A Focus on Issues Close to Home

A Focus on Issues Close to Home

Forums give candidates in three Council races the opportunity to reach district voters before early voting begins.

by scott barker • August 9, 2021
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City Council District 6 candidate Deidra Harper (standing) answers a question at a candidate forum on Saturday while her opponent, Garrett Holt (right) and 4th District candidates Lauren Rider (far left) and Jim Klonaris wait their turns.

Candidates in three City Council races turned their attention to district issues during a pair of forums held in recent days as the early voting period approaches. 

Questions for Council candidates at recent forums focused mostly on district matters.

Two of the three District 1 candidates participated in a forum on Thursday that had to be taped at the last minute because of COVID-19 precautions at the original venue. 

Church Street United Methodist Church was originally going to host the forum, which was organized by the South Knoxville Alliance of Business and Professionals and the League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County, but canceled all non-church-related events in the face of rising COVID-19 case counts. The event was videotaped at Blount Mansion with no audience and can be viewed here.

Two days later, on Saturday morning, candidates in the 4th and 6th District contests answered questions at an in-person event in East Knoxville. Both races feature three candidates, but only two hopefuls for each office participated.

The forum was hosted by Town Hall East and held at Eastminster Presbyterian Church. Town Hall East’s footprint includes neighborhoods in both the 4th and 6th Districts. Organizers did not videotape the event.

Both forums focused mostly on district matters. In the Aug. 31 primary, voters will be able to vote only in their district races. Early voting begins Aug. 11. Voters can vote for all five seats on the ballot in the Nov. 2 general election.

District 1

Incumbent Councilman Tommy Smith and City Council Movement candidate David Hayes made the shift to Blount Mansion to answer questions from moderator Alan Williams. Most of the questions dealt with issues directly related to the district, which includes South Knoxville and Fort Sanders.

Conservative candidate Elizabeth Murphy told organizers she had a scheduling conflict and could not attend. She also did not attend a July 29 League of Women Voters forum for the same reason.

Smith emphasized his experience of service to the community through nonprofits and other groups. “So being able to understand the community comes from showing up, getting people jobs, mentoring young entrepreneurs, helping kids get to basketball practice and helping people get to work,” he said. 

Hayes, on the other hand, said city government has promoted the interests of developers over small businesses and neighborhoods. He advocated for “a different model of development that empowers local businesses and local developers and people in the community, so people aren't being displaced.”

Smith said he stays in touch with constituents and attends the meetings of neighborhood organizations to keep his finger on the pulse of the community.

“I've been to every meeting every month, so I listen to those neighborhoods,” he said. “But that's not all. I listen to the folks at the schools where my kids go and other kids go. When my cell phone rings, I answer.”

Hayes said going to community meetings isn’t enough and that the district needs a Council representative to push back against developers.

“I'm going to provide new leadership that says I am taking the side of the community, I am taking the side of renters, I am taking the side of neighborhood associations,” he said.

Asked what success would look like for the 1st District, Hayes and Smith presented different visions.

Hayes said he would like to see a land bank established to set aside properties for working-class families and small business owners. He also said he would want to see development occur without displacing lower-income residents.

“Actually having the voices of neighborhood associations and residents dictating the development that happens in the community,” he said.

Smith said a Fort Sanders neighborhood with strong historic preservation protections, a revitalized Vestal and small business growth along Chapman Highway would be signs of success. But he emphasized that the Urban Wilderness would provide long-term benefits to South Knoxville. 

“The Urban Wilderness could be the greatest asset this entire city has for the next few decades,” he said. “And it's important that we understand most places do build their way to prosperity, we've preserved our way to prosperity.” 

District 4

At the Town Hall East forum at Eastminster Presbyterian, incumbent Councilwoman Lauren Rider and challenger Jim Klonaris fielded the questions. 

Jen McMahon, the City Council Movement candidate, told organizers she could not attend because of a family medical issue. It was Klonaris’ first forum appearance, as he did not attend the July 29 League of Women Voters event because of a scheduling conflict.

