Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council Rotating Header Image

Local Oversight Committee

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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Time to catch my breath?

Lately I feel like the airport is my second home, but I may finally be getting a chance to catch my breath after my most recent trip, to the National League of Cities meeting in Phoenix. I returned home with my bags stuffed with handouts and new knowledge and ideas on topics including managing and using social media in local government, possible ways for Oak Ridge to implement the repair of sewer laterals that fail smoke tests (something that will soon be a big deal here) and help residents prepare for future problems with their laterals, ingredients for successful “green” initiatives (more difficult here than in some other regions of the country), how other cities house their community centers to serve youth and seniors, and “much much more.”

City Council meets Monday evening with a full agenda. I expect that many agenda items will be uncontroversial, but several will generate discussion, and there are a few items that I will either oppose or seek to amend:

1. Local Oversight Committee. I believe that regional cooperation is vital for dealing with matters like the challenges our region faces as the host of Department of Energy nuclear facilities, legacy contamination, and the radioactive waste industry that has come here because of DOE. However, I don’t like the proposal to discard the 20-year-old Local Oversight Committee and start all over again with a vague plan for a committee of regional mayors (ironically, the same type of group that set up the Local Oversight Committee in the first place).

The LOC was established to provide technical resources to help the region’s communities with the particular challenges of DOE environmental cleanup and waste management activities. Because these technical matters are outside the expertise and interest of most local governments, technical resources (funded from federal coffers) have been thought necessary to help governments and communities deal effectively with these challenges. The LOC employs a technically qualified professional executive director who works with the organization board of directors (nominally consisting of mayors and chairs of some technical advisory boards) and volunteers on the LOC Citizen Advisory Panel to stay abreast of current developments, determine how situations affect the region’s communities and local governments, and communicate on various matters to local, state, and federal entities and the public. Now several mayors (including Tom Beehan) want to scrap the LOC in favor of a new, apparently politically oriented, entity to be directed solely by mayors.

Whatever shortcomings the LOC has had in recent years are attributable in large part to a resounding lack of interest by the mayors who have nominally been members of the LOC board of directors but chose not to participate — and in several cases (notably, Knox County) did not even bother to designate alternates to serve on their behalf. With little participation from elected officials, it sometimes was difficult for the LOC to stay focused on local government priorities. The mayors’ demonstrated lack of interest in the organization and its functions is not a good omen for the success of their plan to trash the LOC and start all over again. (The mayors have not suddenly developed interest and expertise in technical matters.)

After hearing from citizens about the unique value of the LOC (largely at the September 9th special meeting of the LOC board), including being told by four former chairmen of the Oak Ridge Reservation Site Specific Advisory Board that the SSAB is not a substitute for the LOC, I foolishly thought the mayors recognized that the political damage they would suffer from trashing the LOC — including firing the various citizens who have volunteered their efforts and expertise as board alternates and advisory board members — outweighs the value of any money they could get out of that action. Foolish of me. Now Oak Ridge City Council and several regional county commissions are being asked to sign on to an “interlocal agreement” (effectively a contract) that gives little indication of the purpose and direction of the proposed new entity, beyond saying the mayors will be in charge.

The proposed interlocal agreement is said to be patterned after the charter for the Hanford Communities (see page 21 of this package),  considered by other local governments to be a successful model of regional cooperation among DOE communities, and one that is well-integrated with local government.  The fact that the Hanford Communities organization is well-integrated with local government could be explained in large part by the fact that it is financed  by membership dues from member governments, in contrast with the Oak Ridge LOC, which is funded with federal cleanup money. Accordingly, it makes sense that the agreement under which the Hanford group operates is structured as the charter for a membership organization, but it does not make sense to have copied those elements for the structure of the proposed East Tennessee entity. I also note that the Hanford agreement has many details regarding the purposes and functions of the organization that were not copied into the proposed interlocal agreement for East Tennessee.

I’d like to support continued regional cooperation, but I can’t endorse an “interlocal agreement” that contains little more substance that the statement that the mayors of several entities “desire to meet on a regular basis.”

