published Monday, April 30th, 2012

Mayor Ron Littlefield’s time winding down


by Cliff Hightower
Mayor Ron Littlefield speaks during a March 29 press conference at City Hall.
Mayor Ron Littlefield speaks during a March 29 press conference at City Hall.
Photo by Dan Henry.

KEY DATES


• April, 12, 2005: Mayor Ron Littlefield win his first term as mayor

• April 18, 2005: Littlefield is sworn in

• March 3, 2009: Littlefield re-elected

• March 2, 2013: The election for a new city mayor to succeed Littlefield

Source: Newspaper archives

Poll
Do you approve of the job Ron Littlefield has done as mayor?

The curtain call for Mayor Ron Littlefield draws near.

With one year left, the Chattanooga mayor who has faced controversy and criticism over the last seven years expects to wind down his term with his sleeves rolled up.

“We don’t expect to back off or slack off,” Littlefield said.

Major issues still are coming down the pike — including an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs to the city’s sewer system.

Even if everything had gone Littlefield’s way, he had big shoes to fill.

His two immediate predecessors, former Mayors Jon Kinsey and Bob Corker — now a U.S. senator — left behind considerable legacies. Kinsey is known for downtown redevelopment, while Corker is known for the 21st Century Waterfront.

But since Littlefield was sworn in seven years ago, he has become perhaps better known for the controversies that have accompanied his initiatives, along with the never-say-die effort to recall him from office that he’s still fighting in court.

His tenure has included:

• A failed attempt to develop a nine-acre “campus” for the city’s homeless services on East 11th Street

• The largest annexation outside the city since the 1970s

• A 19 percent property tax increase

• A stormwater fee increase that, combined with the property tax hike, cost the owner of an average home more than $200 a year

• The abandonment of the city and county sales-tax agreement

• And most recently, the proposed moving of the Bessie Smith Strut from M.L. King Boulevard, leading to a firestorm of criticism.

Littlefield concedes that what he hoped would be the crown jewel for his administration — joining the city and Hamilton County into a metropolitan government — is all but dead. He said he plans to push consolidation of the city’s and county’s parks and recreation departments over the next year and hopes the next mayor will “pick it up.”

Littlefield still has a list of projects he said he plans on finishing or starting this year. They include finding a firing range for the Chattanooga Police Department, extending Central Avenue to Amnicola Highway and trying to push for consolidation of the city’s and county’s sewer systems that he promotes as the Moccasin Bend Cleanwater Alliance.

“We’re not going to adopt a short-termer’s attitude of coasting,” he said.

He also said he will not shy away from controversy, citing the Bessie Smith Strut as an example.

“Change, which I have always been about, and progress, which I have always been about, always generates controversy,” Littlefield said.

The mayor said his legacy will be reform of the city’s health benefits system and of retirement benefits and building a new wellness center and the Summit of Softball complex. He also thinks the recruitment of Volkswagen to Chattanooga, helping Alstom expand and assisting with the smart grid and fiber-optic technology are other parts of his legacy.

The controversies that occurred were over necessary things, he said. Property taxes needed to be raised to keep the city afloat, and annexation needed to occur to help pave the way for growth, he said.

But his critics have a different view.

Jim Folkner, of Citizens to Recall Mayor Littlefield, one of the groups pushing for a recall election on Littlefield, said the mayor’s legacy will be fighting the police when he should have fought gangs, and raising taxes and fees exorbitantly.

“I think his legacy is failure he didn’t even realize,” Folkner said.

THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN

Moses Freeman is a longtime supporter of the mayor who has worked in city government, serving as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission director under former Mayor Gene Roberts and also as the director of the city’s Neighborhood Services Department.

He admits his friend’s two terms as mayor have been a “shaky time period.”

Freeman said Littlefield came in after a period of rapid change in the downtown area and that Littlefield acted more as an administrative-type mayor rather someone who makes big alterations.

“We probably needed a mayor like Littlefield to settle things down,” he said.

He said it is unfair to hold Littlefield to standards set by Kinsey and Corker and the mark each left on the city. But he also said he believes Littlefield over-reached on annexation and metropolitan government, and the homeless complex did not go according to plan.

The Chattanooga Community Kitchen already was on East 11th Street, and the mayor talked about creating something of a one-stop shopping outlet for the homeless around it, including social service agencies, thrift stores and a homeless shelter. None of that materialized, and the city is now building its wellness center on land once envisioned for the homeless campus.

“He was a visionary on the homeless issue,” Freeman said. “At least he addressed it.”

But he also thinks some of the fault lies with the City Council. Halfway through the mayor’s administration, almost two-thirds of the council seats changed hands. The new faces were new to city government, Freeman said, and he thinks they were “hesitant” on some of the mayor’s vision.

“I don’t think there was a lot of coordination and cooperation with government,” he said.

Eddie Holmes, a former local NAACP president and chairman of the Chattanooga Housing Authority board, has known Littlefield for more than 40 years and said the period covering the mayor’s two terms was “challenging.”

He said there were some stumbles, but the mayor was a visionary.

“If you don’t try, you never succeed at anything,” Holmes said.

ON THE INSIDE

Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd, one of the fresh faces that started halfway through the mayor’s term, said she thinks Littlefield has been successful and points toward helping to provide infrastructure for Volkswagen and Alstom, initiating the gang violence task force that she thinks will pay off in the future and reforming the city’s retirement plans to save taxpayers money in the future.

The role of the mayor and the council over the last four years has been a good partnership, she said. It was one in which an independent council worked with the mayor to help draft policies best for the city, she said.

“I think we caused the administration to rethink,” she said.

In less than 365 days, a new mayor will be sworn in and Littlefield will ride off into the sunset.

He said he plans on doing some consulting work outside the city and missionary work for his church.

Will he try to continue and push the next administration toward metro government?

“I won’t meddle,” he said.

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