Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Election 2012

“Perfect storm?” – Part 2

An eSlate voting “booth”

Continuing my exploration of the convergence of conditions and events that led to my very poor showing in the recent Oak Ridge city election… In the first installment, I mused about the dramatic increase in voter participation compared to past city elections, my notion that this expanded voter pool had a lot to do with the election results, the possible role of the new eSlate voting machines in inducing people to vote on ballot items that they hadn’t expected or prepared to vote on, and  the shift from a pro-incumbent to an anti-incumbent bias that may have accompanied the expansion in the pool of voters participating in city elections. This installment continues my speculative consideration of the question of how these new (or infrequent) city-election voters chose who to vote for.

Declining influence of traditional media. The years of my engagement with Oak Ridge city government (which began in approximately 1991) have seen dramatic changes in the news media. Traditional media (that is, newspapers) no longer reach very many people and no longer are able to provide nearly as much information. While new media outlets have appeared and have changed the way people interact with information resources, the new media haven’t c0me close to filling the gaps left by the decline of their more traditional predecessors.

When I first served on the Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB), most households in the city received and read The Oak Ridger daily newspaper. The paper had a full staff of reporters who provided extensive coverage of city government activities and affairs. As an example, a reporter almost always attended EQAB’s evening meetings — and the next day’s paper carried a fairly comprehensive report on what had been said and done at the meeting. In that era, it was fairly easy for citizens to keep up with the activities of local government. We may not have understood the specifics of the issues or known the personalities of city officials, but we had an overview of what was being done by elected officials and appointed boards.

If Rip Van Winkle had gone to sleep in Oak Ridge 20 years ago and woke up today, he wouldn’t recognize today’s information landscape. The Oak Ridger is still publishing 5 days a week, but its circulation is way down. The many people who don’t read the print edition don’t see it elsewhere, as most of its content is no longer available online, even to subscribers (something that bugs me when I’m out of town!). Only a skeletal news staff remains, with barely enough time and space to cover some of the actions by City Council and occasionally some city boards. The Knoxville News Sentinel reaches fewer people in Oak Ridge, but sometimes equals or exceeds the local daily in the scope of its coverage of Oak Ridge city government. Several years ago, the weekly Oak Ridge Observer joined the daily as a local print outlet; its readership has a big overlap with the daily’s, and because of its distribution methods it reaches some people who don’t ever see the daily, but it’s also limited in its circulation and its capacity to cover the news. The online Oak Ridge Today is a new addition to the scene that typically is more timely than the print media, but also has significant limitations in capacity — and it reaches only some of the regular Internet users in Oak Ridge (which is not nearly everybody).

When I was campaigning this year, a large fraction of the citizens who indicated an interest and awareness in city government said they got most of their information about City Council from watching our meetings on cable channel 12. Those people may know about as much about the goings-on of city government  as regular readers of the Oak Ridger did two decades ago (and they know more about the personalities of individual Council members), but not nearly everyone finds City Council meetings sufficiently interesting to watch them on TV regularly. Social media, including online forums, Facebook, and blogs (like this one), have been playing a role in informing some people about local government actions and officials, but their reach is also very limited — and the content often lacks journalistic objectivity.

Not only do the local news outlets have diminished readership, but they’ve greatly reduced their coverage of local elections. This year, no media outlet asked me for the kinds of very basic information they used to publish in comparative guides to the candidates — details like age, address, employment, and marital status. In another contrast with several past city elections, this year there were no candidate interviews broadcast on cable channel 12 – presumably the Chamber of Commerce, which sponsored these in the past, no longer has sufficient funds for this sort of thing. All of the print and online media outlets published candidates campaign announcements, although I was disappointed that it took a few weeks for my announcement to show up in The Oak Ridger. The only one of the three local papers to attempt its own “compare the candidates” coverage this year was The Oak Ridge Observer, which printed candidates’ 75-word responses to a series of weekly questions. All three of the local news outlets published at least one report on the candidate forums held by the League of Women Voters and the Chamber, but coverage of the forums consisted largely of selected quotations – far less than the comprehensive comparisons I recall from past years.

With traditional news media reaching fewer people with less information, it’s not obvious to me where the many voters who apparently don’t follow local media get their information. The Internet has become a tremendous resource for candidate research for people who have access and are familiar with using the Internet, but not everyone has access – and it was clear from my conversations with voters that many did not have enough interest in the city election to go to the trouble of looking up candidates on the Internet. As a candidate this year, I ran ads in the daily, weekly, and online papers, in spite of a little voice in my head that told me that their readerships overlap a lot, so my multiple ads would reach a limited audience. I’m still curious to learn about the information sources that were used by people who don’t normally follow local government or media, but did vote in the City Council election.

The summer 2012 special election. One unanticipated effect of changing city elections to November of even-numbered years (please note that City Council neither proposed nor endorsed that charter change — it was proposed by an elected charter commission and approved by referendum) was that the special election for the unexpired term created by Tom Hayes’ resignation in summer 2011 had to be held  just 3 months before the regular election for that same seat. It seems to me that the special election on August 2 had an unanticipated impact on the November 6 election.

