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The Big Picture

Yucca Mountain, spent nuclear fuel, and Oak Ridge

This piece of mine ran as a guest column in Thursday’s print edition of The Oak Ridge Observer, responding to an article about comments by Charlie Hensley:

I share Councilman Charlie Hensley’s concern that the United States needs a clear path for disposition of spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors, but I oppose his suggestion that Oak Ridge should volunteer to host a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing pilot plant.

For background, I am convinced that the proposed underground nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada would be a good place to put nuclear waste, having visited Yucca Mountain and worked on many studies related to it. The repository plan wasn’t perfect, but the repository would provide a higher level of protectiveness than has ever been attempted in human history. Key features of the site that make it a good place to isolate nuclear waste are its remoteness from human activity and the fact that it is exceptionally dry – not only is it a very dry desert climate, but the depth to groundwater is several hundred meters. Not only did that protect the waste from water contact that could release it into the environment, but it meant that the repository could be designed to allow for waste to be retrieved after a century or two, if needed.

The failure of the Yucca Mountain program wasn’t due to technical problems so much as to a combination of bad politics and ineffective management. I believe that the ultimate doom of the Yucca Mountain project was sealed in the mid-1980s when Washington politicians (first a Congressional conference committee and later the Reagan Administration) abruptly removed all other potential repository sites from consideration. That understandably caused Nevada to feel victimized and caused the state to unite in opposition to the Yucca Mountain repository. I don’t think that any of the various technical and practical issues that arose over the next couple of decades were “show-stoppers,” but the program leadership didn’t have the firepower to withstand the continuous stream of technical issues and political opposition that it faced.

The nation needs a new plan for spent fuel now. That plan possibly could include a centralized interim storage site – a way station between commercial reactors and a permanent repository. Sooner or later it must include a permanent underground repository (either at Yucca Mountain or another site), and it might include reprocessing, as Charlie suggests.

Citizen acceptance of nuclear technology makes our city one of the few places that might volunteer to host a facility for spent fuel management, but our general support for nuclear technology should not blind us to the very real risks associated with the technology.

Oak Ridge is not a realistic candidate for a permanent waste isolation facility – for example, there are too many people nearby (and plenty of reason to think that more people will be here in the future) and we have a wet climate. If waste containers failed, there would be abundant opportunities for water to come into contact with waste and release it into water supplies and the food chain.

From a technical standpoint, Oak Ridge is probably a suitable location for consolidated temporary storage of spent reactor fuel in an engineered dry-cask storage facility. A few decades ago, a citizen task force undertook a study of “monitored retrievable storage” and concluded that hosting an MRS facility could be a good opportunity for Oak Ridge, but only if there was strong assurance that this would truly be temporary and only if the local community would have meaningful oversight authority. In the current political climate, I don’t think anyone can assure us that temporary storage would truly be temporary. There’s currently no defined path toward a permanent repository and it’s not even clear to me that the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico will be able to receive all of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s stored transuranic waste, as once was promised. Also, with the restrictions that were placed on public information about radioactive materials in the community after September 11, 2001, I don’t see much chance of getting meaningful oversight authority for the community.

Spent-fuel reprocessing is a topic with which Oak Ridge has a lot of experience. As I understand it, most of the reprocessing technologies ever used were developed and tested here at ORNL. Research and development on new methods for reprocessing can and should happen here again. Reprocessing fuel is many times messier than storing it, though. Existing reprocessing technologies use “wet chemistry”, inevitably leading to worker exposures and environmental releases, and generating wastes that can be very difficult to manage. DOE still hasn’t found a way to deal successfully with wastes from past reprocessing – weapons-related reprocessing at sites like Hanford and Savannah River, R&D on reprocessing at ORNL, and experimental reprocessing of commercial spent fuel at West Valley, New York.

In my opinion, no community should volunteer to host a reprocessing facility for spent fuel from commercial reactors until there is some assurance that all aspects of the necessary technology – including effective management of the waste – are proven and ready. That meaningful community oversight that Oak Ridge sought for the MRS would help a lot, too. Even when those criteria are in place, because of the size of the population that could be exposed to releases and the vulnerability of our natural environment, Oak Ridge probably won’t be a good site for a full-scale facility, or even a pilot plant.

It’s great that Oak Ridge residents support nuclear technology, but we shouldn’t let our enthusiasm blind us to the risks.

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How East Tennessee stacks up against the world

Earlier this month, I attended the very interesting “East Tennessee Competes” conference sponsored by Plan ET. The moderator from the Southern Growth Policies Board, plus local economic development recruiters, local business leaders, and various community leaders provided perspectives on how the Knoxville metro area (including Oak Ridge) stacks up against the rest of the world in respect to things that matter to businesses considering new locations.
My notes say that site selection considers four key factors: Safety. Education.  Health.  Housing.
Health isn’t just health care. It’s also quality of life. In fact, healthy lifestyle is more important than access to care. Get people outdoors. Greenways, walking paths, etc. Our region stacks up very well in this area, but we need to promote it better in the economic development arena.  Also, we need to use it more. The crowd was asked to grade our region on healthy lifestyle, and gave our region’s citizens Cs and Ds for healthy lifestyle.
Education pays. There’s a $1.2 million lifetime salary  premium for a postsecondary degree. Our region has educational bright spots, but overall education is a weakness in the area. To prepare students for the workforce, Pellissippi State Community College is pushing career tech at that precollege level, as well as at PSCC..
Business community needs to identify the skills they need. That’s happening here. PSCC has put the 110 needs of auto industry into an online testing tool.
Businesses want quantifiable credentials.Good teachers are critical. Data are needed to know where each kid is and what they need.People all over the south are looking at Tennessee to see our innovation in K-12 education. Tennessee is truly a leader.
That leadership includes adoption of common core standards.The housing boom resulted in growth patterns everywhere that weren’t good for residents or government services: low density, narrow streets, etc. There should be a mix of housing options and socioeconomic status within neighborhoods.Someone asked about how business prospects react to homelessness. The surprising was that some businesses ask about how a community addresses its homeless population, because it’s a metric of how the community addresses its needs and problems. Cities and metro areas that do a good job addressing homelessness are also good places for corporate America to do business – who knew? Permanent supportive housing for homeless makes economic sense.Quality of life is critical for business . Business wants to be in sustainable communities.
This region is no longer competing across county lines. (Is that really true?)

