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Publisher’s Postion: The business of politics

By Steve Hunley

The Knoxville News Sentinel does nothing better than pontificate, telling us all what we ought to think. The Sentinel recently pontificated on the glorious news the Chamber of Commerce is banging away and steadily improving our local economy almost singlehandedly. Of course Patrick Birmingham, the publisher of the Knoxville News Sentinel, also just happens to be the president of the Chamber of Commerce this year. Considering the fact that Birmingham is wearing two hats, does anyone expect the Sentinel to do anything but praise whatever whimper the Chamber announces? Does anyone even believe there is the remotest objectivity in the Sentinel covering the Chamber?

The Sentinel and the Chamber of Commerce have long been political partners. When was the last time you read a single criticism of the Chamber in the diminishing pages of the Sentinel? Never.

Recently the Sentinel mildly expressed its surprise about the abysmal record of Visit Knoxville, which was formerly the Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corporation. The Knoxville Tourism & Sports Corp. was known less for its accomplishments than the salary and benefits packages of its CEO, Gloria Ray. Even the Sentinel could do little else because Visit Knoxville’s achievements, such as they are, is nothing less than shockingly appalling. Visit Knoxville booked all of ten events two years ago and even that looks spectacular compared to the five events booked last year. A fifty percent decrease and yet none of the events looked to bring significant revenue or business to Knoxville, after all, how many rooms are going to be booked with the arrival of the staff of Edna’s Cooking School?

Perhaps the incentive-based bonuses for former CEO Gloria Ray, while huge, might well have been justified considering the results we are getting now.

While the Sentinel could do little but express its dismay at the record of Visit Knoxville, it did all it could to puff up the supposed accomplishments of Chamber of Commerce CEO Mike Edwards, whose salary is right up there with that of  school Superintendent James McIntyre.In fact, Edwards makes almost as much as the president of the United States. Edwards makes more than every member of President Obama’s Cabinet, the vice president, the Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, and the Speaker of the House.

Yet the Sentinel dutifully bragged on what amounts to a less than 1% increase in the job numbers for Knox County and that presumes every new job in the county was somehow created by the Chamber.

Lest we forget, the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Knoxville and the Development Corporation all receive significant funding from both the City of Knoxville and Knox County. We pour literally millions of taxpayer dollars into these organizations yearly and the Sentinel self-righteously thunders against alleged misdeeds inside the Courthouse, which amounts to pennies, while it ignores the lack of achievement or accountability of these entities which consume literally millions of dollars per year.

As you may recall, the Chamber scrounged together money for a few Chamber affiliated millionaires to purchase air time to promote a huge tax increase demanded by Superintendent Jim McIntyre. The Sentinel editorialized almost daily on behalf of the tax increase, while the Chamber induced its better off members to promote an ad campaign which fell flat. The Chamber, while receiving millions of your tax dollars, was in essence, lobbying to increase your taxes at the same time. The Chamber is supposed to be a non-profit corporation, yet it comes perilously close to the edge of jeopardizing that non-profit status while lobbying the very legislative bodies from which it receives handsome subsidies of your money.

For those who believe Mike Edwards is some supercharged individual with an extensive background in business, let’s refresh the record. Mike Edwards is a creature from the very pits of that awful place, the Knox County Courthouse. An employee of long-time Trustee Bob Broome, Edwards tried his hand at elective politics, losing races for the Knox County Commission and the Register of Deeds’ office. After failing to get himself elected, Edwards journeyed from the Trustee’s office to a position as the assistant to Edward Anderton, chief of the Public Building Authority. When Anderton retired, Edwards, after carefully cultivating the powers that be, assumed the reins of the Public Building Authority.

The power and scope of the PBA increased significantly under Edwards and much of the county’s construction came under the authority and control  of the PBA when Edwards himself hadn’t even supervised the construction of a house made out of popsicle sticks.

When Edwards finally left the PBA in a huff, he found a sinecure at real estate company Holrob, but he did not suffer long in private business. He mused about running for Mayor of Knoxville while Bill Haslam was gearing up to run and and behold, Tom Ingram was ejected as head of the Chamber of Commerce and Mike Edwards was installed in his place. The Chamber’s new CEO had never run a successful private business in his life and had spent only a fraction of his career in business.

The Chamber is undeniably deeply involved in local politics and we are paying them to be involved and tell the rest of us just how things ought to be. They want to tell us how much we should pay in taxes, whom to appoint as Superintendent of our schools, as well as convert just about every office to be appointed rather than to be elected head, including at least one of the offices Edwards himself ran for and lost.

Before being elected County Mayor, Tim Burchett declared he would cut the funding for the Chamber. In fact, so far he has done no such thing. If anything, Burchett increased funding for the Chamber and its subsidiaries. Both mayors Burchett and Rogero, as well as the County Commission and City Council, ought to hold these entities to the same accountability as every other office. Are we really getting a real return on our tax dollars? Not a single business park is full in Knox County, yet they always want to build more. They are not producing the results for the money they are getting and the Chamber needs to decide if it wants to recruit business or meddle in politics. The business of the Chamber should be business. Not the business of politics. If the Chamber wishes to meddle in politics, it should do so without any subsidy from the taxpayers.

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