In the past, a special election wouldn’t have occurred so close to the regular city election. The charter says that when a vacancy occurs, it should be filled temporarily by appointment  until a special election can be held on the next regular election date. When city elections were in June of odd-numbered years, any special election to fill a vacancy could happen at the next city election in June (giving the winner the two remaining years of a 4-year term) or  in August or November of an even-numbered year (in which case the winner would serve at least 7 or 10 months, until the next June election). Under the new arrangement, the only possible election dates are August and November, so the most likely time for any special election will be the August primary (and county general) election that is held 3 months before the city election in November.

The two candidates in the August election, Chuck Hope and Trina Baughn, both began campaigning in the spring. Trina formally announced her candidacy in March, and Chuck’s interest in being elected to the seat had been clear ever since he was appointed to the seat in the summer of 2011. In the spring they began a grueling 6 or 7 months of campaigning, including lots of door-to-door work during the spring months and those long days of June. State candidates who expected to be on the November ballot, such as Jim Hackworth and John Ragan, also started getting busy during that period. Around the time in June when campaign signs started appearing in advance of early voting in July, people asked me: “Aren’t you up for re-election this year? Why aren’t you out campaigning?” My answer was that I was running, but I couldn’t start campaigning due to the awkward situation created by the special election. The focus for city election voters at that time was on choosing between the two candidates who were competing for the one seat on the summer primary ballot. It would have been seriously confusing for the other November candidates (Charlie Hensley, Kelly Callison, and I) to introduce ourselves to voters and try to explain that we weren’t up in this next election, but wanted their vote in the one after that, when the very same two people they were now considering would be on the ballot again for the very same office. As a result, Charlie and Kelly and I had a short campaign season, starting in August.

Looking back on the earlier part of the summer, it dawns on me that while Charlie, Kelly and I were impatiently sitting on our hands, the special election and Chuck and Trina were getting more attention from local news media (and one more League of Women Voters forum) than the fall election for city council ended up receiving. Additionally, with just two candidates, there was more individual focus on each of them as individuals than when there were five of us running for City Council (and when both voters and the news media seemed to be more interested in the presidential election).

It seems likely that the exposure they received in the summer campaign had a lot to do with why Chuck and Trina polled so exceptionally well (placing first and second) in the November election. I think they both recognize this. For example, in Oak Ridge Today‘s its first report on the November results, there is a statement that “Baughn and Hope both said the August special election helped prepare them for Tuesday’s municipal election.” Kelly Callison also told one of the local news outlets that he thought that he would have done better in November if he had run in August. There’s no doubt that Chuck and Trina worked hard to earn the votes they got, but I see two things that “ain’t right” with the election schedule they faced. Firstly, it’s rough on candidates to run for the same office twice in 3 months. and secondly, it doesn’t seem like a “good government” plan to hold what is essentially a “pre-election” for City Council (similar to a primary) that is open to only some of the candidates.

That’s the end of Part 2. See the upcoming Part 3, covering the ballot order effect and other topics.

Share

A “perfect storm” that wasn’t in the forecast? – Part 1

It’s been a month since the election — high time for me to acknowledge here that I lost.

A person can’t run for office without anticipating the possibility of losing, but I lost by a lot — something I didn’t see coming.

When an incumbent loses a re-election bid by a big margin, the usual interpretation is that the voters were severely dissatisfied with the official’s performance in office. That’s what I first thought when I saw the returns (“Where did I go so horribly wrong?!”). However, looking over the results, talking with fellow citizens, and reflecting on the election season has convinced me that this was not the case — my election loss should not be interpreted as a massive repudiation of my work as a City Council member. Instead, I’ve concluded that for me this election was a bit like a “perfect storm.” That is, as with the recent Superstorm Sandy, a variety of seemingly unrelated conditions and events converged to yield an exceptionally poor result for me. Unlike Sandy, though, no one forecast my perfect storm. As I told two local newspapers the day after the election, the majority of the feedback I got from citizens who follow city affairs has been positive, and most observers of the local political scene thought I would do well this year. Since then, I’ve heard from many citizens — including many that I don’t know personally — who tell me that they thought I was doing an exemplary job, they were shocked at my election loss, and they hope I will run again.

I congratulate the winners — the two incumbents, Charlie Hensley and Chuck Hope, and the newcomer, Trina Baughn — on their election. I wish them — and the whole city — success in their coming years on City Council. I know that all three of them expect to work hard on behalf of their fellow citizens. (No one should underestimate the size of the obligation they have taken on, based on the big reduction in my personal workload that I’ve experienced since the election.)

Because I think some or all of the “perfect storm” circumstances of this year’s election will repeat themselves in the future, I’m documenting my perceptions here for the world to read. Because this has turned into a long essay, I’m dividing it into several installments.

A different electorate. I believe that the vote indicated a very different electorate than we’ve seen in past city elections. That difference is due to holding the city election on a national election day (due to a charter change approved in 2010), instead of the traditional date in June of odd-numbered years.

