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After initial controversies, Memphis City Council reapproves Knecht as Public Works Director

Another piece of City of Memphis Mayor Paul Young’s leadership team puzzle fell into place after Memphis City Council members unanimously approved the reappointment of Director of Public Works Robert Knecht during the Tuesday, February 6 meeting.

“I am in a position right now, I am trying to get a handle on all of the things that are happening in an organization with 6,700 employees,” Young said, Tuesday. “I think Robert has demonstrated his leadership over and over…He’s someone I believe is going to be up to the task.

“Just like I said, with all of the other appointments, if they are not up to the task, then we’ll handle it,” Young continued. “But, right now, it’s incumbent upon me and our team to move as quickly as possible.”

The 12-0 vote contrasted with a January 23 meeting, where a vote on Knecht’s reappointment was postponed for two weeks. During the session, council members chided the director for not being “responsive” with “circular answers.”  They also referenced interviews with public works employees, who called their boss “dismissive.” 

Left with “more questions than answers” that day, Council Chair JB Smiley called for the delay. Another round of interviews was set up with council members in the interim. 

This time around, the vote was prefaced by a request for same-night minutes, which forestalls the need for additional confirmation votes. Council member Ford Canale’s motion permitted Knecht to immediately hold onto his current title.

It met no objections.

Public works is responsible for the upkeep of the city’s infrastructure. It also splits duties with several other departments on long-running nuisances like blight, overgrown vacant lots and potholes, for example.

“It’s probably one of the most encompassing divisions in the city…two utilities, code enforcement, blight. They’ve got to go over and go to environmental court, city court. It’s a lot of moving pieces and it takes a lot of institutional knowledge to effectively run that group,” said council member Chase Carlisle.

“I think as a council the things we often can get frustrated with that are within the public works purview, are not necessarily 100% under his control,” Carlisle added. “I think it would be shortsighted to make a change in this position with all that we want to accomplish in the near term, based on the institutional knowledge it takes.”

Along with Knecht, Council members also approved Sukita Johnson as City Court Clerk. She had been serving in an interim basis since the beginning of the year, after being appointed by city court judges. 

Brian Harris, the nominee to head the city’s Office of Youth Services, is the last remaining division head candidate awaiting a council vote.

During the meeting, council members also dabbled with the future calendar by rescheduling a vote on an ordinance to provide additional health care insurance to former council members who have served two consecutive terms.

Originally set for April 9, a new vote was penciled in for February 20.

It followed an attempt to hold the third and final vote during the meeting, in an apparent attempt to kill the ordinance. However, Jeff Warren convinced his fellow members to move the vote to the new date. He is seeking the costs of coverage. If they aren’t forthcoming, he could move to table the vote. An indefinite delay would result.

Proposed in December 2023 by former council chair Martavius Jones, the ordinance would provide voluntary health care insurance until the former member turns 65.

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