Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council Rotating Header Image

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

 

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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.”

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Candidate forum season enters the home stretch

cityseal There are three candidate events remaining on the calendar for Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education elections. All are open to the public, without charge.

  • Thursday, October 9 – DFET (Democracy for East Tennessee) meet-the-candidates event, 7:00 pm at Oak Ridge Civic Center gym
  • Tuesday, October 14 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for City Council, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road
  • Thursday, October 16 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for School Board, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road

Early voting starts Wednesday, October 15, and runs through Thursday, October 30. Election day is Tuesday, November 4.

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

Possibly the worst kind of signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

Possibly the worst signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

The last item on the Chamber of Commerce questionnaire was an open-ended question:
Do you have any other issues you would like to address?

My response: I support the city sign ordinance. It helps to maintain the kind of esthetics that I believe people look for in a high-quality community. The visual clutter from competing signs that I see on the streets of some other area communities isn’t good for anybody – it’s ugly, and everyone’s messages get lost in the clutter of many competing signs.

However, I have heard and am sympathetic to the concerns of businesses that lack the visibility they need to help customers find them, the difficulty people have in interpreting the rules about signs, and the impression that certain businesses are allowed to have much better signage than their competitors. I hope that city government and the business community can work together to revamp the sign ordinance so that it allows businesses to have the visibility they need to reach customers, while maintaining esthetics.

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On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

citysealQuestion 5 from the Progress PAC was about City Council relationships with the Chamber of Commerce and “other business developers.”

Question:
What relationship should the city council have with the Chamber of Commerce and other business developers?

My response: City Council should look to organizations like the Chamber of Commerce as good sources of insight and advice on the needs and concerns of the business community, as well as economic development and related matters. Similarly, I hope that organizations like the Chamber – and its individual members – will contact Council members (either individually or as a body) when they want to offer advice or advocate for particular concerns.

I support Mark Watson’s recent changes that ended the close partnership relationship between the City and the Chamber, replacing it with a relationship in which the Chamber is more like a service provider for the City. It appears to me that the Chamber can advocate more effectively for its membership if it isn’t also operating as a quasi-branch of the city government, and I believe that City government should not prefer any one set of businesspeople (in this case, Chamber members) over the business community as a whole. However, I know that the Chamber is often in a unique position to work with city government to perform functions that the city government needs to support, so the two organizations should plan to continue to do business together.

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Chickens again?

Not your grandfather's chicken coopI posted on the Oak Ridge backyard chickens page on Facebook, and might as well repeat it here:

I voted for backyard chickens while I was on City Council.
I see this as one of several examples of new ideas that Oak Ridge needs to embrace in order to meet the needs and expectations of new generations of residents.

Before the early 1990s, I had never heard of greenways, but then I listened to people who supported greenways and got enthusiastically involved in developing Oak Ridge’s original greenways master plan — and I’m pleased with the continuing expansion of our greenways system.

Before about 10 years ago, I had never heard of dog parks (although I now realize I had experience as a dog owner with areas that could have been considered unofficial dog parks), but now it’s important for every community to have dog parks — and fortunately we finally have a good one here.

I guess I first heard about backyard chickens about 7 years ago (and was surprised by the idea at first). I see this as another new idea that Oak Ridge needs to embrace if we want to keep up with the times.

– Click on the “chickens” tag to see my past comments on this topic.

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Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

Building at Kareday ApartmentsQuestion 4 from the Progress PAC is about housing. My responses are below. For blog posting, I’ve inserted a couple of hyperlinks into the plain-text response that I provided to the PAC.

Question: Healthy housing is important to a healthy community. What three specific actions would you take to enhance housing in the city?

Response:

Three actions:

1. We need greater demand for housing in Oak Ridge in order to stimulate investment in housing. The marketing study (and its followup) that I mentioned in response to question 2 is an important step toward building demand for housing in Oak Ridge. Increased investment in existing neighborhoods, particularly in the central part of the city, is particularly important. The plans to redevelop the mall property as “Main Street Oak Ridge” should make a contribution to stimulating demand for homes, particularly in the center of the city.