2. “Not in Our City”. This is a package of ideas and initiatives that our city needs. Still, the proposed program of inspection of residential units before the utilities are turned on, which is a major element of this package, needs to be implemented very carefully to ensure that the city does not act “arbitrarily and capriciously” against the interest of any property owner.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines proposed to be used for this inspection program is long and detailed, and it includes a number of vague or subjective items.  Until the guidelines are tightened up to make them both unambiguous and easier to understand, I am not convinced that this new program is ready to implement, even on a trial basis (as staff proposes). I also have some reservations about the “sewer laterals” element of the inspection, which is a whole ‘nother story.

3. What is “Fast Food”? Staff is proposing a new definition for “fast food” in order to allow “fast casual” restaurants with drive-up service, but not “fast food” restaurants, in the Woodland Center Planned Unit Development. I’m all for the concept, but it appears to me that the staff’s proposed new definition — based largely on restaurant size —  would exclude some small non-fast restaurants (such as Homeland Cafe, Razzleberry’s, and Connie’s Natural Gourmet) by calling them “fast food,” while potentially allowing other businesses with drive-through operations that might not be kind to the adjacent residential neighborhood. I think this proposal should be vetted by the Planning Commission before Council votes on it at first reading, rather than after.  In the meantime, I will ask for more details on the proposed wording changes (the package provided to Council lacks some needed context) .

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Next steps on LOC unclear

While the LOC is still in business for now, the future is uncertain. As Frank Munger describes in his blog and in today’s newspaper, under Mayor Beehan’s resolution, the mayors are supposed to convene to decide where they want to go in the future. Ironically, that’s exactly the way the LOC was set up in the first place. It’s not clear if the new meetings will be public meetings…

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Local Oversight Committee is still in business

After an interesting meeting in Kingston this afternoon, the Local Oversight Committee (LOC) is still in business. Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan’s resolution to dissolve the organization passed (by a 7-4 vote), but only after several substantial amendments, including one that changed its main effect from “is hereby dissolved effective September 30″ to “is hereby to transition from a 501(c)(3) organization to an entity under a local government as a fiscal agent.”

After the meeting, I signed the TDEC grant contract to provide funding to make the LOC solvent again, as the board had voted to retain the June 30, 2012 contract ending date, but with the expectation that the organizational transition likely will happen before that date.

Members of the public (several of whom were in attendance) had an opportunity to speak early in the meeting. Among those making statements in support of retaining the LOC and describing its unique value to the region were a former Oak Ridge City Council member and former LOC chairman (Leonard Abbatiello, who said the LOC provides “the only independent technical review of what DOE is doing”), a former Roane County Commissioner who served on the LOC Board and was chairman of the SSAB (Bob Peelle), and a former member of the LOC CAP who also formerly chaired the SSAB (Luther Gibson). Elizabeth Peelle and Oak Ridge City Council member Anne Garcia Garland also added supportive statements as citizens.

I imagine that these citizen statements, together with messages that board members said they had received prior to the meeting, might have caused some of the board members to change their views. Roane County Executive Ron Woody said that his main concern regarding the current LOC structure was related to legal liability and fiscal controls; he expressed his general support for the LOC’s functions. Anderson County Mayor Myron Iwanski said he wanted to keep a “CAP-like organization”, but hoped it would enjoy fuller participation. [To be continued... Or read the news -- three area newspapers had reporters at the meeting, who took better notes than I could take as chairman.]

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More reflections on the anticipated demise of the Local Oversight Committee

People who get all of their local news from Oak Ridge’s daily newspaper still are unaware of the effort by some city and county officials to terminate the Local Oversight Committee at a meeting this afternoon (September 9, 2011), but yesterday’s issue of the Oak Ridge Observer has fairly in-depth coverage and Frank Munger has a new report on his KnoxNews blog.  I contributed a guest column to the Observer, regarding some of my thoughts on the issue, that’s included in yesterday’s issue.

I expect that this matter will become a  subject of discussion (although previously unscheduled) for tomorrow’s Oak Ridge City Council retreat, as it has significant implications for relationships among the mayor, other members of council, and the city manager.

