Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Liquor licensees — changing the rules in the middle of the game?

citysealAt tonight’s City Council meeting some rules got changed in the middle of the game.  That was unsportsmanlike — and it was not business-friendly.

Oak Ridge has an ordinance (dating back nearly 50 years) requiring that owners and operators of retail liquor establishments (liquor stores) must be city residents, unless Council votes to waive the requirement. And Council has routinely waived that residency requirement for everyone who requests a waiver. I’m not aware that anyone was ever denied a waiver — and very few liquor sellers actually live in the city.

Since we don’t require owners of any other type of business to live in the city and since the residency requirement hasn’t been enforced, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep it on the books. It’s just one of several antiquated ordinances related to liquor that need to be updated (a topic I’ve discussed with legal staff). But we have to live with it for now.

Tonight Council considered a request for a residency waiver and a “certificate of good moral character” from two young men (I think they are brothers) who purchased a long-operating local liquor store and needed city council approval in order to get a state license. All the usual checking of police records, etc., had been done to verify that they met the legal requirements for “good moral character,”  and one of the young men even told us that they used to live in Oak Ridge and hoped to move back here (from Knox County) after getting into business here.

I expected they would receive the approvals that are routinely granted to liquor license applicants, but it didn’t happen. One Council member said he wanted to support local small business, and he wasn’t sure he likes  the residency requirement, but he would vote against a waiver because he didn’t like the idea of waiving the residency requirement. He said he understood that it had been waived in the past, but he had never voted for a waiver and he didn’t want to start now. Another Council member apparently agreed with him and voted not to grant the waiver. Two “no” votes was enough to defeat the resolution because it needed 4 votes to pass, and there were only 5 Council members voting (Councilwoman Trina Baughn was absent and Mayor Warren Gooch had recused himself due to a possible conflict of interest).

So Council changed the rules in the middle of the game for these young men. And contrary to that Councilman’s recollection, he had voted for waivers previously. As recently as March of this year, he voted “yes” when 6 members of Council voted to waive the residency requirement for 7 applicants for new or renewed licenses. (It’s recorded in the minutes of that meeting.)

So two young men who invested in a local small business and were eager to get started are being told “no” because of Council members who decided to change the rules in the middle of the game. In my book, that’s arbitrary regulation — the exact opposite of “being business-friendly.” I hope that this action doesn’t lead to the closure of the store these young men bought.

Share

Not a crisis, just a slow news day

Oak Ridge is a place where unusual and interesting things happen. No one knows that better than the area news media who know they can use a ho-hum story from Oak Ridge to create an attention-grabbing headline on a slow news day.

The week after Christmas is slow news time, and Tuesday’s Knoxville top newspaper headline was “Radioactivity lingers at Oak Ridge sewer plant.” A crisis? No! Revelation of an environmental cover-up? Not!

Rather, Frank Munger’s article tells about a situation that has existed for over a year, wasn’t kept secret, isn’t a health threat, and is under control (although it’s not fully resolved yet). It makes a scary headline that helps sell papers and is likely to convince a few people not to move here, but the actual story is pretty dull. And there’s no reason for public concern.

So how did radioactive material get into our city sewers?

It didn’t. This radioactive material isn’t in the city sewer system. It got into the sewer pipes at the former K-25 Site (ETTP). Sewage from the K-25 Site now goes to the City of Oak Ridge’s satellite wastewater treatment plant at Rarity Ridge. DOE’s K-25 site is now one of the City’s sewage treatment customers.

During the ongoing cleanup of the K-25 Site, some radioactive material leaked from the soil into cracks in the old sewer lines under the K-25 Site. (DOE thought they had sealed off the pipes, but subsequent events revealed that the sealing wasn’t 100% effective.)

The radioactive material (the isotope technetium-99) ended up in the Rarity Ridge wastewater plant where it got attached to the solid material in the sewage sludge.

Isn’t radioactive sewage sludge dangerous?

Well, you definitely shouldn’t eat it, but you shouldn’t eat normal sewage sludge either. This isn’t “hot sludge,” contrary to the words a creative headline writer used in a subtitle on Frank Munger’s article. The level of radioactivity is too low to be a danger for workers or the public. But  sewage sludge contaminated with technetium (which has a very long half-life) isn’t allowed in Tennessee landfills.

