published Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Chattanooga City Hall enters a new era


by Cliff Hightower
Chattanooga City Hall
Chattanooga City Hall
Photo by Jake Daniels /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Chattanooga Mayor-elect Andy Berke
    Photo by Jay Bailey.
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INAUGURATION DAY

Mayor-elect Andy Berke, along with council members, will be sworn in at 10 a.m. Monday at the Tivoli Theatre. The doors open at 9:15 a.m. The event is free and open to the public.

ANDY BERKE

* Age: 45

* Career: Attorney, former state senator and legislative aid to U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn.

* Education: Graduate of Baylor School, Stanford University and the University of Chicago Law School

* Mayor number: Chattanooga's 65th mayor

* Mayor pay: $146,607 annually

Chattanooga on the move

* Technology: Techie.com last week listed Chattanooga as one of the 10 most unexpected cities for high tech innovation. Chattanooga was cited for having the fastest Internet speeds in the United States, for its financial support of high-tech startups and for its proximity to the Titan supercomputer in Oak Ridge, Tenn. -- the fastest computer in the world.

* Jobs: From the depths of the recession in 2009, metropolitan Chattanooga has added 2,500 net new jobs. Unemployment in Hamilton County was 0.5 percent below the Tennessee rate and 0.4 percent below the U.S. rate in February, the most recent month available.

* Home prices: The median price of homes sold in Chattanooga rose last year by the biggest amount in seven years as the housing market rebounded from the Great Recession. But the typical Chattanooga home still sold last year for 26 percent less than the U.S. average.

* New business: In the past five years, the Chattanooga area has landed $2 billion-plus investments from Volkswagen's car assembly plant and Wacker's polysilicon plant in nearby Charleston and the state's single biggest job addition from Amazon's distribution centers in Hamilton and Bradley counties.

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Association of Realtors, Techie.com, Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development

With a new mayor, a mostly new City Council and with city department heads being replaced, the leadership of Chattanooga's City Hall changes Monday as much as in any time in modern history.

Andy Berke, an attorney and former state senator, takes the city's top job without having outlined detailed plans in his campaign but with many in the community in a more hopeful mood.

"I think there is a real sense of optimism with the economy improving, a growing entrepreneurial spirit in town and new leadership at City Hall," said Rick Hitchcock, an attorney who has worked in various capacities for a half-dozen Chattanooga mayors.

Berke won the mayor's seat by capturing more than 72 percent of the vote in March -- the biggest margin of any mayor since the current City Council form of government was created in 1990. He has pledged to reorganize the leadership of City Hall, keeping just three of the top 21 officers in the administration of outgoing Mayor Ron Littlefield. Seven of the nine City Council members who will join Berke at Monday's swearing-in ceremony also are replacing retiring or defeated incumbents.

Berke says his first goal as mayor will be to start reorganizing Chattanooga government under his vision.

"I plan to push forward quickly our plan of reorienting city government," he said in an interview Friday.

His priorities are economic development, youth development and public safety, he said. But he does not want to share the details of his plans just yet.

City Hall shakeup

Berke has at least a couple dozen positions to fill within city government. But the new mayor hinted last week that could change.

"The structure should be set before positions are filled," he said.

Berke and his 12-person transition team have been examining city government for almost a month. Berke and his team lack the City Hall experience previous mayors such as Ron Littlefield, Gene Roberts or Pat Rose had before taking office.

But within the last two weeks, Berke has already shown differences from previous administrations by creating new positions not seen before at City Hall. Last week, he announced plans to oust 18 top department managers at City Hall who served in the Littlefield administration. Berke has created the positions of chief operating officer, chief policy officer and chief innovation officer -- positions he says are key to his plans.

One job role for the chief innovation officer will be to make sure the city is using gigabit Internet and wireless technologies to their utmost, Berke said. He wants to make sure that those in the private sector and in other cities know of the advantages.

"City government can help lead the way," he said.

ON THE MEND

Berke enters office as Chattanooga's economy continues to rebound from the Great Recession and after the region attracted record new investment in the past five years. Although Chattanooga still has one of the highest crime rates among Tennessee cities, the Scenic City recently has gained favorable global attention for its high-speed Internet, entrepreneurial promotion and record business investments.

Despite such improvements, however, voters in this year's city elections seemed eager for more change, electing challengers over incumbents in all contested city races.

"I think this is really an exciting time, not only for all of the newly elected city officials but also for the citizens," said Jon Kinsey, a Chattanooga developer and former mayor who supported Berke. "People are ready for a change, and they're optimistic about what that holds for the future."

Business and county government leaders say they hope for better communication and cooperation with the new mayor than they often had with Littlefield, who often publicly floated ideas before a public consensus was reached and sometimes even before others were told.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he has already spoken several times with Berke.

"My expectations of the new mayor are very high, and part of that is because I think he and I have a similar approach to management, to talk with one another and keep each other informed," Coppinger said. "In the past, there were many things I learned about [by] reading the newspaper. I look for that management style to change drastically."

Leaders in Chattanooga's nonprofit community, including many foundation officers who backed downtown and other development projects, also said they hope to work better with the new mayor. Berke and his wife, Monique, have been donors and activists on many community projects.

"I think a lot of people are almost giddy about a new administration that is going to bring new ideas to the forefront and make this thing work," said Pete Cooper, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga.

Berke, who served five years in the Tennessee Senate before deciding last year to run for Chattanooga mayor, also brings statewide connections across party lines to his new post. Berke, a Democrat, picked up the support of former Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. He also won praise from Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat.

"There's a lot of excitement right now about Chattanooga, and I know Andy is an incredibly bright, energetic guy who I think will do an outstanding job," Dean said during a visit to Chattanooga last week. "People talk all over the state about how far Chattanooga has come under your current and former mayors, and I think Andy will keep that ball rolling."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfrepress.com or 757-6340.

Contact Cliff Hightower at chighertower@timesfree press.com or 757-6480.

about Dave Flessner...

Dave Flessner is the business editor for the Times Free Press. A journalist for 35 years, Dave has been business editor and projects editor for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, city editor for The Chattanooga Times, business and county reporter for the Chattanooga Times, correspondent for the Lansing State Journal and Ingham County News in Michigan, staff writer for the Hastings Daily Tribune in Nebraska, and news director for WCBN-FM in Michigan. Dave, a native ...

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