New day at City Hall lends hope to future

New day at City Hall lends hope to future

April 18th, 2013 in Opinion Times

Chattanooga City Hall

Chattanooga City Hall

Photo by Meghan Brown

Chattanoogans looking for elucidation on how the new city government will work got few details from the installation of a new mayor and city council this week. Inaugural events, however, did provide a platform for Mayor Andy Berke to elaborate on a few of his goals, and for the new City Council's election Tuesday of Yusuf Hakeem as its first chairman. Given the mayor's goals, there's a welcome symmetry in the council's action.

Mayor Berke's address didn't go much beyond his campaign outlines on economic development and entrepreneurship, but he gave important insight in two critical areas of his public safety/anti-crime agenda. He specifically emphasized youth development and intervention programs as a critical prong of his anti-gang, anti-crime platform.

Berke noted, for example, that in a city with 35,000 children, four out of 10 are living in poverty when they enter kindergarten. And as they grow up, they spend more time away from school and than they do in classrooms.

Though he offered no details, he emphasized the need to provide significant intervention in youth development from kindergarten ages through high school. As for crime, and the city's more visible and violent gang crime and related shootings, he broadly outlined crucial points of focus involving more police on the streets, stricter prosecution and effective punishment. By adding focus on another "p" -- prevention -- he correctly committed his administration to help find ways to provide youth a path out of gangland through strengthened out-of-school initiatives, community engagement and job-development programs.

Hakeem is an African-American with deep roots in urban neighborhoods here and a former city councilman who has returned to city politics since he finished a long stint on the state's parole board. He is now positioned to play a strong role on the council in support of Berke's youth development initiative. By naming Hakeem as chairman, the other six new council members and the two veteran incumbents indicated that they also are ready to coalesce around that initiative.

It is urgent that they do so. As it is, the city's most impoverished, and mostly black, urban neighborhoods suffer badly from gang crime and shootings, and an environment that frightens and intimidates helpless, innocent residents. Many residents are afraid to sit on their porch, or to raise their voices against the corner drug-dealers and the kids they influence. Their neighborhoods will not prosper until that dynamic changes, and residents find enough support from the city to engage in neighborhood programs that will uplift their circumstances.

It remains to be seen what sort of programs Mayor Berke and the City Council will introduce, but it's clear Berke is looking around the country for successful programs as models. He cited the High Point (North Carolina) initiative that involved neighborhoods, police and courts working together, and a Maryland program that successfully targeted domestic violence.

Beyond agreement on the need to help improve public safety, it's not clear how or whether new council members will collaborate well. New members reportedly met after the election to get acquainted and exchange some views. At least three -- Chip Henderson (District 1), Ken Smith (Dist. 3) and Larry Grohn (Dist. 4) identify themselves as conservatives; Grohn is a local tea party officer. Hakeem (Dist. 9), Moses Freeman (Dist. 8), Chris Anderson (Dist. 7), Carol Berz (Dist. 6), Russell Gilbert (Dist. 5), and Jerry Mitchell (Dist. 2) are widely seen as more moderate or progressive.

They all seem ready, as does Berke, to provide more transparency and accountability in city government, and to invite more civic engagement. To advance that goal, they would do well to put all their resolutions, bid announcements, contracts and taped committee meetings online, and to provide streaming video of all council meetings, including the all-important committee meetings in which decisions are informally reached.

Council members and Mayor Berke should consider, as well, ending the traditional division of governance that has the council conducting its meetings without the mayor in the room. If the mayor and council members want full collaboration and transparency, they will take these steps.