Andy Berke had better start talking — and fast.
The presumed Chattanooga mayor-to-be has been anything but forthcoming about the fact that his father and uncle own a crime-riddled apartment complex. Not only that, but Berke has failed to disclose the fact that several trash-strewn vacant lots owned by his family could become gold mines if city government redevelopment efforts take place.
In a recent interview with the Times Free Press editorial pages, Chester Heathington, a conservative mayoral hopeful, expressed frustration that Berke's family owns the Woodlawn Apartment Complex -- one of the most drug-, gang- and crime-infested apartment complexes in Chattanooga -- and apparently did little to clean up the complex's problems.
An investigation by the Times Free Press found that Heathington's concerns were well-founded.
Property and tax records indicate that the Woodlawn Apartment complex is owned by a company comprising Berke's father, Marvin, and uncle, Ronald. Because of the nature of the way in which the company handles the property, it is impossible to determine whether the mayoral hopeful, himself, has any stake in the complex. He says that he doesn't.
In response to Heathington's assertion that Berke and his family were fostering crime in East Chattanooga by failing to improve Woodlawn, Berke's campaign issued a statement saying, "As one can see from examining property records, Andy Berke has no ownership in the Woodlawn Apartment Complex, either through a partnership or personally. He has no decision-making or management authority and has no personal connection to the property."
No personal connection to the property?
Even if Berke doesn't currently have a stake in the property, it can be reasonably assumed that he could assume ownership of a portion of the apartment complex when his father dies. That certainly seems like one heck of a personal connection.
Berke is tied to Woodlawn in another way, as well. Chip Griffin, the president of Lookout Property Management, has contributed to Berke's political efforts. It turns out that Lookout Property is the management firm that handles Woodlawn and other apartment complexes associated with Berke's family, according to county tax documents.
Since Berke failed to work with his own family to make their apartment complex a safe place for its residents, voters are right to wonder how committed he will be as mayor to addressing crime.
Besides public safety, another plank in Berke's very vague and poorly defined policy platform is transparency.
By failing to disclose his family's ownership of the Woodlawn Apartment Complex, he called his commitment to transparency into question. By failing to disclose his family's financial interest in properties that stand to benefit from his administration's possible community redevelopment efforts, Berke proved that he believes transparency is great for other people, but not for him.
Berke's father owns more than a dozen properties, including a number of near-worthless vacant lots in neglected areas of town. Two are grubby vacant properties in the Glass Street area -- an area poised to be at the center of taxpayer-funded revitalization efforts under the next mayor. As a result, those properties could skyrocket in value. In other words, if Berke cleans up Glass Street, his father could make hundreds of thousands of dollars. That's a fact that Berke should've disclosed when he decided to run for office. Instead, the Times Free Press uncovered the potential conflicts of interest just days before the election.
If Berke is unwilling to be forthright about his family's property holdings, what will he hide from the public as mayor?
If he won't encourage his own family to address crime, gangs and drugs in apartment complexes they own, or help his father clean up the garbage piling up on his vacant lots, how committed is Berke to improving crime in Chattanooga and cleaning up our city?
Berke owes Chattanoogans some answers. Otherwise he doesn't deserve our votes.