To comply with the law, for over a year DOE has been hauling Rarity Ridge sewage sludge to Richland, Washington, for disposal — all at DOE expense.

Is Rarity Ridge contaminated?

No. This has absolutely nothing to do with the residential community there — now known as The Preserve at Clinch River.

What is the City doing to put a stop to this?

Um, nothing. Actually, DOE and the City are cooperating, and this is DOE’s problem, not the City’s. DOE is taking full responsibility and is bearing all of the costs. DOE has made changes at ETTP to make sure this won’t happen again, but they haven’t yet succeeded in clearing all of the radioactivity out of the sludge. Until that happens, they’ll continue to take sludge to Washington.

In summary, this has been an annoyance for DOE and for City personnel, but it’s temporary, it’s not a secret, there is no health and safety risk, and there’s no cost for the City of Oak Ridge. Just one of those unusual and interesting stories about Oak Ridge, and it helped fill a newspaper on a slow news day.

Share

Civic Center recreation facilities to be closed August 1-4

From a City press release:

The Oak Ridge Civic Center Recreation building will be closed Saturday, August 1 through Tuesday, August 4, 2015, for gym floor refinishing. This includes the gymnasium, game room, all meeting rooms and the indoor swimming pool.

The indoor swimming pool will reopen on Wednesday, August 5. The offices, meeting rooms, and game room will reopen Thursday, August 6, at 8:00 am. The gym will remain closed until Monday, August 10.

Visitors to the Civic Center Recreation Building will need to use the main entrance that faces the fountain. Staff will be located at the Scarboro Community Center at (865) 425-3950 and the Oak Ridge Senior Center at (865) 425-3999.

Share

Not for sale

citysealIt’s rumor control time: The Oak Ridge City Council is not planning to sell the public library or the outdoor swimming pool, and we are not voting next Monday on either of these ideas.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a little factual information related to this rumor.

  1. City Council meets Monday, July 27, 7 pm in the municipal courtroom to enact a city budget for Fiscal Year 2016, which started on July 1. (This is an important meeting.)
  2. At a Council work session earlier this week, the city manager told City Council that he would like to look into the possibility of hiring a private contractor to manage our public library. This has been done in some communities and reportedly has significantly reduced operating costs, mainly by changing the way new library materials are prepared to be added to the collection. According to the city manager, a contractor that serves many libraries can more efficiently label and catalog new materials, add protective covers, etc., thus greatly reducing “back room” costs — and possibly freeing up some “back room” space in our library for more interesting uses.
  3. The city manager also said that contracting might be a good option for increasing efficiency in operation of the indoor and outdoor swimming pool facilities.
  4. City Council members encouraged the manager to look into these possibilities. No decisions have been made and no vote has been scheduled.
  5. The city manager’s proposed FY16 budget provides full funding for the library and swimming pools as they are currently operated.

As for my opinion on these proposals… I am pleased that the manager is looking into opportunities to improve the efficiency of city government operations. A number of different functions of city government probably could be performed more efficiently by specialized contractors that do the same work for many communities. Contractors may be able to give Oak Ridge the benefit of their experience in other place and they may be able to obtain more competitive pricing and other efficiencies in procurement of products and services. Local government purchasing cooperatives are another option that some communities are using to reduce operating costs — and that our city should explore.

However, there are serious concerns in a contracting arrangement. For starters, local control and autonomy should not be sacrificed, and any cost savings achieved should not come from reducing employee pay or benefits (for both current and future employees).  The city manager says that this has not happened in the places that have brought in library contractors. I’m skeptical, but I’m interested in learning more…

Share

Looking ahead to the new City Council

citysealIs it three weeks since the election already?!? Yes, it is. I’m elected to Council again, sworn in, and now it seems I am the new Mayor Pro-Tem.