Though the 4th District is most often associated with North Knoxville and Fountain City, where the bulk of its residents live, the district extends to Holston Hills in East Knoxville, with a tendril extending out to Interstate 40’s Strawberry Plains exit.

Rider and Klonaris agreed that home ownership is key to developing generational wealth within families. 

Klonaris said he’s talked to many developers who don’t want to work in the city because of the regulations. He called it a “cultural issue,” and highlighted the difference between how he was received when he opened Cafe 4 on Market Square 13 years ago — “The city rolled out the red carpet” — and his most recent restaurant openings.

“The culture has shifted dramatically,” he said.

Rider said zoning changes should allow developers more flexibility and pointed to 900 or so new jobs announced for the 4th District this year by Axle Logistics on Central Street, Amazon at the former Knoxville Center Mall site, and Fraley and Schilling Trucking in Strawberry Plains. 

“Jobs are brought in by the private sector,” she said.

Klonaris said the city’s rise in violent crime can be traced to a lack of leadership in city government

“We have a crime problem throughout Knoxville, but it’s magnified in East Knoxville,” he said.

Rider said the root cause of crime in Knoxville is illegal drug use, and that the closure of Lakeshore Mental Health Institute is a primary reason.

“We put people in the street to self-medicate,” she said.

Both are generally supportive of the proposed publicly funded multi-use stadium near the Old City. 

“It was blighted, it was crime-ridden, there was one one there,” Klonaris said about the site for the stadium, adding that he has several businesses in the Old City and would recuse himself from any votes on the stadium.

Rider said she looked forward to a joint City Council-County Commission workshop on the stadium later this month, but stated she had a line she would not cross.

“I will not vote yes, if the city has to pay for cost overruns,” she said.

District 6

On the 6th District side of the room at Eastminster Presbyterian, the two challengers — conservative Garrett Holt and City Council Movement candidate Dierdra Harper — had the stage to themselves. Incumbent Councilwoman Gwen McKenzie, who also serves as vice mayor, had a previous commitment to be the grand marshal in Saturday’s Lonsdale Homecoming Parade. Like Klonaris, Holt did not attend the July 29 forum.

At Saturday’s event, Holt said the city needs to reduce red tape for developers to encourage more homebuilding and home ownership in the district, which runs from East Knoxville, through downtown and Mechanicsville to Pond Gap in West Knoxville.

“If we want to have more affordable homes, we have to have more homes in the market,” he said.

Harper said home ownership is essential to building wealth, a common theme in discussions about poverty in East Knoxville. According to Harper, affordable housing is needed, but so are the means to attain home ownership. 

“We also want to look at housing affordability,” she said.

Harper said providing more resources to entrepreneurs and educational opportunities in schools would help reduce crime, drug abuse and other social ills.

“If we address poverty, a lot of the other things would be reduced,” she said.

Harper, a businesswoman who also runs a nonprofit to help women-owned businesses gain access to capital, said the best way to address poverty is to encourage job creation.

“Entrepreneurship is a way to create wealth and create jobs,” she said.

Holt said strengthening the Knoxville Police Department would be the most effective way to reduce crime. He noted that Chattanooga has a smaller population but a larger police force.

“If we don’t have (KPD) fully staffed, we can’t address the problem,” he said.

Holt, a sales manager for a medical device company, said having a person with business acumen on Council would be a plus.

“We need incentives to bring investment to East Knoxville,” he said.

Both agreed that while there are similarities between the private and public sectors, there are key differences as well.

“The goal ultimately is to put tax dollars to the best use, but also the most responsible use,” Holt said.

Harper emphasized the importance of communication in dealing with budgets and expenses.

“You want to make sure your employees, your constituents, are consulted,” she said.

Holt said the multi-use stadium near the Old City could be a transformative project similar to Turkey Creek or West Town Mall, as long as it’s executed properly.

“We need strong development to come into the city, but we need smart development,” he said.

Harper is no fan of using public funds to pay for the stadium and is disappointed a community benefits agreement isn’t part of the process. She said she wants the project to avoid displacing families.  

“We need to have development in District 6, but we need to be careful about it,” she said.