The Knoxville Utility Board, Community Advocacy, and Good Trouble

Stephen Smith | July 29, 2020 | Energy Policy, Tennessee, Utilities
Rep. John Lewis advocated for making “good trouble.”

In June, ‘ACT on KUB’ was launched by a grassroots coalition comprised of eight Knoxville-based nonprofits, multiple elected officials, and candidates for office in East Tennessee in support of a proposal to amend Knoxville’s City Charter to provide more Accountability, Cost-Savings, and Transparency to Knoxville’s municipal utility, KUB. 

The coalition’s goal was to place the amendment on November’s ballot to give Knoxvillians an opportunity to approve or reject it. In order for an amendment to come before voters, the City Council needed to pass it in its final form through two readings—the first of which needed to happen on July 28. 

Before the first reading of the proposed charter amendment, an alternate resolution proposed by Mayor Indya Kincannon passed unanimously. The Mayor’s resolution, crafted in consultation with KUB management, contains some of the changes the ACT on KUB coalition sought and is a positive step forward in addressing the serious energy issues Knoxville faces. The resolution’s longevity, however, remains a concern.  

While we at SACE, along with our coalition partners, are disappointed the ‘ACT on KUB’ proposed charter amendment did not pass the first reading to move forward, we are proud to have helped move the needle forward on addressing energy and equity issues in Knoxville and causing a little bit of “good trouble” on behalf of KUB customers.

What Motivates our Actions

Our nation continues to both mourn and honor a true American leader and icon, Congressman John Lewis. His lifelong pursuit of justice and equality are legendary, but one of his favorite and most enduring creeds was if you see a problem or an injustice never be silent but work for change and do not be afraid to cause “good trouble.” He practiced this his whole life, from Alabama and Georgia to Washington DC. 

While his central focus was on civil rights and equity, he saw causing good trouble as an important tool in the toolbox for all social change, even if it made the comfortable uncomfortable. As a Southeast regional organization, SACE worked with Congressman Lewis over the years on issues where energy, environment, and equity would interface. We learned from his leadership the lesson to not ignore or put off an important issue if it helps people, and that using your moral compass is the right thing to do.

In 2017, when it became clear that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and their local power companies, such as KUB, had solidified the policy of raising regressive fixed fees as a way to bill customers, we and other community organizations met with the leadership at both TVA and KUB and began a conversation to express our concerns. We were largely dismissed as “troublemakers.”

When we worked to empower customers who were struggling with real-life energy burdens that these regressive fees exacerbated and to help them to step forward and lift their voices at KUB Board meetings, we were seen as “parading low-income customers” into the comfort of KUB’s executive suite, and we were labeled as “troublemakers.” 

Knoxvillians joined SACE staff at a KUB board meeting in February of 2018 to hand-deliver over 2,500 ‘Freeze the Fees’ petitions.

We and other community organizations ran a campaign calling on KUB to “Freeze the Fees,” and over 3,000 KUB customers signed a petition as citizens with high energy burdens joined with folks who saw fixed fees as a threat to clean energy, like solar and energy efficiency. Many of those who shared their stories with us also told their stories directly to the KUB Board at their monthly meetings, and yet KUB continued to label us as “troublemakers.” As the 2019 city elections started to heat up and several community groups, including SACE, were still causing “trouble,” KUB announced a “temporary moratorium” on fixed fees, but never acknowledged the validity of these sincere community concerns.

Moving Forward

So yes, in the middle of a global pandemic, economic downturn, and serious issues with racial justice led by the frame Black Lives Matter, we and other community groups launched the ACT on KUB campaign to provide the chance to get important issues in front of the Knoxville voters and KUB customers in the upcoming November election. We knew it would be hard, we knew we had to move fast, and we knew it would make some people in power uncomfortable. 

We also know that the multifaceted ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic and all the pain and hardship it has and will continue to bring on many in our community will only get worse if left unaddressed. The package of reforms we initially put forth was—and will continue to be—important steps to mitigate these hardships. They will also be important in addressing the larger issue that will have even greater consequences of global climate change. All of this was done by the ACT on KUB grassroots coalition in the spirit of what John Lewis would call “good trouble.”

We understood from the beginning that making an amendment to the City Charter is a serious exercise, and we continue to believe that amendments to the City Charter may be necessary. While we are disappointed in the outcome of last night’s City Council vote blocking a Charter Amendment that would have given Knoxville voters and KUB customers the opportunity to vote this November to lock in lasting reforms, the issues our coalition raised are real and are not going away. We will continue the work to make sure the commitments made are adhered to. 

We welcome the effort and we support the Mayor’s resolution. We want to sincerely thank the City Councilmembers who took the time to learn more about these important issues. We look forward to continued collaboration with our local government leaders. We will own the fact that we moved fast, and it made some uncomfortable. 

To KUB leadership and Board members, we will try in good faith again to engage in meaningful dialogue and discussion. The community mistrust is real and not limited to one person nor one organization, and it is clear that there is mistrust on both sides of these issues. As we attempt to bridge this divide and collectively work to make our community better, I would ask that we all remember John Lewis’s famous words that there is a role for “good trouble, necessary trouble.” We hope our actions are seen in this spirit as we move forward. (Congressman Lewis’s essay.)

From left to right: SACE board member and former Florida PSC Commissioner Leon Jacobs, SACE staff member Jennifer Rennicks, Reverend Dr. Gerald Durley, Rep. John Lewis, Garry Harris, and former SACE staff member Seandra Rawls-Pope.
Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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