Be always sure you are right, then go ahead!

I was recently listening to an audio book and the author cited one of his favorite quotes as being from Davy Crockett. Crockett, the famous Tennessean who served in Congress and lost his life in the battle at the Alamo was known for saying “Be always sure you are right, then go ahead!” I have heard that before but it really stuck with me this time.

We are in a political environment that is full of contradicting information and some flat out lies. It is incumbent on us as voters to wade through all this information and try to discern what is truth. We at the Germantown Voice are working together to lay out some of the key items we see as hot button issues either called out by candidates themselves or championed on social media.

First and foremost, we recommend watching the Germantown Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum. At nearly two hours it is long but it is worth your time to be an informed voter. The program begins with the Alderman and then transitions to interviews with each of the Mayoral candidates. Be open minded and listen to both candidates.

Listening to Citizens – There is a narrative that says that certain candidates are not listening to citizens. Have you reached out to your officials directly?  You might find they are very responsive. Did you know that the long term plans you hear referenced (including Forward 2020 & 2030) are all citizen led? Those plans were not just a handful of people either: they included over 1,000 participants in task forces and public meetings. The commissions that approve initial concepts for projects are all citizen led. All these meetings are open to the public, many are available on YouTube though the Germantown Municipal Television page.

Development – In general, there is a perception that the city is “pushing” development. Let’s be clear – the city doesn’t solicit development. If you listen to this YouTube video taken from the public hearing on the rezoning of the Cordova Triangle, you can hear the property owner clearly state that developers are approaching them with projects. They continue to approach the land owners even with the moratorium in place. Development is happening because land owners and developers see value in Germantown.  Can you blame them? Look at the success of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Check out the lines at Rise and the new Apple store. So be careful when someone tells you the Mayor and Aldermen are pushing development. Be sure you understand where the demand comes from. The Commission, Mayor and Aldermen are all performing their roles as checks and balances to the system to be sure proposals meet zoning, codes and overall vision of the city. There is a lot to discuss about the value of being sure we grow the right way and we will add to that conversation.

Smart Growth – This concept is limited to very specific areas of the city. The intention is to maximize the property tax and sales tax generation for these targeted areas like the central business district (think Poplar and Germantown Rd) and the Western Gateway (think Poplar and Kirby). These areas are already commercial but, in many cases have 40+ year old retail space in need of updating. The intent is to make sure those updates help generate more tax revenue thus reducing the dependence on residential property tax. Did you know that the taxable property on the 9.7 acres of Travure will be valued well over $30m when done? You would have to develop nearly 100 homes on 1/4 acre lots valued at $500k to generate the same tax revenue. And my estimates of value are likely very low. The incomplete office building was assessed at $10m in FY18 and the hotel will be worth north of $15m when complete. There is a whole other parcel to be developed as well. That also doesn’t include any sales or hotel taxes generated there.

Apartments – We have all seen plenty on this topic. There are TV ads claiming that 1,200 apartments have been added to our “Fair City.” That is false any way you look at it. As of today, the only fully approved and under construction apartments are Thornwood with 276 units. Thornwood is the first new apartment complex in Germantown in nearly 20 years. You may see a map of developments around the city that cite other projects in the approval process but it is important to know the facts about each of these.

  • Watermark was voted down 4-1 by the BMA (284 Units). However, the developer is suing the city.
  • Viridian (310 units) is concept phase only and requires additional reviews with the planning commission and BMA approval. This project has not moved forward at all (despite what you may read in come social media groups) and will get tremendous scrutiny when it does.
  • Arthur Property (Saddle Creek 265 units) is approved in concept phase only.
  • Parc (371 Units) withdrawn by applicant, not under consideration.

Portables – The fact is that the new elementary school will address all of our capacity needs at the elementary level. Depending on transition plans with the new school, portables could be gone as early as next year. Any candidate that tells you they will do it faster should probably run for school board as they don’t have the authority to change zoning or enrollment plans that would be necessary to facilitate that change. The city has been working with the GMSD Board of Education to address this problem since day one. Twenty-five portables were removed at Riverdale and the remainder will be gone from Farmington and Dogwood within the year.

Taxes – Claims of 45% increases over the last 4 years are just wrong and frankly out of context. By their math your tax rates are actual down since 1990 when the rate was $2.16. Do you pay more taxes than you did in 1990?Of course you do, that is why context matters.