The election results posted by the county election commissions show that a total of 8,966 voters participated in the election in Oak Ridge — well over 40% of the registered voters. Here are the vote tallies, with my calculation of each candidate’s percentage of the voters, and winners marked in bold:
Kelly Callison 4022 44.9%
Rick Chinn 4151 46.3%
Anne Garcia Garland 2620 29.2%
Warren Gooch 4556 50.8%
Gary Love 1494 16.7%
David Mosby 3126 34.9%
Pedro Otaduy 762 8.5%
Aditya “Doc” Savara 1741 19.4%
Ellen Smith 3627 40.5%
Eric Tobler 3115 34.7%

Now we move on to the business of governing. Monday night’s swearing-in was more of a ceremonial occasion than I ever recall in the past, impressively conducted by long-time city judge Bob McNees in his judicial robes.

The vote for Mayor took a lot longer than I had expected, due to an unexpectedly even split of votes among the 4 announced candidates. I congratulate Warren Gooch on his new position as Mayor, and I hope to do a good job as his back-up in the position of Mayor Pro Tem (the Council member who fills in when the Mayor is absent). Thanks to my fellow Council members for entrusting me with that position.

Share

Special recycling event today (Saturday, Nov. 8, 2014)

Celebrate America Recycles Day — Sponsored by Keep Anderson County Beautiful

Saturday November 8, 2014

10 AM to 2 PM

95 Oak Ridge Turnpike in Oak Ridge (next to Willow Ridge Nursery)

Materials to be Collected for Recycling:
Computers and peripherals (processors (CPUs), optical drives (CDROM, CDRW, DVD, etc), network and communications hardware (modems, routers, hubs, etc), drives (hard drives, floppy), keyboards, laptops, mice, monitors, network hardware (servers), paper tape readers and punchers, plotters, printers, tape

Home Electronics:
No “white goods” (no refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, etc.)

We do accept TV’s (flat panel, plasma,LCD’s etc but NO TV cabinetry), microwaves, mixers, phones (corded, cordless, and cellular), entertainment goods (VCRs, DVD players, radios, speakers.
Please Note: $20 charge for CRT (wide) computer monitors & TVs (because of toxic screen phosphors and lead)

Personal documents for shredding (sponsored by ORNL Federal Credit Union)

Used rechargeable batteries (no alkaline or auto batteries)

Cell phones

Compact fluorescent bulbs (no long tubes)

Books (no textbooks, please!)

Eyeglasses

Share

Personal endorsement from someone I greatly admire

Oak Ridge Today has published a letter to the editor from Liane (Lee) Russell in which she endorses me for election.

In the letter, she says (in part):

Oak Ridgers are fortunate in having a candidate of the caliber of Ellen Smith willing to once again serve on City Council, where, between 2007 and 2012, we benefited greatly from her wise, intelligent, and highly informed voice.

Lee is someone I greatly admire for qualities that include wisdom, intelligence, and being highly informed. I will never match her accomplishments, either as a scientist (her ground-breaking work in mammalian genetics earned her many recognitions, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences) or as a citizen (with her late husband, Bill Russell, she founded Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, is widely credited with achieving the establishment of both the Obed Wild and Scenic River and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, and in her 10th decade of life continues to be largely responsible for TCWP’s extraordinary newsletter).

I am honored to be the subject of this wonderful letter, and I hope I can live up to Lee’s confidence.

Share

Find me on the long ballot list

Ellen Smith on the November 4, 2014 ballot for Oak Ridge City Council This year’s ballot list for City Council is a long one, with 10 candidates competing for 4 seats. I’m next to the last in alphabetical order, which means I’m next to last on that long list. Scroll down the list to find me and cast your vote for me!

Share

Unexpected news

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signThis is news I was definitely not expecting:

The Progress PAC (the O.R. Chamber of Commerce political action committee) included me in its list of endorsements, announced to the news media in a press release earlier today.

This was surprising news because I have never been aligned with the Chamber, I have strongly opposed some Chamber initiatives in the past, and I am not shy about my support for principles like conservation of publicly owned open space and putting the interests of existing residents and owners ahead of the interests of new business development. However, I respect the Chamber as the main representative of and advocate for a very important element of our community — and a group whose members and volunteers who are passionate about the future of Oak Ridge. We share many common goals and interests in this community, and if we are going to make progress as a community, it’s necessary for government, the business community, our nonprofit sector, and (ideally) all citizens to try to understand each other’s interests and needs and work together for the benefit of all.