In those past city elections, a lot of eligible voters didn’t bother to vote. Because the ballots contained only city items, the people who showed up to vote in those June city elections in Oak Ridge were people who took an interest in city government or the schools – or knew some of the candidates personally. That wasn’t nearly everybody. In June 2007, when I was elected, the referendum on the proposed issuance of bonds for the Crestpointe retail development brought unusually high turnout for a city election — 6,414 people voted in that city election. In contrast, the tallies posted on the county election commission websites indicate that 13,292 people in Oak Ridge voted in the recent election – more than twice the heavy turnout of 2007.

Conventional wisdom holds that most of the people who don’t vote on city election day also don’t vote when a city election is held on a national or state election day. This year, a number of the voters I met while campaigning confirmed that — they told me that they didn’t know about city government, would not vote in the city election, and sometimes weren’t willing to talk to me because they didn’t care. Some told me they would only vote in the presidential race. I believed those people, but I don’t think what they told me was true. It appears from the election results that almost everyone who voted this year cast votes for City Council and School Board. Those 13,292 voters each cast an average of 2.25 votes for City Council (out of 3 possible). Since I know that some people deliberately used just one or two of their three votes (either for strategic bullet voting or because they had found only one or two candidates they wanted to support), it’s reasonable to guess that only about 10-15% skipped the City Council election altogether (that’s more than the 7% who skipped the Congressional and Senate races and less than the 20% who didn’t cast complimentary votes for the city judge, who was running unopposed). It’s unusual for so many people to vote in a local election that occurs at the same time as a national or state election. For example, a published analysis of the ballots from a 2006 election in California reports that 46% of the  people who voted in the state election skipped the  local school board election (Meredith and Salant 2012).

By my arithmetic, somewhere around 11,000 to 12,000 people voted in the City Council election this year, including at least 4,000 to 5,000 people who hadn’t voted in a previous city election and may not have given much thought (if any) to the city election before they voted. I believe these new-to-city-election voters were a huge factor in this year’s results. Certainly, they swelled the vote numbers for all candidates. My 4,624 votes put me in last place this year, but would have been a landslide victory in most past city elections. That total was a 46% increase over my tally of 3,177 when I was elected in 2007 and more than double the 2,048 votes that Tom Beehan received in 2009, when he was the highest vote-getter in that year’s City Council election (and when fewer than 4,000 people voted). This year’s two highest-polling Council candidates (Chuck Hope at 6,887 votes and and Trina Baughn at 6.739) not only impressively garnered votes from more than half of the people of voted in the city, but their tallies also exceeded the total turnout in that high-turnout city election of 2007. (Charlie Hensley’s third-place total of 6,301 fell just short of the 2007 turnout.)

OK — so these voters new to city elections had a big influence on the city election, but there are a couple of questions to answer about that influence: Why did people vote in these races when they said they wouldn’t? How did they choose who to vote for?

We don’t have local polls to help provide “scientific” answers to those questions, but I have made some educated guesses based on a combination of personal observations and review of research done elsewhere.

eSlate voting machines. I believe that the voting machines we currently use (the eSlate model from Hart Intercivic, which I don’t think we had back in 2007) explain why a lot of people voted on items they hadn’t planned on voting on.

I knew that the eSlate was selected to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which requires the use of voting equipment that is “fully accessible for individuals with disabilities” and allows people to “vote independently and with privacy”, regardless of their disabilities. Not only is the eSlate is designed for full accessibility, but I learned recently that it also is promoted for its ability to prevent “undervote”.

“Undervote” refers to a voter’s failure to vote in all of the items on an election ballot. Election administrators have a long-standing concern that some voters “undervote” because they didn’t notice everything on the ballot or because their vote didn’t register properly. The eSlate (see online demo of how it works) has two features to prevents this. First, it makes the voter move through the entire election ballot item by item (possibly including items they hadn’t intended to vote on). Then its final screen displays the voter’s selections, highlighting in red any item in which the voter didn’t make a selection or didn’t use one of their available votes. This is done for the laudable purpose of helping the voter avoid mistakes, but because I’ve talked to many people who feared that their votes would be invalid if there were any red entries displayed on that screen, I believe that it induces (even intimidates) some people to cast votes on items they had not planned to vote on (and may not have researched before walking into the voting booth). There are plenty of good reasons why a voter might choose to omit some ballot items (including the aforementioned “bullet voting”, dissatisfaction with all candidates, or lack of interest or information regarding certain items), but it looks to me like the emphasis on preventing “undervote” is probably discouraging some voters from exercising the valid option of not voting.

The eSlate is very different from the way things used to be. With our old voting machines, the entire ballot was laid out in front of the voter on a single screen, so a voter could look around and pick the items they wanted to vote on, then push the button to submit their votes. That made it easier for a voter to decide to omit certain items. In contrast, it appears to me that the eSlate induces unprepared voting — and will increase the rate of unprepared voting everywhere that it is used.

