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Some responses to end-of-year questions

Stan Mitchell of The Oak Ridge Observer asked the city manager and members of City Council for our thoughts on the year past (2011) and the upcoming year (2012). The responses he received (from the manager and 6 Council members) were published in Thursday’s paper. Here’s are his questions and my answers (to see the others, you need to pick up a copy of the paper):

What City Council accomplishments from the past year are you most proud of?

Before I answer, I should point out that the City Council cannot and does not function in isolation – it’s difficult to distinguish the accomplishments and shortcomings of the City Council from the accomplishments and shortcomings of the city government as a whole. Accordingly, my answers consider the accomplishments of the city government, not just actions taken by City Council during the year.

I’m proud that, in these difficult economic times, Oak Ridge enacted another budget that both maintains city services and avoids a property tax increase.

I also take pride in the rebuilding of the Cedar Hill Park playground – not only did we build a new playground, but the volunteer project helped build community. The start-up of the new Recreation and Parks Advisory Board is bringing citizen leadership and fresh ideas into some city programs that are important to residents’ lives, and the hiring of Jim Akagi as police chief is bringing fresh approaches to law enforcement.

I’m proud that Council “bit the bullet” regarding the U.S. EPA wastewater order, rather than trying to fight the requirement to upgrade our sewer system. This big expenditure will increase everyone’s sewer rates and it’s not something that we would chosen to do on our own, but it’s the right thing to do to protect water quality, and I believe that fighting the order would have left Oak Ridge in a worse position over the long run.

Finally, I’m pleased to see the new wheelchair-accessible entrance at the Municipal Building and the improved accessible parking spaces at the Civic Center. I hope that the local businesses that are also subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act will follow the city’s example by making their facilities more accessible.

What areas do you feel City Council fell short on and how do you wish those particular areas would have turned out?

1. I am very concerned about actions of the City Manager and the City Council majority that may indicate a failure to appreciate the size, complexity, and importance of the environmental legacy from seven decades of federal government activities in Oak Ridge. I refer to the initiative – which is still in progress – to terminate the Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee (LOC) and divert its funding to a variety of purposes in the local governments in the LOC region. This is funding that has been allocated to our region to help local governments (and the communities they serve) understand the implications of legacy conditions and DOE actions, provide credible information to the public, and communicate local concerns to state and federal governments.

In spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that these are technical matters outside the normal expertise or jurisdiction of local governments, it appears that several of the region’s officials believe that the kind of technical expertise that the LOC has provided is not needed to help the region ensure that environmental cleanup and other DOE activities are conducted on a schedule and in a manner that protects the interests of our region and our constituents. I do not believe that we can count solely on the political communications skills of our city and county mayors to deliver messages about matters like the need to restore the Oak Ridge Environmental Management budget (which has now fallen below the level that the DOE Oak Ridge office has said is minimally adequate to maintain the program – and far below the level needed to make meaningful progress on cleanup, at the same time that other DOE sites have seen significant increases in EM funding), much less to reassure the public that our region’s environment is safe whenever some piece of disturbing news turns up in the media or on the Internet.

Area mayors have brought forth some good ideas about placing the LOC function under the legal and fiscal umbrella of a local government, thus reducing administrative costs and burdens. However, instead of diverting the LOC funding for purposes like paying a jurisdiction’s dues to a national organization and augmenting salaries for county staff who attend meetings of volunteer advisory boards (ideas I’ve seen from some of the local governments), I believe that the region needs to continue to employ someone with appropriate technical expertise who can stay focused on monitoring and interpreting developments related to DOE’s environmental footprint on our region, communicating with concerned members of the public as the need arises, and assisting local governments with their political messages.

2. I’m getting impatient for visible progress on some initiatives that have been announced and approved by Council. Early in the year Council authorized staff to use traffic camera revenue on some measures for pedestrian and traffic safety, but little has happened so far. Similarly, the “not in our city” initiative is supposed to include more effective enforcement of laws and ordinances against nuisances like vehicles being abandoned on city streets, but residents are not seeing hoped-for results.

3. I’m dismayed that essentially no progress has been made on implementing the Climate Action Plan that the Council adopted in December 2010. The city has had several opportunities to demonstrate leadership in reducing energy consumption, but instead has maintained a “business as usual” approach., replacing gas-guzzling vehicles in the city fleet have been replaced with newer models (including conventional SUVs to be used solely to transport people over paved streets), refusing to consider the option of piggybacking onto an energy services contract negotiated by the City of Knoxville, and passing up the opportunity to obtain electrical vehicle charging stations that were being made available through DOE at next to no cost. (I’m pleased to read in the newspaper that the City of Gatlinburg is getting charging stations, but I’m disappointed that the City of Oak Ridge is not showing similar energy leadership.) [UPDATE on January 7: I’ve learned that the city staff overcame its concerns about electric vehicle charging stations,  so the City put in an application for two charging stations before the December 31 deadline! The proposal is to install them at the east end of the library parking lot, near the Commemorative Walk.]

4. We’ve not done nearly as good a job as we could have in communicating within Council and within city government, nor in engaging the citizenry in the business of the City.

As a Council member, I’m bothered by the fact that there is little communication regarding the external situations where the mayor, other individual Council members (myself included), or city staff represent the City. Tennessee’s open meetings laws severely restrict private communications between Council members, and if we don’t have time during public meetings to exchange information about our activities, the exchange of information never happens.

On the citizen side, the large number of highly qualified applicants that come forward when we advertise for candidates for advisory boards are indicative of the quality of our community and our residents’ high level of interest in participating in making Oak Ridge an excellent place to live, work, visit, and do business. I’m pleased that the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board has reached out to involve people who weren’t appointed to that board in their activities, but other opportunities for productive engagement have been missed. For example, the program requirements for the Transportation Enhancement grant opportunity (which the City responded to with a proposal for improvements to the Jackson Square parking lot) called for one or more public “design” meetings, which could have given citizens a chance to feel (and be) engaged in the decision process at an early stage, but staff chose instead to meet the requirement with a rather perfunctory public hearing during a City Council meeting.

What are you most looking forward to working on and accomplishing in 2012?

As my answers to the last question indicate, I see plenty of unfinished business left over from 2011. In 2012, however, I particularly look forward to accomplishing some improvements in the areas of Council communications and citizen engagement.

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