Was the Fix in for Recode?

Photo by Daniel Proctor

Knoxville’s new zoning map may have unintended consequences

In politics, there are telltale signs that tell a tale of signs the fix might be in.
Those signs were all around Recode Knoxville, which affects every city property owner and is billed as the first zoning overhaul in a half-century.

Mayor Madeline Rogero wanted Recode. Its march toward passage, while touted as “transparent,” and “collaborative,” occurred without a campaign worthy of the name. Rogero, Recode’s champion, didn’t mount a campaign for one of four reasons: she didn’t want to work that hard; she didn’t want to be associated with a loss if it went down; she was confident she could get the five votes on city council she needed; she knew she had the five votes.

A July 16 Knoxville News Sentinel guest column by the mayor includes a section in which she describes the process, but leaves even more unsaid: “The public engagement process has included more than 90 public workshops, two Planning Commission hearings, a mailing to all property owners, seven City Council workshops, and three council meetings as of tonight.”

Here’s what it doesn’t say: “I have been going door-to-door, appearing on radio and television programs, visiting neighborhood association meetings and winning their endorsements, meeting one-on-one with people in their homes, and doing all I can to personally explain to Knoxville’s citizens and taxpayers what Recode means to them.”

An internet search for coverage of the mayor’s Recode-related press conferences turns up a single one, on July 16, the date Recode passed city council 7-2 on first reading.

At the event, the mayor said, “If our current zoning code was up for a vote, I’m sure you’d see the same level of debate and, unfortunately, distrust that we have seen with Recode.”

That rhetoric encourages a look at efforts to dispel such distrust. For example, what were the news releases she issued on the subject. Between May 2 and Aug. 13, the date of Recode’s final passage by an 8-1 vote, there were only two such Recode-related news releases: the first announces that the proposal’s fifth draft was available on the Recode website; the other is on the July 16 press conference. That’s it.

Public mentions of Recode, such as they were, by the mayor or others on the getting-it-passed team described the level of public outreach by regurgitating – or upchucking – the overused political buzzterm “transparent process.” Typically, when people in government talk about transparency, it’s often like a magician inducing you to look over here while they’re doing something, or not doing anything, somewhere else.

Justifying the transparency claim was the list of meetings referenced earlier. It’s a number that’s seemingly meaningful, yet can be meaningless.

Out of 187,000 Knoxville residents, only a fraction attended one of the 90 workshops or other meetings. For example, the Recode website’s fall 2018 meetings summary says that “nearly 300” people attended 11 meetings. That’s fewer than 30 per meeting, and some of them undoubtedly visited more than one meeting. And of those who attended, was there a vote to know if they supported Recode? Attendance implied agreement?

An interesting look into Recode organizers’ “transparency” mindset exists on a website called “Inside of Knoxville.” A column on Recode focused on Gerald Green, Knoxville/Knox County Planning executive director, who is reported to have said something remarkable:
“One struggle, in his opinion, is that sometimes equal or even greater credence is given to small groups than to the professional opinions of those charged with making the changes. Small constituency groups have gotten small changes which add up to potentially compromising the goals of the process, while few individuals or groups understand or are concerned with the bigger picture of what Recode is attempting to address.”

Read that section, slowly. It says let the professionals handle this, you people who don’t know anything. The point of the “transparent” public meetings is dulled if the changes sought by pesky citizens were a nuisance that had to be overcome. It suggests project officials knew from the beginning what they wanted and didn’t appreciate interference, “transparency” or not.

In terms of outreach, the Recode website doesn’t appear to list a single neighborhood group that endorsed the project. An internet search doesn’t turn up any, either. That’s extraordinary for a zoning action of this magnitude. If you can shine that light, it’s not one you want to hide under a bushel.

However, there’s no need to bother with neighborhood endorsements, or any type of serious campaign, if you already know, or believe you know, it’s going to pass.

Ultimately, however, in months and years to come, some number of Knoxvillians, when confronted with a Recode-related zoning issue, will ask aloud, “Who’s responsible for this outrage!?”

A quick trip to the bathroom and a look in the mirror will answer that question for them. Transparently. Even if the fix was in.


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