National political divide seeps into small city government of Red Bank

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Pete Phillips, Ruth Jeno, Hollie Berry, Stefanie Dalton and Ed LeCompte gather for a meeting on Tuesday, October 18, 2022.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Pete Phillips, Ruth Jeno, Hollie Berry, Stefanie Dalton and Ed LeCompte gather for a meeting on Tuesday, October 18, 2022.


The national political divide is increasingly affecting small towns, which is apparent locally in the city of Red Bank.

The Hamilton County Republican Party is endorsing candidates in the upcoming election for the nonpartisan City Commission in an effort to "take back Red Bank" from commissioners who were elected to the panel in 2020.

"We need to help Jamie get elected and send the woke Dems packing!! Let's take back Red Bank!!" reads the caption of a photo posted Aug. 27 on the Hamilton County Republican Party's Facebook page, which shows City Commission candidate Jamie Fairbanks-Harvey's relative speaking at an event.

 

Three City Commission seats are up for grabs in the Nov. 8 election, and six candidates are running to fill them.

The three candidates endorsed by the Republican Party -- Fairbanks-Harvey, Dari Owens and Jeff Price -- on Sept. 1 held a joint meet-and-greet event at which Hamilton County Republican Party Secretary Mark Harrison solicited donations.

Fairbanks-Harvey, Owens and Price also shared space with Republican Gov. Bill Lee on a flyer mailed last week. The flyer encouraged people to vote for the four candidates and was paid for by Republican state Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and BoWPAC, the leadership political action committee of state Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.

"We believe in low taxes and sound judgment, and while these are nonpartisan races, I believe that it is our job to put the best fiscal conservatives that we can in office, so that's what we're trying to do," Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Arch Trimble IV said by phone last month.

Price said he can't control who endorses him, and he hasn't solicited any endorsements.

"If they support you, is that a bad thing?" Price said. "I would equally want support from anybody."

None of the current commissioners or candidates identify as Democrats, but most recognize that a political divide exists in the city.

The courtroom where the City Commission meets is divided into two sections with an aisle in the center.

At a recent meeting, one side was filled mostly with residents who have moved to the city in the past decade, including two candidates -- Lawrence Miller and Hayes Wilkinson -- who are running for the commission in November.

On the other side of the aisle, the three candidates endorsed by the Republican Party sat with their supporters, most of whom are longtime residents of the city who tend to be older than the newcomers.

The newcomers

Hollie Berry won a commission seat in a 2020 special election in which her opponent was Tyler Howell, who was appointed to the seat after the unexpected death of former Vice Mayor Terry Pope in 2018. Before Berry threw her hat in the ring, Howell was unopposed.

When Berry took office, commissioners voted to name her the city's mayor. Commissioners voted Stefanie Dalton, who was elected to a seat in 2020, the city's vice mayor.

Commissioner Pete Phillips also joined the panel in 2020. He could not be reached for comment.

Berry and her husband bought their house in Red Bank in 2015, and Dalton moved to the city in 2010.

"I love my city, and I saw the potential that it had and a lot of ways that we could grow and improve and build on the great features that we already have," Berry said by phone, when discussing why she wanted to run for office in Red Bank. "A friend of mine appealed to my sense of civic duty and democracy because she, like me, didn't think that having an uncontested appointee automatically win a race was the most democratic option for our city."

Since Berry filled Pope's seat through a special election, her term ends when Pope's term would have ended in November. Commissioners serve four-year terms, so Dalton's and Phillips' terms will end in 2024.

"I didn't just move here in the past year or two and just jump in and take the city away from whatever it used to be," Dalton said in a phone interview, adding that over the past three to five years the demographics of the city have changed as young professionals and families who were priced out of North Chattanooga instead chose to buy homes in Red Bank, where home prices and property taxes are lower.

The increased flexibility gained through the shift to remote work during the pandemic also has drawn people from out of state to the city, Dalton said.

"We talked with a ... not-insignificant number of neighbors who have lived in Red Bank for a long time -- for decades -- who were not happy with the direction that the city was moving in," Dalton said. "To be quite honest, it wasn't really moving up through a couple of years ago. It was pretty stagnant."

She heard from some longtime residents who felt disenfranchised from the local government because of how it had been operated, both administratively and by elected officials, Dalton said.

Many people voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 because they saw him as a candidate who was outside the establishment, and that was the same kind of feedback Dalton received from Red Bank residents about the kind of candidate they wanted to govern the city, she said.

Dalton describes her leadership style, and Berry's, as proactive rather than progressive.

In the past, the city under-invested in its employees, who all served multiple roles, she said.

"Basically, all they were able to do was keep up with the bare minimal operations of day-to-day service," Dalton said of city staff members, who she said were left without the time to proactively work on economic development and build relationships with commercial property and business owners or to recruit the types of businesses desired by community members.

This year, the city included six new full-time positions in its budget.

"Getting new people involved, getting new ideas, hearing from different perspectives, I think has really helped us grow a lot in the past couple of years, especially with having a new city manager alongside new elected leaders," Dalton said.

Contrary to the common belief that Berry and Dalton were friends who decided to run for office together, the two actually met while turning in their qualifying paperwork at the Hamilton County Election Commission office, Berry said.

As they stood in the parking lot outside talking for 45 minutes, they realized they were on the same page in many of their priorities, such as making the city more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists and increasing access to parks and the Chattanooga Public Library.

