation center in Hixson and a new Employee Health Clinic and Fitness Center.
I failed to persuade the Mayor to strengthen management expertise at the Moccasin Bend Wastewater Treatment Plant in 2009. Malfunctioning sewer pump stations, the absence of standby emergency power to run pump stations, antiquated pipes, wet weather sewer overflows, misguided and mismanaged sewer projects are executive failures to properly plan and execute. A city that hugs two sides of the Tennessee River and plays catch basin to water and sewage from Tennessee and North Georgia should not be chronically caught with a thumb in its mouth and its diaper falling down.
Tax Incremental Financing [TIF Agreements]
I failed to persuade enough Councilpersons that the plan for Tax Incremental Financing of a city road and sewer system to service a private residential development puts the needs of developer financing ahead of servicing existing homeowner needs. The TIF Agreement allows our city to provide a banking function for private development. Inherent risks and cost issues were glossed over by some of City Council’s most vocal TIF supporters. The Black Creek (aka Aetna Mountain) TIF Agreement sequesters future increased taxes from new assessments (up to 20 years) to repay the cost of a new road, water and sewer line (on private property) that services the developer’s planned residential development. Meanwhile, existing Chattanooga taxpayers will pay for city services on Chattanooga’s newest residential mountaintop retreat for up to 20 years or until the city’s $9 million in bonds are repaid.
In 2009, I failed to convince the Mayor our city needed an overhaul of performance evaluations. Annual performance evaluations should occur for EVERY employee (especially management). Raises should be based on a variety of factors: performance evaluations, cost of living changes, demand for competitive skills, the value of a competitive benefit package and the availability of funds. No city can guarantee raises every year, but there is no good reason why the aforementioned factors cannot drive the significance of the raises that are given. Across the board “blanket raises,” don’t incentivize exceptional performance. Job performance, personal responsibility, and personal initiative should be recognized. Managers and Administrator’s should be evaluated from two directions, from their boss down and from their subordinates back up.
I fail to understand why administrators, managers and employees that chronically fail to perform responsibly are reassigned, promoted, or remain in government.
Recall of Elected Officials
I voted against the wording of the amendment to the “recall of elected officials” provision of Chattanooga’s Charter. If passed it will dramatically INCREASE the number of signatures required for some districts to recall an elected official. Currently, our Charter bases the minimum number of required signatures, not on the total number of registered voters, but on the total numbers of CITIZENS WHO VOTE. Chattanooga’s Charter section on recall is similar to many other municipalities across the United States.
Many may recall the lawsuit to recall the Mayor. The courts AFFIRMED a municipality’s “Home Rule” right to determine the minimum number of signatures required to initiate a local recall. The Charter Amendment on the ballots of our CURRENT ELECTION says the city will follow the state law for recall. What it does NOT say is that it’s raising the bar for recalling elected officials. In some districts, it may double the number of required signatures.
If you vote FOR the charter amendment, you will be agreeing to RAISE the minimum number to 15% of ALL REGISTERED VOTERS, instead of 50% plus one vote OF ACTUAL VOTERS. Since local elections tend to have low participation rates, using the state number of signatures required for recall could require a signature petition that exceeds the total number of votes cast for all the candidates running for the seat in the last election. District races can easily have participation rates of 11-20%. You must decide, but I’m voting NO on the recall amendment because it is ALREADY very difficult to recall an elected official.
Is there any good news?
Despite the previously mentioned examples of governmental sluggishness, a few remarkable accomplishments occurred during the last four years.
There is progress. Citizens can’t give feedback to elected officials if initiatives fly “under their radar.” Though it is not yet widely known, citizens now have online access to the same background information, contracts and legislative proposals council members receive before they vote. Until recently, most citizens had virtually no access to knowing “who” served on “what” city board, “when” or “where” they met. Nearly an “act of congress” was required to persuade administration to post DRAFT city budgets, City Council Committee minutes, archived data, and a central calendar of government meeting/events. This information is critical to determining what your elected officials are saying and doing. However, it’s a citizen’s responsibility to pay attention, ask questions and demand answers.
Please visit: www.chattanooga.gov for more information.
City & County Tax Equality
There is progress. The lopsided 40+ year old Local Sales Agreement between 4 of 8 cities in Hamilton County and unincorporated Hamilton County mercifully ended. The old agreement legalized double dipping from Chattanooga taxpayers to fund many of the same agencies. City taxpayers paid via their County taxes and they paid again via their city tax bill.
There is progress. Citizens cannot possibly know who is accountable (or not) if no one is INDEPENDENTLY auditing to detect fraud, waste and abuse and more importantly TELLING the public when and where they find it. Thanks to a decision approved by a recent voter referendum, we now have a more “INDEPENDENT” Internal Audit Department.
Previously, the City’s Audit Department reported to the mayor’s office and the Audit Department’s findings were buried within the Mayor’s Office section of the city’s website. Today you may easily access archived Internal Audit reports on the city’s website under the “Department” tab. Click on “Internal Audit.” In addition to the reporting to Mayor and City Council, the City’s Auditor Department findings are reviewed by a professional Audit Committee, composed of Certified Public Accountants with sterling credentials. They are a volunteer board. They are all city residents. They are not allowed to serve if they or their family members do business with or work for the city.
There is progress. Thanks to the diligent efforts of Beer Code Task Force members, Representative Richard Floyd, Senator Bo Watson, and House Floor Leader Gerald McCormick, we were successful in passing a bill to facilitate cooperation between the state liquor and local beer licensing boards. While Chattanooga’s Task Force led the effort, Hamilton County, Knox County and several other counties pressed their legislative representatives to allow their local licensing boards to also participate.
Bar mayhem will never completely disappear, but when respective authorities have a path, duty and desire for collaboration—the public wins. Task force members completed a redraft of the City’s Beer Code and are anxiously waiting vetting by the City Attorney’s office.
It never happens by accident. To attain efficiencies, more analysis of costs, risks, and benefits are REQUIRED. However, there are more serious discussions about fiscal responsibility occurring and MORE ISSUES are being examined. It will take at least 5 of 9 fiscally conservative members on the next Council to keep Chattanooga an affordable place to live and do business.
Thank You District One
To receive just one vote is a precious gift. It is difficult to describe what a humbling experience it was to be elected to District One City Council in 2009. It has been my deep honor to represent you and be a part of the decision making for Districts 2-9. My term will end April 2012. I have decided not to seek re-election to City Council next term. My Mother will turn 84 soon and I need a little more family time. I hope to assist citizen candidates who embrace transparency, demonstrate accountability and are willing to champion responsible fiscal policies. I pray others will do the same.
District One Representative
Chattanooga City Council
October 25, 2012