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LOC R.I.P.

I’ve been trying to let the Local Oversight Committee (LOC) rest in peace and not to dwell on the matter, but I continually find myself dealing with fallout from the demise of the LOC. It was terminated once and for all last Monday afternoon (January 9). This was the fourth in a series of “special called meetings” of the LOC Board that began in early September of last year at the behest of Roane County Executive Ron Woody and Anderson County Mayor Myron Iwanski. I wasn’t at the table this time, as Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan had removed me from my position as City of Oak Ridge alternate — and thus as LOC Board chairman — via email on December 2 (after I tried to hold a regular meeting of the LOC board to address 5 months of accumulated business).

The local news media have had little coverage of this matter, but my series of blog posts should help fill in some of the details. Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel interviewed me after the January 9 meeting and described the interview in his Atomic City Underground blog: Oak Ridge environmental leader: ‘There’s been a lot of heavy-handedness’. As I told him, I feel like I was treated like a non-person. Adults in public leadership positions could have spoken directly about concerns that they may have had about the LOC’s management and direction (for example, they could have attended some of the regularly scheduled public meetings of the LOC Board on which they held seats). Instead they plotted in secret to dissolve the LOC and divert its funding to other uses, and their only communication with the rest of us was very impersonal, consisting primarily of emailed notices (I started to think of them as summonses) of special called meetings whose purposes were limited to dismantlement of the organization. As far as I know, the leaders of this effort (the Oak Ridge and Anderson County mayors and the Roane County executive, supported by the Oak Ridge City Manager) did not speak directly with the organization’s executive director about this matter until after they had finally obtained an LOC Board vote (last week) to terminate her employment. And I’ve heard reports, mostly fourth-hand and thus unverifiable, about stories exchanged by some area officials regarding the alleged misdeeds of the LOC bear only the vaguest resemblance to any actual events that I’m aware of.

I probably will never know if I’ve been one of the targets of character assassination in relation to the LOC (how can the victim ever be sure?), but I do know that this episode has seriously damaged my working relationships with some of my “teammates” in Oak Ridge city government. Furthermore, as I told Frank Munger (and as Leonard Abbatiello told the mayors, but to no avail), I believe that the death of the LOC has diminished this region’s access to the technical resources and the regional interactions that we need to make sure that the legacies of the Manhattan Project, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and Department of Energy (DOE) are appropriately addressed.  I also expect political damage to the various elected officials who were determined to eliminate the LOC, in the face of a diverse variety of citizens telling them (over the past several months) about the unique value it has had for them.

And what benefit do the individual mayors and local governments expect to get to balance against these losses? Indications are that the governments want to divide the LOC funding between them. The LOC grant has been about $170,000 yearly. If that gets cut by 10%, it becomes $153,000. Divided between 8 jurisdictions (7 counties and the city of Oak Ridge), that’s a bit more than $19,000 each — not a very big prize when measured against the damage that has been done.

I hope that the LOC-affiliated volunteer citizen groups that survive (Oak Ridge’s Environmental Quality Advisory Board, Roane County’s Environmental Review Board, and the successor to the LOC’s Citizens’ Advisory Panel (which was rebuffed on its request to hang on to the LOC’s nonprofit charter and IRS 501(c)(3) status) will be able to recreate some of the value — and potential value — that we are losing with the LOC. I think Oak Ridge and the region need them, even if certain political leaders don’t think so.

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4 Comments

  1. Karon Morris says:

    Ms. Smith,
    I totally agree with you. I especially don’t like the “secret” things they did. It wasn’t right. Open meetings get the rug pulled out from under it by “secret meetings”. When that kind of thing happens it feels like we are living in Red China sometimes. It scares me to know it happen. I am sorry it did as well. But the good thing to come of it is that YOU know it happen and thats the things that concern me about what’s wrong with our country is when that sort of thing is perpertrated on a “citizens committee”. A leader in my community has experience it. I am for doing things so everyone can see … right or wrong … in government, and if it right then why do it in secret? That is my point. If it is soooooooo right what they did then why secret meetings and just claiming it is no reflection on Ellen Smith(or anyone else on the committee) isn’t good enough EVER for me. I am going to do my best to see to it the ones who did this get voted out of office. I am going to do everything I can to get Tom Beeham voted out of office and I have no doubt that I can get it done. I am sick of those destroying “heavy hands” tearing my community apart and usurping citizens rights groups on every turn with their “secret agendas”. I really don’t understand how the mayor has the power to remove you without putting it to a vote of the entire counsil as well? Please explain that? Does the entire counsil elect the alternate or is the alternate always assigned by the mayor? I don’t get how it came down and even how what they did is legal? Do you have ANY recourse regarding the way it was done? Either way I am truely sorry for the way you were treated.(like a non-person) Lastly, I appreciate your efforts and what you did accomplish while on the LOC.

    Coridially,

    Karon Morris

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    Replying to Karon’s questions:

    Why/how could the mayor alone appoint the alternate? The LOC was set up (in 1991, by direction of the governor) to consist of the mayors of the member jurisdictions. With that kind of arrangement, it is typically assumed that the mayor has authority to designate an alternate. I think that makes sense for a mayor who is directly elected to that position by the voters (that’s true of all of the LOC member jurisdictions other than Oak Ridge). On the other hand, in Oak Ridge collective decisionmaking by the City Council ought to be the usual rule, as the mayor is not directly elected but is a member of the Council who has a relatively limited set of additional responsibilities and authorities under the charter. However, there’s no law requiring the mayor to consult with Council in this situation.

    Do I have any recourse? Not really — unlike the LOC staff members who lost their jobs, I didn’t suffer any actual harm. I am hopeful, however, that volunteer action can recreate some of the capacity that the LOC provided.

  3. Karon Morris says:

    Well, the bottom line is this Ms. Smith and that is anyone can look at your bio on the Oak Ridge City Website and you can look at Tom Beehams bio as well. It clearly shows beyond all doubt who is qualified to be on the an oversite committee regarding the plants. For a mayor to proclaim himself more qualified to oversee what goes on just because he is the mayor is ridiculas.

  4. Ellen Smith says:

    At this point, qualifications to serve on the LOC Board are moot, since the LOC no longer exists. The mayors have not met (at least not publicly) to talk about what they want to do in the future. Indications I’ve gotten (which might not be accurate) are that they don’t expect to get particularly involved with technical matters in the future.

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