"The more we got to know each other, the more we figured, 'You know, if anybody likes what one of us says, they're going to like what both of us say. We might as well team up and let people know about each other,'" Berry said. "I've heard running together typically doesn't work out very well, but in our case, we were the exception to the rule, I guess."

Berry and Dalton's campaigning consisted entirely of knocking on doors – more than 2,000 – without any events or fundraising, Berry said.

After all those face-to-face interactions, she felt confident that many people in the city were ready for change, including more innovation, more forward thinking and more services.

Among the services people wanted were sidewalks all the way down both sides of Dayton Boulevard, she said.

People also expressed a desire for more small, locally owned businesses, particularly sit-down restaurants.

"Government can't order a private business to open up in our city limits, but we can make things more appealing," Berry said, giving the recent loosening of restrictions in the city's alcohol laws as an example of how the city is becoming more appealing to businesses such as Clever Alehouse, which opened soon after the laws were changed.

The divide

Berry said she's aware there is a political divide among Red Bank citizens but stresses there doesn't need to be. Ninety percent of residents agree on 90% of the things they want for the city 90% of the time, she said.

"We love our city, we all want to see it thrive, we all value safety and community and family and we want to make a city where we can maintain that culture of neighborliness that has made Red Bank such a wonderful place to live for all these years, long before I found out about it and got to join and become a part of this community myself," Berry said. "But, of course, there are always going to be things we disagree on, like any city."

Price said he thinks 80% of Red Bank residents want the same things, regardless of whether their political beliefs lean left or right.

"There's always extremes in any community; they get most of the attention, but I think it's just a small minority," Price said.

Red Bank's five city commissioners have no control over divisive national issues such as abortion or gun control.

The job of the City Commission consists mainly of setting a budget that funds city services such as fire, police, garbage service and road paving.

Most disagreements among the current commissioners have focused on the city's budget, but commissioners also sparred over issues such as whether prayers should begin each commission meeting and updates to alcohol restrictions such as lessening the required distance between businesses serving alcohol and churches and schools.

Longtime Commissioner Ruth Jeno voted against passing this year's budget due to the $800,000 deficit, she said at the time.

The city has nine months worth of operating expenses in its reserve, Berry said, adding that is above the six-months' worth recommended by the state comptroller.

"We do not tax people in order to hang on to their money and not use it," Berry said. "The purposes of taxes are to turn them around and return them to residents in the form of services."

The city is unable to get a high interest rate on the excess funds in its reserve, she said.

"A lot of the discourse around fiscal irresponsibility is focused around the fact that we budgeted with a deficit this year, which is true," Berry said. "We intentionally budgeted with a deficit with a goal of drawing down that excess reserve balance to get closer to the state-recommended level."

Looking toward the future

"We've got six quality candidates," Jeno said by phone of the candidates running in the Nov. 8 election. "They've got different ideas. The difference between the candidates is some of them just lived here just a few years and some of them are lifelong residents. That's the divide."

Lawrence Miller is running against Fairbanks-Harvey for the seat being vacated by Edward LeCompte.

"A lot of people are opting to move to Red Bank, both young and older folks, too," Miller said by phone.

He and his wife lived in Hixson for 26 years before they decided to downsize and move to Red Bank.

Both newcomers and longtime residents want to see Red Bank develop, Miller said.

"I think the city has kind of held itself back in some ways," Miller said, giving as an example deferred maintenance of infrastructure that led to a moratorium on new sewer hookups in a section of the city.

People Miller has talked with during his campaign want to see more new businesses like the Mustard Seed, Mango, Bud Floral and Home and Clever Alehouse, which has become a true community gathering spot, he said.

Another thing all the commission candidates agree on is that the 12-acre former middle school property is one of the city's biggest, most talked-about issues. Not everyone wants all 12 acres to be a park, but each of the candidates wants at least a portion of it to be a public space.

"We can make things better in a lot of ways, but I think overall, there's always been a pretty good sense of community here, and I respect the legacy of the people that have been here for decades, but I think people that have chosen to live here, like my wife and I, I think we're going to want to move in a direction that isn't necessarily contrary to what the other people do," Miller said. "I think perhaps just sort of the approach of government is going to be a little more positive. I think people expect the city government to do more."

Commission candidates Wilkinson and Owens both said they wouldn't use "progressive" and "conservative" to describe the two sides of the divide.

"It's so much more nuanced," Owens said by phone.

If elected, she wants to steer the city in a "better" direction rather than a new direction, she said, adding that she would focus on recruiting new and healthy businesses.

"I am a firm believer in limited government and keeping taxes low, growing the city wisely and not growing the government's power," Owens said of her political leanings.

Wilkinson sees the divide as being between people who don't feel a need for change because they think the way things have always been done in Red Bank is working, and the people who don't want to settle with the way things have always been done.

"There's always room for compromise, and I hope to approach public service with an open mind, and I want to make the right decisions for the city as a whole," Wilkinson said by phone. "I think everybody on the commission and everybody who's running for the commission this year has Red Bank's best interests at heart, and I think it's just maybe a difference in values and how you want to approach certain things."

Serving as a commissioner means representing the people and what they want, Fairbanks-Harvey said.

"It's not 'This is what I think, this is what we're doing' kind of mentality," she said.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.


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