Cook: You are city government

Cook: You are city government

December 15th, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

On inauguration day, Andy Berke made a request to the citizens of Chattanooga.

"I want to unleash your power to get things done," Berke said. "You are city government."

It is a bold, democratic message, perhaps the most important statement a politician can make.

It's also one of the most dangerous. It's quite easy to govern when apathetic people do nothing; but when citizens accept the offer before them -- when they hold Berke to the fullest definition of his word -- and attempt to actually wield as much power as possible, then a collision occurs.

Citizenship collides with elected representation. Grassroots democracy collides with the power to govern. Can elected officials make decisions on behalf of others when they are asking to make those very decisions themselves?

This is the crossroads our city faces.

"He has not turned out to be the people's candidate," said Gloria Griffith. "Let him know we feel like he has slapped us in the face."

Griffith is a community leader in the Westside, where she's lived for nearly 40 years. She and her husband -- the Rev. Leroy Griffith -- represent the most active and engaged form of citizen; they believe Westside residents ought to be able to be present and part of any decision-making that involves policy that affects them.

Theirs is a citizenship that says: Don't just represent us. Let us represent ourselves.

"They've called in people to decide what's going to be the plan for us, but they have yet to sit down and actually talk to the people who these things are going to affect," she said.

Griffith's complaint echoes one from the Chattanooga Coalition for Affordable Housing. In November, the coalition sent a letter to City Hall alleging "a lack of transparency in the current city government and an apparent failure to consult with neighborhood groups and community associations prior to making decisions."

Ten days later, Berke responded -- "I am relentlessly committed to civic engagement," he wrote -- and directed them to meet with one of his top staffers.

"No meeting has happened," said Perrin Lance, with the coalition.

Saturday afternoon, I told this to Berke.

"If they want a meeting with City Hall, they get a meeting. Period," he said. "Call Monday."

I told him the Griffiths said they'd repeatedly asked for an audience with him. Berke said he'd asked his chief of staff if there was any community group they'd refused to meet with.

"To his recollection, we haven't said no to anybody," he said.

Earlier this year, City Hall met repeatedly with residents of Lincoln Park, working to secure land from Erlanger for a neighborhood park and listening to concerns about a road proposal. It was a gutsy move by Berke, one fraught with potential political backlash.

"We worked really hard and took a lot of risks to make sure that park was preserved," he said.

Residents don't argue that. They are frustrated over what they hear as near-paternalism from City Hall, a tone that says: We know what's best for you.

"I asked for one thing and they gave me what they wanted me to have," said Vannice Hughley, president of the Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association.

Her association has filed a Title VI complaint against the city, alleging discrimination and an inability for residents to fully participate in the decision-making process. Tiffany Rankins, secretary for the association, said City Hall's promise of open and transparent government is hollow.

"It's a masquerade," she said. "It is a face they're putting on."

What does the best face of government look like? Is it a form of power that is situated in the hands of the engaged and active people, those who wish to make decisions about their own lives? Or do we elect (hopefully) benevolent representatives to do all that for us?

"We try as an administration every day to do the best things we can for the city," Berke said.

But?

"Making hard decisions means people will be disappointed," he said. "That doesn't change the fact you have to make those decisions. ... It doesn't mean somebody was excluded or not listened to."

Eight months ago, Berke asked citizens to stand up and participate. You are city government.

OK, some said. We'll stand. We'll stand up like never before.

Is it possible for City Hall to completely let them? Is City Hall big enough for both visions, for both definitions of democracy?

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.