published Sunday, April 20th, 2014

Laser focus on image, agenda marks Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's first year in office

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has just completed his first year in office.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke has just completed his first year in office.
Photo by Staff File Photo.

STATE OF THE CITY

• Who: Mayor Andy Berke

• What: State of the City address

• When: 5:30 p.m. Monday

Poll
Did Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke do a good job in his first year?

Journalists chattered, tripods clicked into place and viewfinders snapped open as camera crews crowded the atrium of one of Chattanooga's inner-city recreation centers.

The mayor was coming.

Staff at the Westside recreation center had worked over the weekend to pull up the old floor and lay new tiles to support a special podium.

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke was going to announce a citywide book drive, and this aging community center was ground zero. This was a moment for the people, a chance for the voting public to catch a glimpse of Chattanooga's new chief executive in the flesh.

Silence fell and the cameras turned on as Berke surged through the front door. A handful of City Hall aides trailed the mayor to a computer room where an empty chair awaited him next to a group of students. The mayor approached a little boy as Berke's staffers snapped photos that would appear on his official Facebook page before the end of the day. This mayor understands the power of social media.

"How are you doing? I'm Andy."

These are the scenes the mayor's office wants the public to see: Berke donating a copy of "The Velveteen Rabbit" to inner-city kids. Berke eating burgers at an East Brainerd burger joint. Berke standing behind a heavy wooden lectern on a sidewalk in East Chattanooga to announce that the city finally owned the former Harriet Tubman public housing site.

Berke and his staff are fixed on two things: his public image and his agenda. At all times, the public sees a disciplined, controlled leader with a laserlike focus on the issues he campaigned on. There are no gaffes here, at least not when the cameras are rolling.

After one year in office, Berke's fixation on form not only defines his public persona, but permeates the day-to-day operation of City Hall. Depending on who you ask, it's one of his biggest strengths or his biggest blind spot.

For the mayor's supporters, Berke's unwavering focus has paved the way for his accomplishments.

In his first year, he reformed the police and fire pension fund, saving millions in taxpayer dollars. Plowing through some community resistance, he bought the former Harriet Tubman site in an ambitious move to spark job growth. He transformed recreation centers into reading hubs and introduced a brand-new crime-fighting initiative that Berke promises will reduce shootings and gang violence.

"He's a visionary," said Everlena Holmes, who coordinates Glenwood block leaders. "He is trying to implement a new way of doing things -- a risk taker."

But to his critics, Berke's unwavering adherence to strict talking points and lectern rhetoric over expansive answers looks more like nonstop campaigning for a future goal and leave some -- including some members of the City Council and a handful of neighborhood groups -- feeling marginalized.

  • photo
    Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke speaks at the Small Business Expo at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Chattanooga in March. The mayor has just finished his first year in office.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Though Berke won the mayor's office in a landslide, some of the voters who helped him get there are suffering buyer's remorse.

"I was excited and glad he won. I was glad he ran," said John Lewis, a former Avondale Neighborhood Association president. "That's everybody, though; when they get in and are in charge they do what they want to do. Until election time again."

Others who have worked with Berke and his staff say he's made a concerted effort to work with groups that had never before been asked their opinions. That includes the listening sessions he hosted for the public on crime, youth and education after he was elected, and recently having roundtable meetings with the 100-plus neighborhood associations.

Berke, 46, said his favorite part of being mayor is setting the agenda for the city.

He largely brushes off criticism.

He prefers to focus on the facts, not opinion. And he won't rate his first year in office.

"That's for other people to do," he said.

Many Berke-watchers, from public figures and council members to neighborhood leaders, speculate that Berke is headed for bigger things. They question his motivations and wonder whether his policies will last beyond his first term, if his agenda here is just a stepping stone to higher office.

Berke won't bite. He's focused on being the mayor of Chattanooga for the next three years.

That's how, he says, he's gotten this far.


A Chattanooga native and third-generation attorney who worked in the family firm, Berke was elected in 2007 to fill out the term of long-time Democratic state Sen. Ward Crutchfield, who resigned in the middle of a bribery scandal. Berke was elected to a full four-year term in 2008.

After just 18 months in office, Berke briefly explored a bid for governor but decided against it.

In Nashville, those who worked with Berke said he was bright, calculating and he had an ability to cross party lines.

"Andy is a talented advocate," said Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, who wrote several successful bills with Berke.

Republicans in charge of redistricting in 2011 turned his District 10 seat -- a Democratic stronghold for four decades -- into a Republican-leaning area. Berke denied that the changed district figured into his decision to announce in May 2012 that he would run for mayor of Chattanooga.

A war chest of close to $700,000 had the effect of discouraging any other serious contenders. The only viable candidate who entered the race dropped out a month later.

