Candidates for at-large seats on City Council answer questions about turnout, housing, homelessness, KPD and more.
On Monday, less than 48 hours before early voting was set to begin in the Knoxville primary election, most of the candidates for City Council at-large seats gathered at West High School for a forum.
The top two finishers in each race will move on to the general election.
It was the last opportunity for the hopefuls to collectively make their cases to voters before the polls open at 10 a.m. today at six locations across the city.
The top two finishers in each race will move on to the general election.
Seat B candidates Debbie Helsley and R. Bentley Marlow are guaranteed to advance because they are the only two people running for the post.
Two candidates, both running for Seat A, did not attend. Cameron Brooks told organizers he had a health issue that kept him away, while Darin Worsham is doing minimal campaigning. That left the Seat A stage to incumbent Lynne Fugate.
Councilman Charles Thomas, who is unopposed for re-election to the 5th District seat, also did not participate.
All three candidates for Seat C — incumbent Amelia Parker and challengers Tim Hill and Matthew Best — filled out the field.
Compass co-founder Jesse Mayshark moderated the forum, which was sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County and several partner organizations.
Marlow delivered the cleverest line of the night. He was recovering from a recent motorcycle accident and showed up with a bandaged arm and scabs on his face. Asked how he would increase voter turnout, he quipped: “Well, I believe I’m a pretty interesting candidate … I’m a scrappy candidate for the Scruffy City, and you can see right here I look scrappy.”
Most of the other candidates said the key is to reach voters while campaigning, either through door-to-door canvassing (Helsley), attending community events (Fugate) or a combination of the two (Hill). Best said holding quarterly community meetings over time would give officials the opportunity to promote civic engagement in the long term.
Parker said she takes a different approach than most candidates, who tend to focus outreach efforts on people who vote on a routine basis. “I intentionally reach out to inactive voters to bring them in,” she said.
Here is a breakdown of the candidates’ responses to select questions. Video of the forum can be viewed at the League of Women Voters of Knoxville/Knox County Facebook page.
Missing Middle Housing and Affordability
The Seat C candidates by and large put “missing middle” housing — duplexes, triplexes and other small-scale multi-family housing — into the context of the overall housing crisis.
“I’m a fan of missing middle (housing),” Parker said. “That type of housing, I believe, brings a lot of character to the city.”
Parker emphasized that missing middle housing isn’t necessarily affordable, noting that new housing of all kinds is popular and tends to be more expensive.
Best said a policy of promoting missing middle and affordable housing only in certain areas would fail, so everyone must share in the effort.
“Certain neighborhoods might get something they don’t want, but if you spread that around, we end up solving the problem,” he said.
Hill said missing middle housing has received too much attention for its small impact and that the city shouldn’t miss the opportunity to add residential developments along commercial corridors. “Missing middle housing is one small piece of the puzzle to address our housing needs.” he said.
Fugate, the Seat A incumbent, agreed, pointing out that housing is more affordable when there is more housing stock. “Missing middle is one strategy. When you have a crisis, you throw everything at it, all the tools.”
Though she agreed that housing affordability is a problem, Helsley warned that older, established neighborhoods would push back against zoning rules that would allow houses out of character with the rest of the community. “Knoxville is no longer an affordable place to live,” she said.
The city’s zoning code is inadequate, Marlow said, and should be revised to allow the construction of duplexes by right and more accessory dwelling units. “Each piece of this puzzle will come together to make a greater and larger, more equitable whole,” he said.
When the candidates were asked if they support allowing homeless individuals to camp on public property, Fugate gave a short and succinct answer: “No, I do not.”
Helsley, on the other hand, said that it depends on the situation. “That includes parks, and we don’t use parks after dark, so there’s certain situations where we don’t have to be cold-hearted about it,” she said.
Marlow said laws already address camping on public property and they should apply equally. “Parks close at dusk,” he said, “and I believe if that applies to those of us who are housed, it should apply to those of us who are unhoused.”
Like Helsely and Marlow in the Seat B race, the Seat C candidates each took a different approach to the question.
Best said he doesn’t want to see law enforcement expend time and energy sweeping out homeless encampments, “So the simple answer is yes.” However, he said nonprofits should be encouraged to come up with creative ways to help, such as warming stations.
Hill, who volunteers with the nonprofit Care Cuts, which serves the homeless population, said it’s more important to get people the services they need. “The answer is no, I don’t think we should allow the homeless to sleep in public parks,” he said.
“I believe housing is a human right,” Parker said. Citing a federal court ruling that applies only to Western states, she said the city should be obligated to allow people to sleep on public property when there are no options such as shelter beds available.
The evening’s final question was about the level of confidence candidates have in the leadership of Police Chief Paul Noel.
Fugate and the two Seat B candidates said they support Noel, who was hired in the spring of 2022.
“I do support the police chief; I think Chief Noel has done a good job,” Fugate said, adding that having a deputy chief in charge of internal affairs investigations who is not a police officer and the deployment of body-worn cameras have improved transparency.
“We seem to have a very good police chief,” Marlow said. “I would like to see us figure out how to recruit and retain officers. We adjusted our pay scale last year, that seems to have stopped the bleeding but it’s not bringing applicants through the door, and that is very troubling.”
Helsley said she has confidence in Noel and KPD. “I think he’s trying to create cultural change, and that takes time.”
As with other topics, the Seat C candidates diverged in their approaches.
According to Hill, residents should celebrate and respect the Police Department, and he approves of the innovations Noel has initiated. “I have confidence in Chief Noel, and until he gives us reason otherwise, he certainly has my support and I hope he has the community’s support,” he said.
Parker said she began hearing complaints from officers soon after she was elected in 2019, and the recent departure of Deputy Chief Brooklyn Belk after only four months on the job is a concern. “What I’m continuing to hear from women, from Black officers, is they continue to face an unsafe working environment and that they do not feel supported when they bring those complaints forward,” she said.
Best said Noel hasn’t given him cause for concern, but questioned how much support he has received from the KPD rank and file. “Unfortunately,” he said, “you can change the people in charge but until the culture changes you’re not going to see the results you want to see.”
Early voting will continue through Thursday, Aug. 24. Primary Election Day is Tuesday, Aug. 29.