Four months into a four-year term and District 3 Councilman Bruce A. Kraus says the job is everything he expected it to be, "there have been no surprises at all."
Sitting in his office on the fifth floor of the City-County Building, the councilman laughs when he says, "my intention was to come in here for the first six months and keep my mouth shut. And in 10 minutes that was out the window." He attributed that to the dynamics of the city council and having three new council members coming in at the same time. "The karma was such that we hit the ground running."
Aside from tackling citywide issues such as the issue with public input and oversight of lighted signs on the Downtown transportation center, the councilman has been active in the community. In the last several months, he has called town meetings to bring both sides together to discuss a take-out window proposed for a South Side restaurant and with the developers of the former police station/jail on 13th Street. More recently, Mr. Kraus could be seen walking the streets in Knoxville, picking up litter in Beltzhoover during a clean up effort and painting over graffiti in South Side.
He laments that things in city government move "slower than I'm used to" and that there's "more red tape than I'm used to being in business."
"I'm used to going right in and say I think this is a really good thing and let's head in this direction and get it done and it's done, but I can't do that here. But, I knew that," the councilman continued. "The hours are long, but I like to work so I don't have a problem with that."
"I'm surrendering to it. My personality is such I would like to get frustrated that I can't accomplish good things in a very fast time and it doesn't work that way" he added.
According to Mr. Kraus, much of his job is relationship building among his colleagues. He said the key on city council is to be able to get the five votes needed to pass legislation. The best idea won't pass if there aren't enough votes to get it though he says.
"When we do have good pieces [of legislation] to put forth, we're going to be able to get them voted through," Mr. Kraus added.
One of the best parts of the job, as he sees it, is the power of the office to empower. Some of the most rewarding things about the office are the "simple stuff," such as going to schools to speak to students and interacting with students about government and using the office for the "greater good" that isn't necessarily legislative.
As far as legislating, the councilman explains that part of his job as Public Safety Chair is to submit legislation from not only his office, but legislation that also comes out of the Mayor's Office concerning public safety.
"Everything that has to do with public safety comes through my committee," he said. Some recent examples were the purchase of police and fire vehicles, the demolition of vacant properties and resolutions dealing with juvenile delinquency.
The councilman is also in various stages of writing a variety of legislation concerning valet parking, sidewalk cafes, open space planning and a green roof initiative.
Councilman Kraus is putting the finishing touches on a bill before sending it to the city legal department for review that would regulate valet parking though out the city. Currently, valet parking companies are issued monthly permits through the police department and face few penalties for breaking the rules.
Mr. Kraus' bill not only spells out the requirements for a valet parking permit, but also outlines prohibited conduct, insurance responsibilities and the fines for not following the rules. The new ordinance, if it passes through council and is signed into law by the mayor, also requires the operators to maintain valid agreements for all parking spaces that will be used for the business.
Prompted by the number of sidewalk "cafes" popping up in the South Side, the councilman is also looking into the laws governing the sidewalk seating. He said he would like to see legislation that would limit the amount of outdoor seating according to the square footage of the permitted area.
In effect, he would like the outdoor seating to be limited in a similar way that the county health department sets occupancy for the inside of restaurants. On a recent walk down East Carson Street, the councilman noted several bars and restaurants that placed seating that made it difficult for pedestrians to walk down the sidewalks.
"I want to make sure the permitting process is tighter," he said.
With all the demolition planned for the Hilltop and the city in general, Councilman Kraus would like to see more open space planning. He wants to work directly with the Department of City Planning to determine best use practices for all the vacant property the city will have in Allentown, Knoxville and Beltzhoover.
"When these houses start coming down, we're going to have parcels of land everywhere. We don't want them to turn into vacant lots and overgrown weeds and we want a plan in place," he said.
Councilman Kraus, an original member of the city's Graffiti Task Force, is also looking to tighten up the law governing how graffiti vandals are prosecuted.
"There is no language in the present code to allow for penalties for graffiti. You could be required to make restitution to the city and you could be asked to do community service We want to put in language that offers exact penalties that are paid directly to the city and go into the Graffiti Trust Fund...to be used for abatement," he explained.
Among other things, the councilman would like mandatory fines beginning at $100 for graffiti vandals. Preliminary plans call for the fines to increase with the amount of damage done by the vandal and for repeat offenders.
The councilman plans to introduce the bill on May 13.
Mr. Kraus also briefly mentioned the city council's involvement in making sure there is a process in place for the placement of digital billboards such as the one Lamar Advertising is attempting to place on the Downtown transportation center.
"We're being watchdogs, we're keeping an eye on things and that's very important," he said. "Sharper minds than mine were on the ball and caught that. The more we looked into it the more we realized how important that really was and it proved out to be true that we were right. I think some very major changes into how development is going to take place are going to come up because of that."
"I think we're going to see some good changes in development now. More community input and a more public process before development takes place and contracts are awarded and that's always in the best interest of the public," he continued.
Moving on to to the subject of public safety, the councilman said he asked to be at the table from the beginning on discussions concerning the opening of Zone 6 and the reorganizing of Zone 3. "I fought very hard to be part of that process and was never invited in to be part of that process," he said.
Mr. Kraus said he has been asking residents coming to community meetings to let him know if they don't see police in the neighborhoods. According to the councilman, police sources have told him Zone 3 hit a low of 63 officers at one time, but is now back up to 93 officers including desk officers.
Today, Tuesday, May 6, city council is expected to approve spending of $200,000 in CDBG funds for overtime to place foot and bike police patrols in city neighborhoods. Although the patrols are earmarked for business districts, Councilman Kraus would like to see some of the money spent on putting the patrols in the residential streets of Knoxville.
In the near future, the councilman plans to hold a town meeting in Knoxville to gain residents' input to what they would like to see from the city. He said he already knows they feel they don't have enough of a police presence in the neighborhood.
The councilman also plans to hold a public meeting concerning Armstrong Park and the possibility of the field being turned into an "off leash area" for pet owners. He said his office has been getting calls from pet owners and parents each pleading their case for and against the park being turned into an official "off leash area."
At the meeting, the councilman plans to have representatives from the city's Parks and Recreation Department there to explain the legalities of what can and cannot be done with the park and what changes would have to take place to become a "dog park."