April 25, 2013

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Andy Berke Throws Down

By Janis Hashe

Talk about your clean slate.

New Mayor Andy Berke is making good on promises to “re-orient” city government, first announcing several new positions (chief innovation officer, chief operating officer, chief policy officer), then accepting the retirements and resignations of 18 of 21 department heads, then announcing the elimination of the departments of Parks & Recreation, Human Services and Arts, Education & Culture, while creating new departments of Economic & Community Development, Youth & Family Development and Transportation.

After dismantling one of his predecessor’s high-profile projects, the Gang Task Force, Mayor Berke named a “public safety coordinator” with duties to be fully outlined as the administration settles in.

We’ll say this for Mayor Berke: It’s not business as usual at City Hall. The large group of volunteers and supporters he accumulated during his exceptionally long campaign for mayor is still being mobilized, used in the two recent public forums on public safety and youth and education. If you ever contributed a dime or signed up for anything during that campaign, you can still count on getting emails and phone calls from these enthusiastic folks.

Some political insiders predict (and have predicted all along) that Berke will use the mayor’s office as a stepping-stone to higher office, even before his term is up. And mayors of big cities in Tennessee have a pretty good track record of moving on to those higher offices—see our current governor and one of our U.S. senators. It’s certainly true that the campaign war chest he accumulated —more than $670,000 according to published reports—is far more than was needed to win a campaign against two weak opponents.

But we’re placing our bets on Berke sticking with Chattanooga—at least for a term—and making his mark on the city in the tradition of some previous mayors.

We applaud his willingness to acknowledge that, in many neighborhoods, public safety is the primary issue for residents, and that it’s directly linked to both poverty and education. The second of his two forums featured an open discussion of education, with the sense that the city has a role to play in a system controlled by the state and county.

His success or failure in achieving his goals is tied to a city council that now includes seven new members: Chris Anderson, Moses Freeman, Larry Grohn, Yusuf Hakeem, Chip Henderson, Jerry Mitchell and Ken Smith. The coalitions and antagonisms that inevitably will form among them, along with returning council members Carol Berz and Russell Gilbert, will have to be skillfully navigated by the mayor and his staff.

Berke, however, comes to the mayor’s office having survived the snake pit that is the Tennessee General Assembly, so his odds of getting a majority of city councilpeople on board with his agenda stand pretty high.

Criticized harshly (and with reason) during the campaign for not being specific enough about that agenda, he’s now got to show us his cards. Something else that came through loud and clear during the forums is that Chattanoogans don’t want more rhetoric, more empty back-patting and more reinventing the wheel. They want action to put more people back to work (and give them a safe, reliable means to get to the jobs that are out there), to give kids something constructive to do after school, to reinvigorate neighborhoods that have been neglected for far too long.

And, Your Honor, if we may put in our two cents: It may have been a wise and necessary choice to do away with the much-maligned Department of Arts, Education & Culture. Yet despite the ill informed and at this point, deeply boring outbursts against “Blue Rhinoism,” Chattanooga’s continued progress as a city rests at least partly on its growing reputation as an arts mecca and a place where creatives of all ilk can flourish. Please don’t throw the arts baby out with the bathwater.  Arts and culture deserve the city’s support—and will pay it back in spades. 

April 25, 2013

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