Meanwhile, Berke's support grew. People were excited about the prospects: A common-sense mayor. Stanford educated. Someone who could bring people together, get things done. His campaign focused on crime, youth development and jobs. But he rarely gave details of his agenda.

On election day 2013, Berke took 72 percent of the vote over two candidates with no political clout and little cash. Voter turnout was 16 percent.

He made it clear from the start he intended to shake things up in City Hall.


On April 10, five days before he took office, mayor-elect Berke swept through City Hall, letting go 18 of 21 department heads and senior officials who worked under former Mayor Ron Littlefield. He replaced them with younger blood, many of whom had no political experience but came from business backgrounds.

He then announced more businesslike strategies for city government, including a new outcome-based budgeting process, meaning departments only get money if they can show results. The first budget he unveiled to the City Council included money for a federal prosecutor and 40 more police officers.

Two months later, Berke took the council by surprise when he asked for $100,000 to hire a consultant to implement the next year's budget. Council members said they hadn't been told implementing the budget would require an outside group. Berke's staffers said it was part of the plan all along.

Some community members said that initiative took guts. He's seen as an innovator, said Bea Lurie, who heads Girls Inc., a local nonprofit.

Supporters also point to the way he tackled a fire and police pension system that was unsustainable over the long run, with its $150 million in unfunded liability and a city contribution that rose by the year. His task force found a solution that satisfied unions, the regulatory board and city officials, though a pending lawsuit by some retirees could challenge that progress.

"He should get a lot of credit for taking that on," said Jon Kinsey, former Chattanooga mayor and local businessman.

Yet some events defy control, making it harder for the mayor and his staff to manage the message.

In Lincoln Park, neighborhood leaders found out that a long-planned major road project was slated to cut through their historic park. In June 2013, they met with a member of Berke's staff. Two months later, Berke held a park dedication and promised the city would give the park back to the community.

But neighborhood association leaders said their questions about the park's boundaries and when the community would own it were met with a dismissive reassurance by Berke's staff: "Trust us."

Tiffany Rankins, neighborhood association secretary, said Berke's staff told her: "When we speak, just say how wonderful the mayor is and we appreciate what the mayor is doing. Don't talk to the news media."

Berke's staff said they worked tirelessly with the community to acquire the land and have held several planning meetings.

Others also report difficulty dealing with the mayor's office.

County school officials, who are suing the city over more than $11.7 million in past-due liquor taxes, say it's hard to get solid answers from the Berke administration.

During months of back-and-forth over the mounting debt, Superintendent Rick Smith has said he pressed to meet one-on-one with Berke but repeatedly was routed to the mayor's staff. It took the school board voting to file a lawsuit to get a one-on-one meeting with the mayor, he said. After that, the administration formed a group to work on the problem.

Originally, Berke's team offered the school system a lump of cash and the former Poss Homes site -- long eyed to replace the dilapidated Howard School stadium and field.

Berke's team called it a win-win, but school officials rejected the offer, saying it didn't come close to covering the debt. Community leaders said Poss Homes shouldn't have been part of the deal.

"I felt like he was trying to hijack that project and it was not fair to the Howard community," said state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, who holds Berke's former seat, and who had worked with the Hamilton County Commission to get the land for the school system.


Controlled as public access is, it's even tighter in private.

Berke isn't the kind of mayor you can just call up. You can't get to the third-floor lobby of City Hall, where the mayor's office is located, without prior clearance. Berke's staff said that is standard procedure to keep everyone's schedule organized.

The Rev. Leroy Griffith, a Westside activist, tried to deliver a petition to the mayor's office last year. He couldn't get to Berke's handlers, not even to the receptionist outside Berke's suite.

"I understand the President of the United States has to be secure," Griffith said. "But I grew up able to call the mayor of the next town."

Berke's staff said the mayor and his assistant were unavailable when Griffith dropped by.

Berke said anyone who calls to make an appointment gets a meeting. Period.

The mayor does venture into the community often, usually for official events and speaking engagements.

Berke said he averages three speeches every weekday. Many times, he delivers brief remarks, skips the meal or refreshments and walks out to a waiting city-owned Volkswagen Passat. Often, a staffer chauffeurs him.

Every month since July his staff has orchestrated "Burgers with Berke," where he visits a neighborhood and mingles with people invited to a local hamburger joint.

This month's meeting was in District 3. The Lakeshore Grille in Hixson opened for lunch and added burgers to the menu to fit the theme.

Some who attended, like Friends of Hixson President David Queen, said he thinks the exposure helps Berke hear community concerns.

And the mayor has a strong social media presence. He'll often Tweet upcoming events, city accomplishments and photos of him with various community members.

His staff helps handle his public Facebook page, though he goes online and wishes followers happy birthday. He says that has become a nightly ritual for him.