I told the PAC’s committee (hard-working civic volunteers, all) that I would accept their endorsement, just as I would accept the endorsement of any group of citizens who go to the trouble of evaluating candidates for office and making endorsements as a group. I see the PAC’s decision to include me among their endorsements as indicating a recognition that people with divergent perspectives can work together to achieve positive outcomes for our community (indeed, diversity produces more positive outcomes than uniformity!)  — and that I am both qualified and committed to work for what’s best for Oak Ridge as a member of the City Council.

I am well aware that some people are suspicious about the Progress PAC’s motives and the candidates who cooperated with the PAC. As I said long before receiving today’s news, the formation of a political action committee makes the Chamber’s role in local political activity more transparent than it has ever been in the past. The PAC must operate under stringent state of Tennessee rules for multicandidate political action committees — getting its funds from member donations (no money from the Chamber organization) and publicly reporting all donations and expenditures over $100.

Additionally, the Progress PAC will not be providing money to any of the candidates they are endorsing — I’m not sure what the PAC plans to do, beyond publicizing its endorsements.  I recall that several other groups have endorsed (and promoted) slates of local candidates in in past Oak Ridge elections, but I don’t believe that any of those groups registered as a PAC. With that background, I congratulate the Progress PAC for operating in the open, as required by current state law.

Anyone who knows me at all well will laugh at the suggestion that the Progress PAC endorsement will change my opinions, positions, or future votes if I am elected to City Council. As I did in the past, I will make up my own mind, always aiming for what’s best for the community. I’ll do my own analysis, ask questions, seek out public input, and listen to what others have to say — and I will pursue consensus decisions where possible (because it’s rare for a 4-3 vote to result in a decision that everyone is happy to support — and our local government needs to present a more united front and a more positive image than it has done in the recent past).

The questions that the Progress PAC asked candidates were aimed at gaining information about candidates’ views on broad topics in local governance and our ideas and plans for responding to community challenges — they were not narrowly focused on the interests of the Chamber and the business community. I have the impression that most of us candidates (even those who refused to be considered for PAC endorsement) found it worthwhile to develop responses to the PAC questions because it helped us frame positions on questions that many citizens are asking. All of my answers to the PAC questionnaire are available on this blog:

1 – A bit of vision

2 – Where will the money come from?

3 – Patching relations between Council and schools

4- Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

5 - On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

6 – Signs should help businesses reach customers — and they shouldn’t be ugly

 

Share

Both Jackson Square and downtown are important

I commented in a conversation on Facebook that I believe is worth sharing here. A local person started the conversation with a question (edited for brevity):

I was just looking over the updated plans for the next phase of the Jackson Square renovation. The parking lot will be completely rebuilt, and the latest drawings show a splash pad system to be installed in a center courtyard area. My thoughts are about the on-going Mall talks, and how we want to attract more retail to the area, yet in Jackson Square there are empty store locations, a few spots that desperately need work…

So my question to everyone is what do we call downtown? To me, the old Jackson square is technically downtown Oak Ridge, not the Mall, but most of the newer development is around the mall. Does Oak Ridge have an overall development plan for the future? Why work so hard on Jackson Square and then put all of the focus on the Mall rebuild? The mall conversion is basically a design patterned after what Jackson Square already is when you think about it. Could we attract additional construction near Jackson Square to expand the experience there?

Several others commented on bygone days at Jackson Square and the mall site, and another person asked “When is the second part of the renovation suppose to begin?”

Farmer's Market at Jackson Square

The Farmer’s Market at Jackson Square can help define it as a village center.

My response:
As long-time Oak Ridgers know, the mall site used to be the “Downtown Shopping Center.” The location was designated to be the city’s commercial center as part of a master plan during the days of federal government ownership of the city. It’s still a logical location for major retail businesses.

In contrast, Jackson Square is currently envisioned as something more like a village center — a neighborhood where residents and visitors can walk between their homes, shops, eateries, offices, churches, entertainment venues, the Roane State campus, the Alexander Inn (soon to be a senior living facility), tennis courts, etc. The Jackson Square neighborhood has “good bones” — the potential to become one of those trendy in-town neighborhoods that many of us admire in other cities. The Jackson Square renovation is supposed to be a step toward making that vision a reality.

The start of construction at Jackson Square is delayed because the bids came in “too high.”

Share