2. Owners and buyers of existing homes are in need of practical assistance and financial resources so that Oak Ridge homes from the 1940s through the 1970s (the majority of our housing) will have greater appeal to the next generation of homeowners. To help with this, I recently contributed many hours of my time to a cooperative initiative that developed a grant proposal to TVA to obtain funds for “extreme energy makeovers” on about 300 older homes in lower-income neighborhoods in Oak Ridge. If the proposal is successful, this program will reduce living costs for some lucky residents (more…)

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Patching relations between Council and schools

Sign in front of Oak Ridge High SchoolThe Progress PAC’s third question was about patching the relationship between Oak Ridge City Council and the Oak Ridge Board of Education. My submitted response is below. At the October 1 forum conducted by the PTA-PTO Council, I was pleased to hear several school board candidates make statements that suggest they are thinking along similar lines.

Question 3: The relationship between the Board of Education and City Council has been strained. What is your plan to help build consensus between the two bodies?

My response: The strain in the relationship between the city and the schools has the same cause as many breakdowns within loving families: poor communication about money.

To repair the relationship, we need to establish open, honest, and timely communication about budgets and money. Discussions should not be just between the Board and the Council, but also must involve staff of both organizations –- the people who develop budgets and can explain the details. Ground rules are needed for these communications before they begin. Among these ground rules, I would like to see the Board accept that Council must make decisions that balance between all of the competing priorities for city money (including city operations, schools, capital needs, and the desire to minimize property taxes), and that a full understanding of the “innards” of the school budget (and the reasons for various expenditures) may be necessary to help Council weigh the Board’s funding requests against the other competing priorities. On the other hand, Council needs to agree that it has no authority to direct or interfere with Board decisions on how it spends the school budget or on how the schools are run. Ground rules should also include strong admonitions not to make personal statements critical of other participants – or other remarks that personalize the discussion.

I support the Council’s plan to re-establish a budget and finance committee in which Council members can study and discuss budgetary matters related to the entire city government and the schools. I think that meetings of this committee (which are public meetings) will provide the right setting for the two bodies to begin new conversations about money. Even if all members of both bodies are in attendance, I believe that the setting of a working committee (rather than a formal meeting of the full memberships of both bodies) should help to minimize posturing and grandstanding by individual members of the Board and Council, which has sometimes impeded meaningful communication in the past. Early discussions (starting soon after the November election) are needed, so that neither the Council or the Board will be surprised by the other body at budget time in May and June.

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Where will the money come from?

citybillThe second question from the Progress PAC was about generating revenue for city services and schools.

Question: What is your plan to generate additional revenue to support or enhance city and/or school services? Give at least two specific examples.

My response:

1. At this time, it is critically important for the city to attract a new generation of residents to take the place of the city’s founding generations – and repopulate the homes and neighborhoods that they are leaving behind as they depart the scene. In particular, we need new residents who have both the financial capacity and personal interest to support our city services and our excellent schools. Success in this will require a coordinated strategy with many parts. To help ensure a successful strategy, I believe the city needs to get started with a third-party marketing study aimed at finding out what today’s younger generations are looking for in a community, why people who have located here recently have chosen Oak Ridge, and most particularly why some people who work here don’t live here. All of us have anecdotal information and pet theories on these topics, but I’m not aware that anyone has solid data. Consulting studies have a bad reputation (and, no, I don’t know where the money will come from to pay for this one), but I believe this is a study that we can’t afford not to do. It should go without saying that the community will need to follow up on what we learn from the marketing study, both with promotional efforts and with measures to enhance the attractiveness of the community.

2. User fees alone will not provide all the additional revenue we need, but they can help recoup the costs of certain city services. (more…)

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A bit of vision

Cedar Hill ParkNow that the deadline for answers to the Progress PAC’s questions has passed (and it’s no longer possible for candidates to copy off each other’s papers), I’ll post the responses that I provided to their questions. These were interesting questions — you don’t have to be a Chamber member to be interested in candidates’ answers.

Question 1: Please explain your vision for the City of Oak Ridge for the next 5 years.

My response: Five years from now I want Oak Ridge to be recognized as one of the most desirable residential communities (ideally, the single most desirable community) in the Knoxville metropolitan area. Attainment of this vision will require significant progress in retail development, housing/neighborhood quality, and effective marketing of the community. It also requires maintaining and enhancing the quality of our schools, public services and amenities, as well as minimizing increases in residential property taxes.

An additional vision that doesn’t fold easily into the above: I want the Manhattan Project National Historic Park to be up and running, with national park logos on highway signs leading into Oak Ridge, a revitalized AMSE that is successfully transitioning to nonprofit operation independent from DOE, regular tours (paid for by visitor fees) of Manhattan Project historic facilities, and increased visitor recreational access to federal lands (such as the Wheat community and Freels Bend) that represent the historical landscape where the Manhattan Project was sited.

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