With this expanded electorate, incumbency looks like a disadvantage. Historically, incumbents have usually had an advantage in Oak Ridge city elections, presumably due to name recognition and an electorate that has tended to value stability and experience. There have been exceptions when there was widespread dissatisfaction with a recent city government decision — most notable of which in my memory was the Council decision (about two decades ago) to borrow money to build the Centennial golf course, using a borrowing method (capital outlay notes) that isn’t subject to public referendum.

This year, recent events led many observers of the local situation to think that incumbents would have a clear path to re-election. Things had been going fairly well in the city lately. There were no property tax increases in the last few years. There was positive news on the retail development front, including the recent openings of the new Aubrey’s and Panera Bread restaurants and news of plans for the new Kroger Marketplace. Many residents had positive things to say about increased police patrols and reductions in criminal activity resulting from recent changes in the police department. Completion of Phase 4 of the Melton Lake Greenway and the installation of new sidewalks and pedestrian crossings were creating positive vibes about quality of life in the city, and the enforcement of new parking regulations as part of Mark Watson’s “Not in Our City” initiative had eliminated sources of chronic complaints in several neighborhoods.

People who follow city affairs (the people who traditionally vote in Oak Ridge city elections) may generally have shared those positive perceptions of the state of the city, but a combination of overheard conversations (mostly at the polls), the election results, and comments posted online since the election leads me to think that many voters this year (probably including many of those folks who haven’t often voted in city elections) followed the principle of “when in doubt, get rid of the incumbents.” I heard (and heard of) people who talked about voting for Trina Baughn and Kelly Callison (ironically, the most anti-“establishment” and pro-“establishment” candidates on the ballot, respectively — I don’t know of anyone who knows both of these people and voted for both of them) because they weren’t incumbents. Chuck Hope also apparently appealed to anti-incumbent voters because he had been in office only a little more than a year — not nearly as long as Charlie Hensley’s and my full terms.

Any anti-incumbent trend this year was amplified by the small number of non-incumbents on the ballot. I noted a “strong current of anti-incumbent sentiment” in the 2009 city election. There were four Council seats up for election and eleven candidates on the ballot: three incumbents and eight non-incumbents. The non-incumbents outpolled the three incumbents by 7,348 total votes to 5,674 votes, but if there was an anti-incumbent vote then, it was divided among too many different candidates to be effective, as the three incumbents won by solid margins. This year, people wanting to vote against incumbents could focus their votes effectively.

To be continued….

Share

Repopulating Oak Ridge

One of The Oak Ridge Observer‘s weekly questions for Council candidates was “What do you feel is Oak Ridge’s biggest problem? And how do you plan to try to fix it?”

My answer (75 words or less) was:

Oak Ridge’s biggest challenge is repopulating our neighborhoods to replace our founding generations (the people who arrived in the city’s first decades, built the city, and are now passing on). There is no simple solution. We must continue recent progress against drug crime and neighborhood blight, maintain excellent schools and services, revitalize retail, promote our quality of life, use “land bank” authority to rejuvenate homes and stabilize neighborhoods, and much more (see www.ellensmith.org/blog for details).

Now for those promised details…

Background. Our city’s founders were bright and hard-working young people who came from all over to help win a war, remained after that war in the government-issue neighborhoods and housing that Skidmore Owings & Merrill had laid out, and invented many aspects of community as they went along. They were joined over the post-war years by other young people much like them. Early residents treasured their government-issue homes and the unusually egalitarian neighborhoods (mixed by income, profession, and “social class”) in which they were set. These founding generations have largely “aged in place”, giving our city an unusually large senior population. No one lives forever, though, and these founders are leaving us. Most of their bright and hard-working kids — products of our city’s fine schools — have found opportunities elsewhere in the U.S. and the world, and they aren’t particularly interested in their parents’ homes.

The goal. As I see it, Oak Ridge needs to repopulate itself in the coming years — add new people in both the original neighborhoods and the newer ones that were built over the decades since the war.  Ideally we can find new residents of the same caliber of the ones who are leaving us. In particular, this means increasing Oak Ridge’s “market share” of the people who come here for new jobs, as well as attracting retirees and making this a “community of choice” for people throughout the Knoxville metro area.

Doing this means ensuring that our city is an attractive residential location, particularly for members of today’s younger generations who come to this area for jobs. New residents need to be attracted to inhabit existing neighborhoods, whether in well-kept older homes, homes renovated to meet the needs and wishes of new residents, or new houses built on “infill” vacant lots or to replace homes that aren’t good enough to renovate.

What we need to do. This is a big and complex challenge with no simple solution. (Goodness knows that I’ve attended numerous meetings about measures to help address various pieces of this challenge!) My answer to The Observer outlined some of my thoughts on what can and should be done. Here are some more thoughts:

* Confront the city’s negatives. This is the focus of city manager Mark Watson’s “Not in Our City” initiative — a collection of efforts aimed at eliminating conditions that are “turn-offs” for visitors and prospective residents. Talking to Oak Ridgers in this election season, I’ve been pleased to hear that people all over Oak Ridge are seeing real progress. More effective law enforcement has eliminated hot spots of illegal drug activity and is helping people feel safer. The enforcement of new ordinances on parking (no parking on sidewalks, no regular parking or storage of boats, RVs, and oversize vehicles on public streets, no parking in front yards except on legitimate parking surfaces, etc.) has removed long-existing eyesores from several neighborhoods, reduced parking-related conflicts between neighborhoods, and made it easier to use city sidewalks.