Read our series on Tax Rate Truth  (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)for full details about what the increase really is and the story around why your taxes have gone up. In the last 4 years, we have added a brand new school system, helped address deferred maintenance of the all schools ($26M reduced to $11M), added a police district, seen our fire department upgraded to ISO Class One and invested in our parks and greenways. We get tremendous value for our dollars as our rates are less than half that of Memphis and our services and amenities the best in the region.

“Hold the Line on Taxes” – The annual budget process includes a 5-year projection that helps anticipate the timing of potential tax rate increases. This year the City Administrator projected we should get at 5 more years out of our current rate meaning that whomever is mayor will likely not have to raise taxes in the next term. Listen to it here.

Growth of City Staff – Did you know that in 2000 the city had 400 full time employees? In FY19, we now have 406, including 40 additional first responders. This illustrates the gains in efficiency in running city operations while shifting resources to important areas like fire and police.

Streetscape – You may have seen plans float around for Streetscape work on Exeter. This like many other issues is intended to be a wedge issue that divides the community. This issue was so misrepresented that the city had to issue a statement to clarify the status of the streetscape project. Read the truth here, straight from the city of Germantown.  This project is not actively being worked and will require significant community input before anything is approved.

Carrefour – This property was built in 1973 and has had two major remodels over the years. The developer is seeking to rework this property in three phases. If you listen to the candidate forums it appears that nearly everyone agrees that that property needs to be remodeled, even John Barzizza doesn’t seem against the idea of apartments being included as part of this project. He clearly points out that this is different than a stand-alone complex off Winchester (Listen Here). By the way, there are no fully approved projects off Winchester despite his statement.

Cell Phone Coverage – This is another attempt to create a wedge issue. Did you know the laws regarding cell towers in Germantown have been changed already? Did you know the city does not own cell towers? The carriers and their partners own them. The City has approved a new tower on the Wolf River Greenline, another at Madonna Learning Center on Poplar, added cell boosters to the schools and increased the allowable height of towers, all to improve coverage in Germantown. Now the carriers need to make their investments, or would you like your tax dollars to subsidize their profits?

Blogs – Like the Germantown Voice, Shining a Light is an opinion blog. It presents some factual information that supports a point of view. Our blog does the same. We try to offer perspective to the community. We don’t all have time to watch BMA meetings or attend commissions, but wouldn’t it be great if we did? Read a diverse perspective but keep in mind that stories can pick and choose what they include. That is why we recommend listening to the Candidate Forum above. You can hear directly from the candidates, side by side answering the same questions.

Social Media Leadership – Is your expectation that elected officials monitor social media and seek out to engage in every post? That would literally be a full-time job. Yes, major issues on social media do get the attention of your officials but usually because someone contacts them directly to start the discussion. Leading via social media is one step away from mob rule as often times the loudest voices may not represent the majority.

Germantown Bulletin Board – Did you know that the group that administers this Board, which reaches 13,000 people, is made up of open supporters of John Barzizza’s “Team?” One admin is also campaign manager for two school board candidates (Brian Curry and Angela Griffith), and is campaign manager or has done campaign work for two alderman candidates (Scott Sanders and Jeff Brown) and Mayoral candidate John Barzizza? To our knowledge there is no political diversity among this group. That matters because they approve all the new posts and moderate discussion. Originally political discussion was not permitted on that forum, now it doesn’t take long for any topic to turn political. Just something to keep in mind when reading posts in that group.

We will close with this final and appropriate quote from Davy Crockett: “I am at liberty to vote as my conscience and judgment dictates to be right.”

Political Tactics to Watch in 2018

Brian Ueleke also contributed to this article.

What can you expect to see between now and the local elections in November? Well, it is not likely to be fun as strategies will be used to intentionally divide our community. Some of these strategies are already actively unfolding. 

Focus will be placed on “wedge issues” intended to draw lines between voters. Examples of this include instilling fear over an abundance of apartments being built, fear of too much commercial growth and a focus on empty storefronts (although the occupancy rate in retail commercial real estate in Germantown is 94% with office CRE even better at 97.9% and commercial development offsets the tax burden on homeowners for schools, fire and police) and the repeated assertion that the city leaders are promoting development for their own benefit. 