Here’s a slightly revised version of the guest column that I submitted to the Observer:

With my expectation that the Local Oversight Committee LOC will be dismantled as a result of a meeting to be held Friday afternoon, I’m reflecting on the purpose of this unique organization, what it has accomplished, and what its abolition might mean for our region in the future.

From my close involvement with the organization as a board member (and current board chairman), I am keenly aware of its shortcomings, but I’ve also seen many positive contributions, and I expect that the LOC will be missed when it’s gone.

The LOC was an invention of the Oak Ridge region and the state of Tennessee, established to represent the interests of the public in communities most affected by the DOE Oak Ridge Reservation via the involvement of the local government officials who were elected to serve the interests and needs of their communities.

There is no other entity that is engaged with the process of cleaning up DOE legacy contamination around Oak Ridge and has a duty to ensure that local concerns and needs are addressed. Mission-driven organizations like DOE aim to do the right thing, but history has shown that DOE needs a “push” to ensure continuing progress in cleaning up its environmental legacies. U.S. EPA and state regulators work for the public interest, but their focus is on laws and regulations and federal and state goals, not the specific needs and concerns of local people. Local governments are not well-equipped to respond to the kinds of challenges that can be created by DOE contamination and environmental management efforts, because these are not the kinds of things that local government normally confronts.

The LOC is led by a board that represents the elected officials of eight local jurisdictions in the region and has provided direction via policies and position statements that were deemed consistent with the interests of the member jurisdictions and their citizens. The organization’s staff and the volunteers on the LOC Citizens Advisory Panel (CAP) provide technical expertise and devote considerable effort to monitoring DOE’s activities, budgets, plans, and findings — to identify negative and positive implications for area communities and their governments. Working together, the three components of the LOC organization have tried to provide well-reasoned, technically valid, and balanced perspectives on various matters related to DOE cleanup and related DOE activities, documented in communications distributed to member jurisdictions and outside organizations. When a specific need arose, the LOC conducted public education, both to promote awareness of conditions and to dispel inaccurate perceptions about the region, or helped run public meetings where citizens could express concerns and meet the state and federal officials whose job it is to help address those concerns.

The LOC seems to have won the respect of area citizens who follow developments related to DOE and the Oak Ridge site. I think its existence may have reduced the incentive for antinuclear organizations to make this area’s environment a target for high-profile criticism, as has happened at some other DOE sites.

Mayor Tom Beehan and others have suggested that the DOE’s Site-Specific Advisory Board serves the same purpose as the LOC. The SSAB does also include citizen volunteers, including some people with impressive expertise, and with a budget several times the size of the LOC budget, the SSAB certainly has greater visibility, but I don’t see the two organizations as equivalent. The SSAB is directed by DOE, is chartered to respond to DOE priorities (not local priorities), and its members are selected by DOE. The SSAB has no representation of local elected officials (with the occasional exception of individual officials such as Councilman David Mosby who have served as citizens) and no arrangement to ensure that the concerns of the people’s elected representatives are addressed.

Also, the SSAB charter limits its scope of activity to a specific set of topics related to DOE Environmental Management activities on the Oak Ridge Reservation. It is not authorized to address some of the kinds questions that turn up on the LOC’s agenda, such as whether there could be adverse effects on residents’ health from combined exposures to the cluster of DOE and private-sector waste processing facilities in western Oak Ridge and adjacent Roane County (the combined exposures seem to be very small, but it’s a challenge to get the information needed to provide the kind of reassurance that residents deserve). The SSAB also could not have played a role in preventing another DOE office from deciding to send radioactive waste from New York state to this area for disposal in the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, as the LOC did a year or two back.

Mayor Beehan’s proposed resolution to dissolve the LOC would summarily dismiss the organization’s citizen volunteers (both the CAP members and the volunteers who have loyally represented some jurisdictions on the LOC board), while “encouraging ongoing citizen participation through organizations such as” the SSAB, the Roane County Environmental Review Board (RCERB), and the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) “to contribute to DOE and State decisions affecting the local governments.”