Those are by no means the only negatives to confront. There are other types of eyesores (like kudzu in greenbelts, other types of junk in yards, and weeds growing along the curb) that ought to be tackled. Lack of shopping opportunities is a longstanding concern that the new Kroger Marketplace will help to address, but will not fully resolve. Other types of negatives exist and should be recognized and addressed, such as people’s fears about living in a city that is a center for nuclear activities. I think that city leadership needs to identify and address the city’s negatives. It was to help address some negative perceptions that, during the 1990s, the Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) crafted a brochure and created a website to disseminate a positive message about the quality and safety of the city’s environment. As an EQAB member and contributor to that effort, I felt it was important for both residents and outsiders to know that the serious contamination that DOE is working to clean up is isolated to DOE-controlled areas and is (with few exceptions) not in our residential community. For example, almost all of the land we live on was never used for any kind of industry, the water we drink is clean (and obtained upstream from any federal facilities), and our environment is exceptionally well investigated and monitored, giving us a solid basis for being confident that it is safe (we know more about the safety of our environment than the residents of most U.S. communities do).

The rebuilt Cedar Hill Park playground is a positive feature of the city for new residents and old.

* Maintain and enhance the city’s positives. Positive attributes of Oak Ridge for residents include our excellent public schools, our full range of quality city services, our unique history, an exceptionally large amount of public open space for a community our size, an unusual array of human-powered outdoor recreation opportunities in our public open space and public lakefront (for example, the excellent rowing course, mountain biking at Haw Ridge, and many miles of greenway trails), the diversity of our population (people came here from everywhere and tend to be open to other newcomers), and exceptional arts/culture (think symphony, playhouse, art center, etc.) and adult education (think ORICL) resources for a city of our  size. The local legacy in science and technology is another asset that forms a basis for future job growth — an important ingredient of residential growth.

That’s a partial list of Oak Ridge’s positives — other people would add to it. We need to recognize these positives so we don’t neglect them, so we enhance them when appropriate, and so we can celebrate and promote them. City government has a particularly important part in ensuring that schools, city services, and recreation facilities continue to be positives for Oak Ridge.

*Improve the housing stock and our older neighborhoods. There are many positive qualities in Oak Ridge housing, but there’s also much room for improvement. On the positive side, much of our existing housing qualifies as “affordable” by most definitions of that term. Many homes — in all price ranges — are in locations (quiet, secluded settings; mountain views; etc.) that are prized in most real estate markets. There are many available lots in recently created subdivisions. On the negative side, today’s homebuyers are looking for features that often are lacking in our existing homes, many homes lack off-street parking, too many houses are in a deteriorated state due to neglect, and most of the very temporary units remaining from wartime (I don’t mean cemestos, but the more temporary housing that is concentrated in the Highland View neighborhood) have outlasted their useful life. Much of our existing housing lends itself to renovation/modernization (for example, the interior walls of cemesto homes are not load-bearing walls, so it’s not hard to knock out a wall to reconfigure the rooms), but the high cost of new construction discourages this. Neighborhood blight issues — including properties owned by negligent landlords — can discourage potential buyers, as well as owners’ efforts to improve individual homes.

Legislation passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2012 authorizes Oak Ridge to establish a land bank — essentially, a nonprofit corporation that could own, maintain, renovate, redevelop, or sell under-utilized property in the city. This is not a cure for every issue with local housing, but it offers a means for keeping newly vacated homes from becoming low-end rentals and for reconfiguring existing homes and neighborhoods for new owners. City Council needs to work with staff to formulate a charter for the land bank that will ensure that it can work for the maximum benefit of the city and its citizens.

* Foster change to make the city attractive to new residents, including “millennials” and future generations. Tastes change over time, and a community that seemed ideal to past generations might not have any appeal for future generations. The “millennial” generation, including my 25-year-old son, has an overwhelming preference for walkable urban neighborhoods. Oak Ridge was like that in its early years when few people had cars, housing was clustered around neighborhood shopping areas to which residents walked, and buses took people where they needed to go outside their neighborhoods. Since then, we have lost the buses and most of the neighborhood shopping, and we have spread (yes, sprawled) away from the original compact neighborhoods. I support efforts to reconfigure and revitalize the Jackson Square shopping center and surrounding areas as a means to reinvent that area as the kind of place that younger generations will want to  be. I have been delighted to watch Jackson Square begin to become a center for dining — particularly for unique local establishments like the Soup Kitchen, Razzleberry’s, the Homeland Food Cafe, the Market House, and Dean’s Restaurant. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing — which is one reason why I am supporting amendments to city ordinances to ensure that restaurants that lack liquor licenses (under Tennessee’s difficult liquor laws) can allow patrons to bring wine to enjoy with their meals. The pedestrian improvements that the state and city have made recently around town, waterfront improvements, and expanded greenways also should help make Oak Ridge more attractive to rising generations. One of the reasons I’ve been engaged with the Plan ET regional planning initiative for the 5-county Knoxville region is my conviction that regional cooperation is necessary to position our city for the future.

