published Sunday, April 7th, 2013

Ron Littlefield riding out waning term as Chattanooga mayor


by Cliff Hightower
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's second term ends Friday.
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's second term ends Friday.
Photo by John Rawlston.

LITTLEFIELD

HITS:

• Helped bring Volkswagen to Chattanooga.

• Helped birth EPB's broadband fiber-optics network.

• Kickstarted city's green roofs program and first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design buildings.

• Established the Gene Roberts Public Service Center.

• Formed the Moccasin Bend Clean Water Authority.

MISSES:

• City-county service consolidation or metropolitan government talks failed.

• Faced a recall and two-year court battle after a property tax hike.

• Largest annexation since the 1970s sparked court fight.

• Boosting stormwater rates triggered massive backlash.

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield came into office eight years ago on a platform of restoring neighborhoods.

The mayor who endured a recall attempt, court battles over annexation and protests over higher property taxes is leaving office, though, feeling as if he has done what he set out to do.

"We've managed to get all of our things accomplished," Littlefield said. "I feel like we have left a clean desk."

He has five days left on the job after spending two terms in the mayor's third-floor office in City Hall on East 11th Street.

In an administration often enmeshed in controversy, he said he feels confident that he made the hard decisions needed to move the city forward.

In 2009, he got the first stormwater fee increase in 10 years through the City Council to pay for federally mandated water quality improvements.

In 2010, his proposed 64 cent property tax increase -- the first in eight years -- infuriated city residents. The City Council sliced it in half.

He tried to make progress in consolidating city and county services or moving to metropolitan government, but never he gained traction.

"You have to try a lot of things," Littlefield said.

And sometimes they don't work.

Former Mayor Jon Kinsey is known for downtown redevelopment, but his bid to buy Tennessee American Water and turn it into a government-owned utility was stymied.

The city is spending millions to fix problems with the 21st Century Waterfront, the redevelopment at Ross's Landing, that was one of former Mayor, now U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's key achievements.

City and county consolidation still needs to be done, Littlefield said, and he hopes there'll be more talk about it in the future.

"We at least raised the question," he said.

PLUSES AND MINUSES

Littlefield has been in government most of his adult life, mostly in planning. He worked with the Tennessee State Planning Office in 1969 and served in several capacities as a planner for Chattanooga and Hamilton County throughout the 1970s. He worked with Chattanooga Venture in the early 1980s and then served as Chattanooga public works commissioner in 1987.

When the new form of mayor-City Council government was formed, he was on the first council. He served two terms and made his mayoral run in 2005.

Littlefield counts as an accomplishment the expiration two years ago of a 40-year-old sales tax agreement with Hamilton County. He said the end of the agreement helped solidify some government functions, like the Public Library. He said the library operates better under the city than as an agency jointly funded with the county.

He said his biggest accomplishments are being on the team that brought in the Volkswagen assembly plant and helping to establish the EPB broadband fiber-optics network. He also noted he established the Gene Roberts Public Service Center -- with a police precinct, employee wellness center and other services -- at the old Farmers' Market on 11th Street.

But his administration had its share of controversy.

His purchase of the Farmers' Market from a friend and campaign donor, convicted felon William Aubrey Thompson, drew cries of cronyism. His plan to turn the polluted site into a complex to provide services to the homeless roused fears of drawing in indigents from other areas. Now most of the site houses government-run facilities.

The property tax increase triggered a recall attempt and two-year court battle.

"The tax increase was the single biggest issue Littlefield and [Chief of Staff Dan] Johnson faced," said Dr. Richard Wilson, professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

But Littlefield kept his office.

More court fights followed the annexation push to bring in developing areas at the city's fringe.

In his final months in office, a ploy to plant a top aide in a new job as City Court clerk blew up in a firestorm of criticism, and he arranged for another longtime aide to move to the personnel director's office to stay on the city payroll.

Jim Folkner, one of the leaders of the recall effort, said in an editorial last week that Littlefield's legacy was one of "resource grab and cronyism."

But Littlefield said he has no regrets about his decisions.

"You play the cards you're dealt," he said.

For instance, he claimed the property tax increase helped keep the city moving forward and growing. In the Great Recession, unlike other cities across the country, Chattanooga didn't lay off any workers, he said.

Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd, who worked with Littlefield for the last four years, said he made the hard, unpopular choices for the greater good.

"We needed to have a property tax increase," she said. "There was no way around it."

The sewer fee hike helped to handle a $210 million consent decree handed down last summer by federal and state authorities to fix the city's sewers, she said.

The property tax went into police coffers to make sure public safety remained a priority and there were no decreases in the force, she said.

But she said he made mistakes. The biggest one was communication.

"Ron is a great communicator when he stands up and speaks," Ladd said. "The problem is he's not proactive about it."

She said Littlefield's habit of explaining issues after proposing them, rather than before, caused problems.

Littlefield said that the immediate future includes some consulting for municipalities and government as a planner. He said he won't do any work within the city. He doesn't want to hinder any of the new administration's plans, he said.

He'll do more work with his church. More volunteer work.

But looking back, he does not regret his administration's decisions.

"I don't apologize for the things we did," he said.

Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at chightower@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6480. Follow him at twitter.com/cliffhightower or facebook.com/cliff.hightower.

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