published Sunday, July 21st, 2013

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke touts early successes

Mayor Andy Berke discusses his first 100 days at the city's helm.
Mayor Andy Berke discusses his first 100 days at the city's helm.
Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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Is Mayor Andy Berke doing a good job so far?

The forks stopped clanking and people turned their chairs for a better view as Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke stepped up to the podium at the Chattanooga Convention Center on Thursday.

The 45-year-old attorney and former Democratic state senator, who is approaching his 100th day in the mayor's office this week, trotted out a list of his accomplishments to business and community builders at a weekly Rotary Club meeting.

He said he's revamped City Hall, fired 18 department heads and eliminated four departments his predecessor, Ron Littlefield, had created in the previous eight years.

Berke pushed the building's owner to clean up the troubled Patten Towers after a fire left the building's 241 elderly and disabled residents without a place to live, and promised the city's Rotarians that he would fight Chattanooga's gang problem by borrowing from a successful North Carolina anti-drug program.

"We are transforming the culture of government," Berke told the group.

But even as the freshman mayor drew praise from some in the Scenic City, other leaders say they are anxious to see tangible results.

"We had a honeymoon period," said Everlena Holmes, Glenwood block leader coordinator. "By September he needs to have a plan on the ground going."

Berke's ability to listen and hold community meetings has made him popular with many marginalized voters. He said early on that residents ideas, concerns and their participation would be "central to my administration."

But his tenure thus far has been marked by little specific action on any particular issue.

Though Berke took credit for 917 jobs created on his watch, a Times Free Press review found that the genesis of almost all those jobs came under Littlefield.

A Berke pledge to combat violence by 2014 has yet to reduce violence on the streets. Street shootings are up since he disbanded the city's gang task force and replaced it with his own group. Chattanooga was rocked by 71 shootings and 86 deaths in the first half of 2013, compared to 51 shootings and 59 victims for the same period in 2012.

"I don't see anything getting done except more people getting shot," said former Republican Party chairman Marty Van Schaaf.

However, Berke has impressed in other, less headline-grabbing ways.

Perrin Lance, president of Chattanooga Organized for Action, said the mayor is an excellent listener.

Lance applauded Berke for listening to Lincoln Park residents over plans to build a road expansion that would run alongside a historically black park.

Yet it remains to be seen whether Berke will step up and address social and economic problems that extend beyond downtown Chattanooga, Lance said.

"I think Mayor Berke has a challenge that I haven't heard him address," Lance said. "It's the question of equity. We need a mayor that is going to be the mayor of the other Chattanooga."

BERKE'S VIEW

From his seat across a long conference table in City Hall, Berke, wearing a navy blue striped suit and tie, told the Times Free Press on Friday that he's most surprised by how time-consuming being mayor can be.

"Going from a speech to a meeting on economic development to a phone call with the police chief ... demands an ability to clear your mind and focus quickly," he said.

Berke, who ran without any substantial competition, swept 72 percent of the votes to gain the mayor's seat. In his inaugural address and on the campaign trail, Berke promised to focus on youth development, public safety and economic development.

"I believe we have accomplished a tremendous amount in 100 days," he said.

Berke pointed to his public safety committee, which has many members from the former gang task force, including Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and District Attorney General Bill Cox.

The committee's main initiative, nicknamed High Point after the city that founded the program, will roll out in 2014. The main focus is to eliminate gang violence through focusing on the major drug dealers, but Berke said the program also includes cease-fire negations and domestic violence programs.

"All these don't happen overnight," he said. "We need to reduce the shootings. Period. And we are going to do that."

He promises the community will see fewer shootings by 2014.

Some former city officials criticized Berke for being so quick to disband the task force, questioning whether it was a waste for the work already done.

"I was disappointed to see him dismantle the gang task force to begin again discussions that had already taken place," said Pam Ladd, former City Council chairwoman.

Other former officials echoed Ladd.

Looking at job growth in the city, Berke said the city will continue to work with the Chamber of Commerce. But his newly created Department of Economic and Community Development will focus on all levels of business, and it will connect job growth directly to the neighborhoods by finding a way to provide public transportation so the community can get to those jobs, he said.

As for how he will do it, Berke declined to be specific.

On his focus on youth development, Berke cited the literacy programs at the recreation centers, where young children are being taught to read.

Yet this initiative began last year under the former gang task force that the mayor disbanded when he took office.

Compared to Littlefield, some community members said they find Berke more approachable.

Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association President Vannice Hughley said that before Berke, neighbors didn't know what was happening on projects that might affect their community until the decision already had been made.

"He's worked step by step, he's been in the trenches with us," Hughley said. "[Before], we were never at the table."

Joyce Watson Careathers, president of the Churchville Neighborhood Association said she, too, admires how Berke has reached out to the local communities.

County officials also say communication is better between the city and county.

Hamilton County school board members Jeffrey Wilson and David Testerman said Berke has expressed interest in the city being involved in the school system.

"He's helped start the discussion of what role can the city of Chattanooga play in helping improve education for our youth," Wilson said.

Littlefield's archenemy Jim Folkner, who led the charge to have the mayor recalled, said he will wait to pass judgment on Berke until after the budget is revealed.

City officials have said they will present the budget to the City Council on July 30.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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