I don’t believe that the authors of the resolution recognize what this means. If the mayors truly want EQAB and the RCERB to “contribute” in that fashion, the charters for both boards will have to change radically, as both are currently constituted to advise their local governments, not to contribute to DOE and state decisions. Also the boards would need to reorient their focus away from local matters and towards DOE. DOE was a large focus (and time sink) for EQAB during some of my years while I was on that board. The formation of the LOC CAP and the SSAB allowed EQAB to give more attention to local matters – and memberships on the LOC board created opportunities for EQAB, the RCERB and CAP to consult and collaborate on matters that crossed city and county lines. Furthermore, there’s been a special kind of magic in the way citizens have engaged with this regional entity. The LOC has allowed technically minded newcomers from different parts of our region (from Oak Ridge to Oakdale to Ten Mile and Tellico Village) to come together and get involved in studying and working to resolve not only their own questions about personal safety, but also community concerns about matters like postings against fish consumption on streams and lakes.

The aspect of DOE contamination and cleanup that most interests most of the mayors is not the technical details, but rather is the EM budget. On September 1 Mayor Tom Beehan said that the city’s membership in the Energy Communities Alliance (ECA) provides Oak Ridge city government with the resources it needs to engage with DOE regarding matters like the cleanup budget. It’s certainly true that the ECA, based in Washington, DC, is a savvy organization that is well-positioned to advise on goings-on around Congress and to facilitate networking with other DOE host communities. However, from its offices in Washington, the ECA can’t alert us about the special situations here that ought to convince DOE and Congress of a need to devote more resources to Oak Ridge – like the evidence that contaminated groundwater from waste disposal areas near ORNL may be moving under the Clinch River toward private wells in Roane County.

I think we still need the effort that the LOC was established to provide, and I think I’m going to miss this organization when it’s gone. For one thing, I have a feeling I’m going to need to devote a lot more of my time to tracking DOE activities and cleanup progress because the community won’t be able to depend on the efforts of LOC staff and volunteers to alert us to things we need to know.

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Local Oversight Committee

At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan and several county mayors from around the region are expected to vote to dissolve the Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee (LOC), asking the state to instead direct the LOC’s funding to a “board of mayors and county executives” who will decide how to spend the money for the benefit of their local governments.

Since 2007 I’ve served as the LOC board chairman, representing the City of Oak Ridge. Right now, I’m feeling a bit like I was “hung out to dry” by other city officials who were working to eliminate the LOC, unbeknownst to me, at the same time that I was trying to fulfill my duties as a board member by seeking answers to questions about the  prospects for continued funding to pay the organization’s bills.

The LOC is a nonprofit that was formed 20 years ago to represent the interests of local jurisdictions affected by Department of Energy (DOE) environmental contamination, contamination rumors, cleanup, and other DOE activities in Oak Ridge. Its efforts have included conducting public education, evaluating and making recommendations on DOE reports and actions, and communicating local concerns to state and federal governments. The LOC has a 2-person staff and operates with grant funding from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), which in turn gets the money from DOE under the Tennessee Oversight Agreement (TOA). It is led by a board of directors consisting of the mayors (or county executives) of Oak Ridge and seven area counties, plus the chairmen of three environmental advisory boards. In practice, most jurisdictions are represented by alternates who have particular interests or government responsibilities in environment or emergency management.

A volunteer Citizens Advisory Panel (CAP) does a lot of the LOC’s work. Over the years, the CAP membership has included a variety of people wanting to “give back” to the community by evaluating technical materials and helping with public education. Among them are long-time area residents retired from jobs with federal contractors, current employees of DOE contractors and waste processing businesses, and newcomers to the region eager for the chance to learn about local conditions and set their minds at ease about living here.

I’ve been on the board of directors for a large fraction of the LOC’s existence, first during stints as chairman of the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) and since 2007 representing the Oak Ridge City Council as the mayor’s alternate. Also in 2007, I succeeded Leonard Abbatiello (the previous mayoral alternate) as chairman of the LOC board.

