Alison Gerber: Andy Berke long on words short on answers

Alison Gerber: Andy Berke long on words short on answers

February 17th, 2013 in Opinion Columns

Transparency seems to be one of mayoral candidate Andy Berke's favorite words. In a Times Free Press editorial board last week he certainly used it a lot.

People need to be able to trust their elected officials, right? They need to feel like someone is going to shoot straight about problems and solutions. Right?

But after talking for 30 minutes about his plans for running Chattanooga in the next four years, Berke didn't seem to be that forthcoming. Instead of giving specific answers to questions by editors, he spoke only in what sounded like carefully-rehearsed soundbites.

"We have to build community, share responsibility and create opportunity," Berke repeated.

Huh? What does that mean exactly?

He also spoke a lot about priorities and goals.

"We need to set goals first, and then if we set goals and say, 'Here are our priorities,' then you budget first for your priorities and make sure that you budget based upon outcomes and whether you're actually achieving the outcomes that were set, that your goals indicate you want."

Huh? So what are his goals? What are his priorities?

He was either unwilling - or unable - to explain.

When Berke was speaking, I kept thinking that if I were editing a story written in these broad and vague terms, I'd send it back to the reporter for more reporting. I'd tell the reporter that the reader wouldn't know what the story is about unless it's more specific.

It's the same with voters. They deserve specifics. The job of mayor is important. The mayor decides who holds key jobs such as police chief. He controls a $210 million city budget.

He can create new departments and put money into boosting areas he thinks are important. Mayor Ron Littlefield, for example, created the Department of Education, Arts and Culture and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

Littlefield also started the Gang Task Force and convinced the City Council to spend $75,000 on a gang study.

We aren't just voting on a figurehead.

Things got even murkier when Berke spoke about education. He said while Hamilton County runs the school system, the city must play a role. Great. Here's what he said:

• "We have to be proactive in terms of making sure that we are ensuring that people have a path to opportunity in our city."

• "I'm dedicated to making sure that we start supplying our youth with different opportunities so that those who take advantage of it will see that they can be successful."

• "Make sure our youth have avenues ... which will supplement and help our school system."

• "(Provide) oportunities for kids from zero to 5 ... after school, in the summer, on the weekends. These are opportunities that we have to ensure that we are helping develop the skills that will feed back into the schools and better help our education system."

What kind of opportunity? More reading programs at the library? After-school programs? Some zero-to-5 programs involve sending nurses to homes with infants and young children and offering screenings for 3- and 4-year-olds. Is that what he means?

Whatever his programs, how will he fund them? Will he raise taxes to pay for these programs? If not, what will he cut to cover the cost of the new programs? Will he ask for private contributions?

As a voter, you're left to guess.

Maybe Berke doesn't know what his plan is. Doubt it. He's an intelligent man, educated at top-tier schools: undergraduate degree from Stanford University and a law degree from the University of Chicago. He spent five years in the Tennessee Senate.

Or maybe because Berke's the clear frontrunner by a longshot - he has little competition, has raised lots of money and has the backing of lots of powerful Chattanoogans - he doesn't feel he has to explain his positions with any clarity.

That's insulting.

Berke answered a question about what his weaknesses are by admitting this: "At times, I will be more into the vision than I will be into the exact detail of every minutia."

Perhaps that's why he's vague. But that's not fair to voters. Even if the election is all but decided, voters deserve to know where their city is headed under Berke.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.