Your Knoxville City Council was given a difficult task last week. Following Stephanie Welch’s resignation to serve Mayor Kincannon’s administration, council was tasked with selecting her replacement to serve out the remainder of her term, which runs through 2021.
I must take a moment and share how much I will miss Stephanie. She was accessible to her constituents, worked hard for her district and was always a deliberate and thoughtful member of council. One of the best parts of serving on council is meeting and connecting with great people like Stephanie. I am not sure if our paths would have crossed otherwise, but I am glad we had the opportunity to serve together.
Those who step up to serve on council acknowledge that there will be tough calls at nearly every meeting and last Thursday was no exception. Given the weight of the responsibility of selecting a new District 1 council member, I wanted to share my decision-making process.
First, I’d like to mention: As a former Knox County Election Commissioner, I would have preferred to let the people of District 1 select their representative through a traditional election, rather than a council appointment. I believe in our democratic process and continue to encourage community-wide participation in our elections. That being said, let’s clarify the process council had to work with.
The Charter sets forth the rules required for replacing a member of council in Chapter 7.5, Article 2, Section 7.5-87(e), Rule 26: Filling Vacancies. Let’s explore the language: “in the first round of voting, applicants not receiving at least one (1) vote shall be eliminated.” The rule goes on to clarify, “in the second and subsequent rounds of voting, the applicant receiving the fewest number of votes shall be eliminated.” In my opinion, this is relatively straight forward and keep in mind council is required to fill a vacant office within thirty days according to Charter Part I, Article 7, Section 705: Vacancies.
Council attorney Rob Frost, who had reviewed the video of the same process in action nine years ago, was concerned about a scenario where more than one candidate would tie with the fewest number of votes. After a good debate, including council members Parker, Fugate, Singh, Rider, and Testerman, a suggestion was made that, in the unlikely event of a tie with the fewest number of votes, a tie would stand and wouldn’t be broken until after five rounds of the same parties being locked in that same tie. This scenario did not occur so only the plain language as directed by the Charter was required during our vote.
How I Reached My Decision:
For reference, I am only detailing my process, no one else’s. Following Stephanie’s announcement, I thought about the unique position a district representative has on Council and how best to identify the right qualities in a candidate. Early on, I felt the best way to identify and evaluate these qualities was to attend as many South Knoxville neighborhood meetings as I could. Of the fourteen neighborhoods listed in the First District with the Office of Neighborhoods, I attended seven meetings leading up to our February 20th meeting. These meetings included: Colonial Village, Island Home, Old Sevier Community, South Haven, South Woodlawn, Southside Waterfront, and the Vestal Community. I learned a lot from those meetings regarding the unique challenges and opportunities in the First District, making a point to stick around after the meeting concluded to allow neighbors to share their thoughts. In the neighborhoods I visited, only Tommy Smith and Janice Tocher attended as well. I can’t tell you who did or did not attend any other meetings where I wasn’t present.
After visiting with those neighborhoods, one thing became very clear: People want an accessible neighborhood advocate to represent them.
Repeatedly, I heard neighbors echoing this same sentiment. You must be accessible and to do that, you have to show-up at community events and engage with those who you wish to serve. One gentleman I sat next to at the Old Sevier Community Group leaned over to me and said, “I like the way you stand up for your neighborhoods.” Balancing the needs of neighborhoods and the city as a whole is our job as council members.
Most of the citizens I spoke to in South Knoxville expressed support for Tommy Smith. I also received numerous emails and letters expressing support for a candidate, but I received the most messages on behalf of Janice Tocher and Tommy Smith. I met with each candidate that asked for a meeting and had great visits with Anne Wallace, Janice Tocher, Rebecca Parr, David Hayes, Ben Ream, and Tommy Smith. I appreciate the opportunity to meet each candidate and get to know them better. Next, I carefully reviewed their applications and entered the special called meeting with an open mind, needing to hear from each candidate in order to make my decision.
Ultimately, I chose Tommy Smith for the reasons I detailed above and because I felt like he demonstrated before and during the special called meeting that he will be an accessible neighborhood advocate for the First District. I also really enjoyed hearing from all the candidates and several times thought how wonderful it is that the First District provided so many good candidates to choose from.
Moving Forward Together:
It’s not often that council is called on to replace one of its own, but I am proud of all our members for their hard work and diligence during this process. It is my absolute privilege to serve on the most diverse council ever, comprised of two thirds female members and one third people of color. What a wonderful moment for our city! Now that we are back to nine members of council, I look forward to getting back to work with this exceptional group of community leaders.