A critical vote for mayor

A critical vote for mayor

February 22nd, 2009 in Opinion Times

Chattanoogans preparing to vote for mayor face a hard choice. Incumbent Mayor Ron Littlefield has a lot of pertinent management experience, but his first-term performance has been largely disappointing. His chief challenger, Rob Healy, a former city department director, may well stand for higher principles over the sort of political machinations that taint Mr. Littlefield's record. But he has no comparable experience in the responsibilities of the mayor's office, and the inevitable stumbles along his learning curve could be disheartening.

Yet with the arrival of Volkswagen and a rush of related development in the next four years, the March mayoral election could not be more critical.

Riding the work of others

Mr. Littlefield has had the good fortune the past four years of riding on the crest of the momentum built by the two mayors - Jon Kinsey and Bob Corker - who preceded him. Their vision, direction and partnerships with the state, and their investments in the city's renaissance, infrastructure and community and economic development, all paved the way to the successes and amenities the city has begun to enjoy.

If anything, Mayor Littlefield has undermined more than helped in some key areas where progress had been made, visibly eroding the momentum that had buoyed the city.

For example, he quickly dismantled the Urban Design Center that had provided overall direction for downtown redevelopment, and eliminated the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise's market-rate development initiatives, all in favor of allowing builders (who supported him) freer rein in those areas.

He parceled out minuscule amounts to neighborhood organizations while pouring $16 million into a softball complex in the Apison area. He spent $775,000 on the overpriced, polluted Farmers' Market site without a plan or funds to build the homeless services he touted for the site.

A political bent

Even in organizing repairs of Riverfront facilities, his office's approach alienated private donors and came off as backhanded slap at the achievements of Sen. Corker and RiverCity - the key public-private partnership entity that has long guided the city's renaissance.

Landing Volkswagen - one of Mr. Littlefield's chief boasts - was far more an accomplishment of other leaders' spade work, relentless pursuit and financial planning. In claiming credit for Volkswagen's plans in a campaign brochure, however, he egregiously appropriated Volkswagen's logo without permission. And he notably failed to mention the more prominent leadership of Mr. Kinsey, Sen. Corker, County Mayor Claude Ramsey, Gov. Phil Bredesen and Matt Kisber, Tennessee's commissioner of economic development, in negotiating the Volkswagen deal.

The mayor's political alliance with Dan Johnson, a mayoral opponent in the last election whom he made his chief of staff, shifted focus to audits of prior employees while eliminating the more vital office of performance review. That seemed both vengeful and short-sighted. Mr. Littlefield, in fact, seems to favor political expedience and cronies over competence. Why else would he keep an administrator and fundraiser, Paul Page, after reprimanding him for complaints of sexual harassment; or create a new arts and culture department for Missy Crutchfield?

His desultory management of a library task force, like his homeless plan, has been characterized by vastly more talk than action, and his oversight of the McKamey Animal Center clearly lacked the sort of focus that his predecessors brought to such initiatives. Most reprehensible was the sweetheart development deal he shoveled to his former campaign manager, Dale Mabee, on a prime Walnut Street block of city-owned property.

For all this, Mayor Littlefield does possess the background knowledge of planning, economic development and administrative functions that are so lacking in Mr. Healy's resume.

Mr. Healy's experience gap

Voters could assume that Mr. Healy would hire a staff experienced enough in public works and infrastructure planning, budgeting and administration, economic development and strategic vision, that would help him overcome the challenges he would face. But there's a threshold base of knowledge that he clearly lacks, and an unsettling sense that he would make kneejerk promises and commit to action before he does enough research to affirm the wisdom of his sentiments or direction.

He promises to re-establish curbside recycling, for example, without investigating the poor cost-efficiency of that versus a possibly better system of more community recycling convenience centers and targeted pickups.

He told us the city didn't need "a homeless Hilton" at the Farmers' Market when, in fact, there is no plan - and never was - for anything more than allowing an established night shelter to relocate there. The Community Kitchen, opposite the site, already provides most of the services that might have gone into a one-stop city center - and did so before the mayor bought the site. And there is yet no plan by either of the city's three main night shelters to build there.

Core competencies critical

Even so, his negative tone against an imaginary "homeless Hilton" was disturbing. It suggested little understanding of the unfortunate and often remedial circumstances that fuel the lion's share of the community's homeless problems.

It's all too easy to spout hot-button slogans. It's something else to provide substantive, informed views of the issues and responsibilities the mayor must confront. Unfortunately, Mr. Healy has demonstrated more of the former than the latter. He has not adequately defined himself or his agenda very well.

We find appeal in his "principle over politics" slogan. But we need the reassurance of core competencies in the myriad areas that the city must look to the mayor to provide. That's especially true for the next four years, when regional planning for the rush of development attending Volkswagen's arrival will test the mayor's office as it has rarely been tested. That points to the re-election of Mayor Littlefield.