* Tell our story effectively. If Oak Ridge is a great place to live, we need to tell the world (or at least the Knoxville metro area, particularly including new hires in Oak Ridge) about it. The Chamber of Commerce and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau both are involved in crafting and communicating the city’s message (to businesses, prospective visitors, and potential future residents), but I’m not sure that we and they are doing the best job we could. I think the city needs to hear and consider new proposals (from these organizations and from others) for doing that job more effectively.

Share

Thoughts on history and preservation

Kiosk at Oak Ridge Welcome Center, which promotes Manhattan Project heritage tourism

Today’s Oak Ridger has the first installment of  the responses that City Council candidates provided when D. Ray Smith asked for our thoughts on city history and historic preservation. My complete responses are here. His request was:

What I would like to have to include in a future “Historically Speaking” column are your thoughts on the following:

 1. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park

2. Preservation of the Alexander Inn

3. K-25 Memorandum of Understanding (the history center there in the Fire Hall, the replica building, the viewing tower and the footprint being preserved)

4. The importance of Heritage Tourism as one of the economic development strategies for Oak Ridge

5. Any other thoughts you might have on historic preservation

What I told Ray in response:

Oak Ridge is a place where ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things that contributed to changing the history of the world. I was reminded of the tremendous significance of the Manhattan Project a few days ago when the BBC website had a feature story about “Five of history’s most important places,” listing Los Alamos alongside places like Athens, Greece.

The story of what happened in Oak Ridge needs to be made available and accessible to future generations. I am excited about the prospect of establishing a Manhattan Project National Historic Park because I believe that the National Park Service has the expertise to help us do a more effective job of telling our story and because National Park affiliation will bring more visitors into our city. Oak Ridge won’t become a tourist mecca on a par with Gatlinburg, but we can expect solid economic benefits from bringing more customers to our hotels, restaurants, visitor attractions, and specialty shops.

It’s a shame that none of Oak Ridge’s three Manhattan Project “signature facilities” can be seen by visitors on a regular basis. The Beta 3 calutron building at Y-12 is in a high security area, the Graphite Reactor can be visited only on public bus tours in the summer, and the K-25 building is being demolished. I am still disappointed that DOE did not see clear to preserving a part of the K-25 building. I recall that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation consultants who visited some years ago said that the massive scale of that building was something that visitors in future centuries would be impressed by. Since we couldn’t keep a piece of K-25, the projects spelled out in the K-25 Memorandum of Understanding are a reasonable substitute.

I am very pleased by the news that the Alexander Inn Guest House likely will be preserved and restored. It was an important part of Manhattan Project Oak Ridge; it’s a treasured landmark in the lives of most long-time Oak Ridgers; and a restored Alexander Inn will help tie the Jackson Square area together as a historic commercial district and visitor attraction. Some residents have told me that the Alexander doesn’t have sufficient historic significance to be worth preserving. I agree that it doesn’t meet the same standard of exceptional historic significance as the three “signature facilities,” but very few historic properties anywhere can meet that high of a standard. (The Graphite Reactor is one of fewer than 2,500 national historic landmarks in the country, and the other two facilities are also deemed worthy of that exalted designation.) All in all, I think the Alexander is a significant physical piece of Oak Ridge history that is worth trying to hang onto.

Note: That response was written almost two weeks ago, before City Council voted (unanimously!) to approve a tax abatement that will help make the Alexander Inn restoration a reality.

Share

Campaign statement

Here’s one version of the statement I’ve been using (with variations depending on the audience and the time allotted) in campaign forums and in my ad in the election edition of the Oak Ridger:

In 1981, when my husband, Rich Norby, was recruited by ORNL, we looked around the area and chose to buy a home in Oak Ridge for its sense of community, its green spaces, its cultural assets, the public services that a city provides, and a house we liked. We’re still here. Our adult son was born here and attended our excellent schools; I’ve spent three decades as an environmental scientist on the research staff in the ORNL Environmental Sciences Division; and after years of other types of civic service, in 2007 I was elected to Oak Ridge City Council.

Many of my civic activities have a theme of ensuring that our city and region are safe and attractive places to live and work, including advising SOCM on technical aspects of acid mine drainage, 16 years on the city Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB), work in the 1990s on the city Greenways Master Plan and the East Fork Poplar Creek Citizens Working Group, serving as a member of the board of directors of the now-defunct Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee (LOC), and helping to found and continuing to serve on the boards of both Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation (AFORR) and Keep Anderson County Beautiful.

I see City Council membership as a public trust. Council members are entrusted with responsibility to make financial and policy decisions on behalf of our fellow citizens. I hope that my continual effort to do what’s right for the city and its citizens has given city voters the confidence they need to re-elect me to another term.