Read these posts on social media and understand both sides. The truth is always somewhere in the middle. The intent of this blog post is to help understand what will likely happen and identify these tactics so you can judge for yourself what is the truth.

Remember, a lot of effort has been put into building the perception that certain city leaders do not listen to residents and cannot be trusted. This began back in 2016 during the last election cycle. While there is always an opportunity to communicate better; by and large, the processes that are in place in the City of Germantown ensure that multiple phases of review and open forums are available to discuss any change. The challenge is that most people don’t have time to attend all these meetings so many look to Facebook for answers.

Watch for these tactics:

  • Social Media: This is going to be one of the main battle fronts of this election. Expect to see open campaigning with supporters of all candidates boosting their candidate’s positions. 
  • Remember When?: Even simple posts reminiscing about the “good ‘ole days” may not be as innocent as they seem. This is a tactic which can be referred to as “Member Berries” (a staple of the program “South Park”). These posts are intended to make you think about the “good ‘ole days” and simpler times, making the challenges of today seem that much more overwhelming. 

    A staple of the program “South Park” during the 2016 election.
  • Blog posts: (and yes, I get the irony that this is a blog post) You will see subtle things like blog posts to establish credibility and expertise for candidates.
  • Blocking: (Yes, this again.) Just know this strategy is being used to create one sided conversations about issues. When elected officials engage in this practice on the scale that certain people have, it violates freedom of speech and stifles open exchange of political ideas in our community. When you read posts on pages like the Germantown Bulletin Board or Alderman Massey’s Germantown page, remember, Alderman Massey has blocked a large number of active citizens from the ability to comment on his posts. This gives the impression that everyone agrees with his statements.
  • Political Strategists: There is nothing inherently wrong with a candidate using a strategist and you will see them from all candidates. However, we already know mayoral candidate John Barzizza has taken on the services of Michael Lipe from New Blue Strategies. Mr. Lipe set up John Barzizza’s Rally.com fundraiser page. He is an experienced strategist who helped lead Bernie Sanders’ campaign in Tennessee (according to his LinkedIn page) – a campaign that leveraged social media to nearly unseat Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s Nominee. No doubt you will continue to see this type of influence in our social media conversations. 
  • Political Action Committees: We first saw this tool pop up in the 2016 local elections when Alderman Rocky Janda was up for re-election. The Germantown Sunshine PAC, funded in part by John Barzizza and his treasurer, Jon Thompson, established a false narrative of corruption involving your city’s leaders with the “Is My City Corrupt?” campaign that has divided this community ever since. Accusations were made when pictures of checks from the city to Alderman Janda’s business were posted on the “Is My City Corrupt” Facebook page. (Remember that?) But no complaints were ever filed or wrongdoing established related to Alderman Janda’s business transactions with the city. And as soon as elections were over, the Facebook page quietly disappeared. Who knows what is in store this year? But expect to see more innuendo that your elected officials are benefitting monetarily in some way by their service. Demand proof of these allegations. 
  • Remember these Sponsored Ads all over your Facebook feed last election cycle?
  • Citizens to be Heard: The mayor clearly states at the beginning of every meeting that the forum is a place to gain input from the public and not a forum for dialogue. So, you will rarely see any response from any city official during this segment of the meeting. That said, you can give the most eloquent speech, have it broadcasted to the community then conveniently saved to YouTube for future soundbites. There is no fact checking of statements, no corrections to inaccuracies so be sure you understand what is being said and don’t take if for truth just because it is presented in this forum. And be aware that something designed to give our citizens a voice in policymaking can be hijacked for political propaganda. When someone has a complaint, see if they explain how they are directly and personally impacted. If they are complaining about something that does not impact them, ask yourself why?

It never ceases to surprise us that the election season brings out the worst in some people. A reader recently commented on our LG blog that “being controversial and stirring up discontent is how some people make themselves feel relevant. It doesn’t matter to them if they are right or wrong (because in their heads they are always right), just as long as they get attention.” There will be those running for office who present themselves as a champion for the underdog even when they don’t really care about the underdog. They care “about creating a stink in which [they] look like a champion for those who feel disenfranchised (those who worry about their tax money being spent in ways they consider foolish.)” As we approach upcoming elections, you can count on our blog to follow the advice of our reader by continuing to challenge the political rhetoric and rebutting the wrongful allegations.