The latest five-year TOA was up for renewal this year. That renewal has been delayed, apparently mostly because of differences between DOE and the state of Tennessee regarding how much of a funding cut the state should have to suffer. When the new state fiscal year started on July 1 with no money for the LOC and no new TOA agreement in sight, I guessed that the LOC’s funding would be reduced or possibly eliminated However, there were oral assurances from TDEC that the new TOA would provide money for the LOC, so we did not take the drastic steps of shutting down the office and laying off staff when last year’s money ran out, but I did make sure that staff understood that they could choose not to work, since there might not be any money to pay them.

I believe that state officials were sincere when they gave assurances about future funding, but they were confused by the fact that, at the same time I was asking them about funding for the LOC, other officials from my city government were privately urging them to terminate funding for the organization. (Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel has documented some of that story on his blog — he and I both obtained copies of city manager Mark Watson’s August 3rd letter to the state on August 23.)

At a special meeting of the LOC board on September 1, called by Ron Woody and Myron Iwanski of Roane and Anderson counties to discuss the LOC’s finances and future, several of the mayors in attendance (only two of whom had ever previously attended an LOC board meeting) expressed their desire to dissolve the LOC and use TDEC funding for other local purposes. This Friday, at another LOC board meeting, I expect that most of the region’s eight mayors will vote as members of the LOC board to dissolve the organization and ask TDEC to give the money that would have gone to the LOC to one of the local governments to be used as directed by a regional “board of mayors and county executives.” Added (September 8, 2011): The Roane County News reported on the meeting.

It’s not entirely clear why the mayors want to do away with the LOC. It’s probably  valid to generalize that they don’t think the LOC’s activities are relevant to them. In recent years, DOE and its environmental cleanup has not been seen as a crisis for the region’s local governments. That’s a contrast from the LOC’s early years, when mercury in the East Fork Poplar Creek floodplain was a hot topic, DOE was actively conducting Superfund investigations of sediments and fish in Watts Bar Lake, and owners of Watts Bar marinas and resorts said that worry about possible contamination was costing them business. In the 1990s, local governments sought LOC’s help in working with federal and state regulators and in providing public education resources to help dispel people’s concerns. In more recent years, DOE activities were no longer a crisis for local governments (although there are some serious issues that should not be ignored) and the LOC staff has found it a struggle to interact effectively with the region’s local officials, particularly with all seven counties getting new mayors since August 2010. As board chairman, I’m acutely aware of ways in which the LOC has fallen short of its potential, and I’ve had a longstanding concern about a need for more effective involvement of the member jurisdictions.

Instead of using their positions as board members to redirect the LOC’s management and activities, the mayors want to dissolve the organization. They give multiple reasons. At the September 1 meeting, one mayor said that he considered the board’s six yearly meetings to be too tedious to attend (a judgment apparently based on the meeting agendas). It was also said to be  inappropriate for the LOC to communicate with DOE and state agencies on behalf of the region — at least one mayor says that only the individual governments should communicate with DOE. Oak Ridge city manager Mark Watson has observed that a stand-alone nonprofit organization such as the LOC has some costs (which I summarize as “organizational overhead”) that would not exist if the TDEC grant funds were managed under the umbrella of a city or county government. He would like the funding to be used for the direct benefit of individual local governments, such as for training, instead of paying for an organization’s operations. At least one of the mayors is critical of the LOC for not having directors and officers liability insurance for the board (a good idea, but something that had never been suggested previously by any board member or alternate).

This whole sequence of events has been strange and upsetting for me. I foresee this episode undermining future working relationships within the City Council and with the City Manager. There are additional implications for the relationship between the mayor and other Council members, considering that our mayor is not a voter-elected executive but is elected by other council members for a list of duties (in the city charter) that does not appear to include abolishing nonprofits without Council authorization: “The mayor shall preside at meetings of the council, shall have a vote on all matters but no veto power, shall be the ceremonial head of the city, shall sign ordinances and resolutions on their final passage, shall sign deeds, bonds and contracts when authorized by the council to do so, shall be the officer to accept process against the city, shall not have any regular administrative duties, and shall perform only such duties as shall be specifically conferred.”

I can only imagine how Susan and Joyce, the LOC staff, are feeling, as they watch their jobs get swept away by politics.

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