My five years on City Council have taught me that neither our city government nor individual Council members have the power to enact our personal agendas or visions for the future. Often we are concerned with decisions related to running the city, or we are responding to the opportunities and challenges that present themselves — many of which could not have been foreseen when we ran for office.

  • In the next four years, I want to continue trying to do the right thing for the city and my fellow citizens. I aim to:
  • Treat all citizens fairly and with respect
  • Be fully informed about the matters that come before Council
  • Keep an open mind – and be prepared to change my mind when warranted
  • Get maximum value for the public’s money
  • Maintain, enhance, and take advantage of our assets: schools, neighborhoods, natural environment, historic legacy, science and technology leadership, etc.
  • Continue recent progress in combatting crime and neighborhood blight
  • Embrace change that makes this a better place to live, work, and invest
  • Hold the federal government to its responsibilities and commitments
  • Ensure open government and transparency in city decisions
  • Avoid actions that will lead to unintended negative consequences
Share

Yard signs available “while supplies last”

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signYes, yard signs are still available for folks who want to show their support for my re-election.

Who wouldn’t appreciate a lawn ornament at this time of year, when lawns and gardens are petering out? I prefer to have these signs displayed in people’s yards, rather than distributing them along road rights of way, so get yours while supplies last!

Bumper stickers in a similar design are also available. These are quality stickers — experience shows that they pull off easily.

Send me an email at ellen@ellensmith.org to place your request.

Share

It’s campaign forum season! Here’s a schedule…

Campaign forum season starts Tuesday, October 2 with the League of Women Voters of Oak Ridge forum for City Council and school board, 7 pm at the amphitheater classroom in Oak Ridge High School. Candidates will speak briefly and field questions, with LWV volunteers enforcing limits intended to keep things fair for all.

Thursday, October 4, 7 pm – LWV Forum for 3rd District Congressional and state legislature candidates (Anderson and Roane County districts), same time and place.

Tuesday, October 9, 7:30 am – Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce candidate forum at the Chamber — for City Council and School Board.

Tuesday, October 9, 7 pm – Democracy for East Tennessee candidate forum, Oak Ridge Civic Center rooms A & B. This forum is less formal than the others. After introductions, people can talk with candidates one on one.

Monday, October 15, 7 pm – Elks Lodges Candidates Night at the Elks Lodge on Emory Valley Road.

Added October 7:

Monday, October 15 at 4 pm, Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum for candidates for State House Districts 32 & 33.

Thursday, October 18, 5:30 pm, Candidate meet and greet for City Council and School Board, clubhouse at the Preserve at Clinch River (formerly Rarity Ridge)

All of these events are open to the public.

Share

City Council’s best and worst: September 27th Observer question

The Oak Ridge Observer‘s question for Council candidates this week was “What’s the best thing City Council has done in the past ten years? And what’s the worst thing?”

I chose to focus my 75-words-or-less answer on the five years that I’ve been on Council. The first part of my response (in the September 27 edition of the Observer) says:

Council’s best action in my five years in office was making a good hire for city manager. Under Mark Watson, there has been real progress against chronic problems such as neighborhood blight.

In a council-manager government like ours, it is pretty much a given that the single most important thing the Council does is to choose and employ a good city manager. It’s the manager, not the council, who directs the rest of the city staff and runs the city on a daily basis. When city manager Jim O’Connor left for another position at the end of 2009, we had to recruit and select a new manager. Mark Watson arrived in the summer of 2010. Change didn’t occur overnight, but after two years it’s clear that his personnel actions (such as the hiring of Police Chief Jim Akagi), the policy initiatives he’s brought to Council, and his day-to-day direction to staff, have made inroads against some chronic problems in the city.

In the second part of my response, I said:

Council’s biggest shortcoming has been our failure to undertake a critical examination of the city’s economic development efforts. The results we have achieved aren’t commensurate with the amounts we spend on marketing, lobbyists, special events, etc.

In a typical year, Oak Ridge spends over $900,000 of our city budget in the name of “economic diversification.” That money goes to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for tourism promotion; to the Chamber of Commerce and several other regional economic development organizations for business recruitment and promotion; and to the city’s lobbyists in Washington, DC, and Nashville. It also pays for all or part of a variety of special events, such as the Secret City Festival, July 4th fireworks, and “Secret City Sounds” concerts on summer evenings. These things have been supported year in and year out because of a general perception that they are good things for the city to support.

In addition, business incentives such as tax abatements are a cost to the city, and the city Industrial Development Board uses funds obtained from public resources to pay for infrastructure improvements, spec buildings, and other activities at industrial parks and other business properties. In total, city government spends a good bit more than $1 million a year on economic development.

For the most part, these are things the city should continue to support. However,  I don’t think that the expenditure over 1 million dollars a year is achieving  the amount of benefit we ought to expect from that amount of money, so we are overdue for a critical evaluation of this entire program. Council is not qualified to devise a new strategy for economic development, but we need to try to measure the return on our investment, ask why Oak Ridge is supporting a particular set of activities — and whether decisions made long ago still make sense, seek recommendations on actions and strategies that might produce better results, and ask what is the right amount for the city to be spending on these efforts. Ideally, a re-examination of the city’s economic development activities would happen annually.