"I think it's nice," he said.

  • photo
    Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke reads a Dr. Seuss book to kids Saturday at the Washington Hills Youth and Family Development Center in Chattanooga. Books were given out as part of "National Drop Everything and Read Day" to help boost literacy in young people across the city.
    Photo by Erin O. Smith.
    enlarge photo

But in the real world, some say, questions or criticism directed to the mayor often stop with his staff, a small, fiercely loyal group of insiders who control the release of information.

"That control of information is his Achilles' heel," said a city employee, who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation. The employee said that obsession with control gives the impression Berke is hiding something and hurts the public's trust.

Interviews with city staff are closely monitored. Most members of the City Council and media aren't permitted to see department heads without a handler present. Berke said he meets one-on-one with the council to discuss business.

Even during taxpayer-funded events, the administration controls what message gets out. At a recent call-in for Berke's new crime initiative, his staff and police asked reporters to leave the private property where it was held. The mayor later publicly criticized the Chattanooga Times Free Press for trying to cover the event at all.

Most visitors don't see Berke's office -- he said he likes it that way. Conference rooms are for meetings. When Berke was in the legislature, the governor rarely let anyone into his inner office, he said. That's how he operates, too.

Berke says he's not locked away, just busy making Chattanooga better and selling the city.

"Isn't that what you want?" he asked. "Shouldn't I be relentlessly pursuing what I think Chattanooga needs? And so I will get criticized for that all day and I will say 'fine.'"

And some constituents say the mayor is indeed accessible, willing to talk with anyone.

Lurie, who is close friends with the Berkes, said she often sees him mingle in crowds and that when people talk to him he's engaged and warm. Yet she said he is shy and sometimes that is mistaken for aloofness.

At the Waffle House off Dayton Boulevard, waitress Jackie Ragsdale said she waits on Berke regularly, though he's not in as much these days as in the past.

When he sits down to order his usual -- waffles and hash browns scattered -- servers pepper him with questions: "What will you do about taxes?"

He answers all of them, she said.

"I like him," she whispered as she rang up a check on the cash register.


Berke took office with seven freshman City Council members, and it's been a year of learning for everyone.

In his first year, Berke got everything he asked for from the council: a reorganized City Hall, his budget, the Tubman purchase, fire and police pension reform and the violence reduction initiative.

Council members have been more assertive in the last few months, though. They want to propose legislation, too, and even wrote the first City Council mission statement -- a pledge to focus on crime and promote small businesses.

Most of the time that vision and the mayor's are in unison. Yet those times of disagreement can cause pushback from the mayor's office.

City Councilman Larry Grohn -- a tea party member -- says that when he has publicly criticized Berke he is cut off from information. After questioning the administration's transparency last fall, he said, he was "called into the principal's office" and told to behave.

"The problem I have with the Berke administration is [that it is] ruling out of intimidation and fear," Grohn said. "You can get things done that way, but you won't make any friends."

Berke said the meeting with Grohn was appropriate because Grohn had made false statements about Berke's wife.

Other council members say Berke has been inclusive.

"He's been well organized and disciplined and has required the same of his staff," said Councilman Moses Freeman. "That openness extends to the administrators and others in the department who are accessible."

But former Council Chairman Yusuf Hakeem has been critical of what he said is often tight control of information and late requests to pass ordinances, which he said sometimes makes it difficult to make informed decisions.

In January, Hakeem wrote a letter to the administration to say that some council members perceive "a concerted effort by the mayor's staff at not being transparent with the council."

"You want me to trust you, but at the same time you can't trust me by giving the information I need to make an informed decision," Hakeem wrote.

Berke said he and his staff work hard to keep the council informed. They've appointed a liaison who coordinates directly with officials to get their constituent concerns heard swiftly and answer their questions.

"We try to meet their needs knowing that sometimes they will want more than we have the ability to give them," the mayor said.


So far most of Berke's work has laid the groundwork for his initiatives.

Community members are excited at the prospect of finally reducing gang violence. Organizations that used to work in isolation now are in harmony, said Richard Bennett, with A Better Tomorrow, which serves as the primary point of contact for individuals who are part of the initiative.

"There is a focused effort to bring people with a particular talent to the table to do the work," Bennett said. "I've never seen that before."

And so far four of the gang members that the city has targeted have found jobs.

Yet Bennett, who has worked in the community for 15 years, will be the first to tell you the results will take time. Some say Berke's second year in office will define him.

Among his tasks this year, a key one is to pick a new police chief. Then there's work on developing jobs on the Tubman site. And he wants to make a dent in the city's crime rate.

Those results will be the real measure, said former state Rep. Tommie Brown.

"Right now the honeymoon is still on. I hope he basks in it," she said. "Because it could turn."

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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