Share

In this week’s Oak Ridge Observer

Here’s what I said when The Oak Ridge Observer asked what (in 75 words or less) had “compelled” the candidates to run for City Council:

Under our charter, City Council consists of citizens elected to represent their friends and neighbors in making decisions for the common good. I am attracted to this kind of civic service. I seek re-election to help Oak Ridge make wise choices, ensuring value for our money, and aiming for a prosperous future without sacrificing what makes our city special (like neighborhoods, schools, city services, natural environment, and atomic heritage).

Pick up a copy of Thursday’s Observer or subscribe to the online edition to see the other candidate’s answers. Editor Stan Mitchell will be running a new question for all area candidates every week from now until the election.

In that same issue of the Observer, I also had a short guest column, under the headline “Eminent domain was never on the table”, responding to an editorial the previous week that applauded the announcement of plans for a new Kroger Marketplace shopping center:

I agree with most of the sentiments expressed in the September 13th editorial about the Kroger Marketplace project, but I was troubled by the suggestion that eminent domain might have been used if property owners hadn’t voluntarily accepted the developer’s purchase offers.

Some people have told me they were afraid they could be forced to sell their homes to this retail developer, but I don’t think there is a valid basis for this concern. First, this is a private initiative. It is not sponsored by the Oak Ridge city government, nor (as far as I know) any other government. Secondly, Tennessee law allows eminent domain (condemnation) to acquire property only for “public use”, not for a private economic development such as a retail store.

A Municipal Technical Advisory Service publication entitled “Eminent Domain in Tennessee” discusses the allowable purposes for eminent domain under Tennessee law. I suppose that a clever lawyer might be able to stretch some of the allowable purposes (such as the redevelopment of a blighted area) to justify acquiring a residential neighborhood for a shopping center, but that couldn’t happen without government action — and probably some nasty litigation. In the case of the site for the Kroger Marketplace, the neighborhood as a whole is not blighted — and no one ever approached me, as a City Council member, to suggest that the city government should help acquire the land for the project.

As the editorial indicated, the development team deserves to be commended for successfully assembling the property for this project through voluntary purchases. We don’t need to speculate about what they would have done if property owners didn’t agree to sell, because involuntary acquisition by eminent domain wasn’t a realistic option.

Share

Announcement of candidacy for re-election

Here’s the press release I sent out a little while back to announce that I’m running for re-election. It’s appeared in The Oak Ridge Observer and on Oak Ridge Today, but I haven’t seen it in The Oak Ridger yet.

Oak Ridge City Council member Ellen Smith, who was first elected to Council in 2007, has announced her candidacy for re-election in the November 6, 2012, city election.

In announcing her candidacy, Ellen Smith said: “It has been both an honor and a significant responsibility to serve Oak Ridge’s citizenry as one of the city’s elected leaders. I hope that my work over the last five years has justified the citizens’ trust, and that Oak Ridge voters will choose me for another term in office.”

She commented: “In 2009, the members of City Council drafted a vision statement that said we want Oak Ridge to be ‘a highly sought after community for people of all ages to live, work, play and do business.’ Add to that a concern for people, a concern for fairness, a conviction that government decisionmaking should be transparent to the public, and a never-ending pursuit of value for the public’s money, and you’ll have a pretty good summary of what guides my government actions.”

Ellen Smith is an environmental scientist on the research staff in the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Originally from Connecticut, she is a graduate of Carleton College (Minnesota), where she majored in geology, and she holds a master’s degree in water resources management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband, Rich Norby, have lived in Oak Ridge since 1981. They have one adult son who was born and raised here and attended Oak Ridge Schools.

Before her election to City Council, Ellen was a 16-year member of the city Environmental Qjuality Advisory Board (EQAB), serving for several years as its chairman. She represented EQAB and later the City on the Board of Directors of the Local Oversight Committee, chairing that body from 2007 until 2011.

She is a member of organizations including the League of Women Voters and Altrusa, and is a founding member of both Keep Anderson County Beautiful and Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation, on whose boards she serves.

As a City Council member, she has added to her understanding of local government and worked to build connections with other communities through conferences and other activities of the National League of Cities and the Tennessee Municipal League, as well as by completing Level 1 of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service’s Elected Officials Academy and several additional classes. Currently she is participating actively in the five-county Plan ET regional initiative.

Some of her earlier volunteer civic activities include being a charter member and officer of the East Tennessee Chapter of the Association for Women in Science in the 1980s; participation in the 1992-1993 Greenways Task Force that developed a master plan for what is now the city greenway network, the 1992-1994 Lower East Fork Poplar Creek Citizens Working Group, and a late 1990s city task force that investigated and made recommendations on karst problems; and service as a volunteer leader in Linden School Cub Scout Pack 226.

Ellen’s website at www.ellensmith.org provides information about the candidate and her current campaign, as well as blog postings and other commentary posted over the 8 years since the website was established.

Share