Sites for large developments are a big challenge in this area, due to topography. Air quality is a challenge in recruitment.
Lifestyle initiatives here can be a big differentiator in recruitment. Urban wilderness project is big for Innovation Valley. (I wonder if Innovation Valley is sufficiently informed about Oak Ridge’s outdoor assets: Haw Ridge, North Boundary Trail, North Ridge Trail, rowing course, extensive greenbelts, Black Oak Ridge Conservation Easement, etc.)

Change is coming in air travel. To increase their cost efficiency, airlines are giving up the 50 -seat planes and will be using more big planes (again). McGhee Tyson Airport probably will lose some flight frequency (that is, we won’t have as many flights), but will have the same number of airplane seats. Some other cities will lose service altogether because they can’t support big planes.

Someone said that airfares are a “killer” for our region in business recruitment. Knoxville is mostly a business airport, which means higher air fares. There’s not much leisure travel here. We need lower fares (to increase leisure travel and attract business prospects).

Asthma incidence is a challenge. Air quality is better, but asthma is up.

First question about trails is always about safety. More crime in the mall than on trails.

Parks are one of the most democratic things we do.

Airport is a pretty diverse place. Suggestion to document traveler diversity on the website.

Transit, access to greenways,  etc., are being asked about more by business prospects that Innovation Valley talks to. Van pools. Zip car.

Carole Evans said this region should market itself as “one big playground”. Pursue low hanging fruit in energy savings.

Energy is a regional strength for Innovation Valley recruitment. The prospects of small modular reactors, carbon fiber, and advanced materials are a positive. Innovation valley needs to hear from people.

Knoxville has been identified as one of three US metros to have recovered to pre-2008 employment status.

Business sees low educational attainment and inequity within the region as disadvantages. Alcoa (the company) thinks the region needs more diversity. The Alcoa rolling mill is cost-competitive, but energy costs here weren’t globally competitive for smelter.

The region needs more skilled workforce, such as electricians. Not enough young people are coming up to replace the skilled workers who are retiring. Skilled workforce is an issue for Denso.

Wampler is marketing globally. It costs less for Denso to produce product here than in Japan. Alcoa thinks globally. Cheap natural gas is now an advantage for the US.

ORNL’s impact on the region include its being major employer. Subcontracting is also a direct impact. R&D is a source of impact. ORNL has affected the industry mix in the whole region. ORNL is now working systematically to improve regional education.

Murray says education is economic development. Need people with communication skills in addition to tech skills. Still not seeing enough girls in STEM. Wampler is much more automated; this changes the workforce need.

Alcoa says companies need to emphasize sustainability. Reduce footprint. Wampler is pursuing sustainable energy.

Is “Innovation Valley” a valid brand? Alcoa says yes; energy is critical to their business and it’s happening here. ORNL’s Thom Mason says we have technology, but not they way some people think of technology these days because it’s not social media and it’s not much biotech. Our tech assets include high performance computing.

Panelists were asked “Do elected officials get it?” Wampler got government help for its solar project. Alcoa had good cooperation when the smelter was going to shut down.

Anecdotes from the panelists: When Anton of the Alcoa company moved into a global job for the corporation, he could choose between this area and several other cities, and he stayed here because his wife prefers Tennessee. You can find the best here, but it’s a mixed bag…. not all of it’s good.

The region is not doing as well as we should on education of workforce. Do well on quality of life. Region has good business infrastructure, including rail and barge.

Wampler’s father used to say he’d rather die by hanging in east Tennessee than die a natural death anywhere else.

Need education and diversity.
Thom Mason: a lot can be done in education outside of public schools.

We’re a whole lot better off than a lot of southern cities.

Need to think and plan long-term.

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“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.

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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….

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Constitutional amendment is needed

Several recent Supreme Court actions, including the January 2010 “Citizens United” decision and the Court’s refusal this year to hear an appeal from a lower court decision that declared Montana’s state election finance laws to be unconstitutional, have wiped out the federal laws that limited corporate and union spending on elections and likely will soon do the same with Tennessee’s election finance laws.

It looks like it will take a Constitutional amendment to change this situation. An amendment is needed to clarify that the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment applies only to actual humans (“natural persons”) and not also to corporations and organizations (which are treated as legal “persons” for some legal purposes, such as contracts).

Because I believe that we need campaign finance limits to preserve public trust in government (including local government), I have signed on to the following pledge that Common Cause and other groups are asking elected officials and candidates to sign, at the website Amend2012.org united4thepeople.org (edited August 17, 2012):

I, Ellen Smith, declare my support for amending the Constitution of the United States to restore the rights of the American people, undermined by Citizens United and related cases, to protect the integrity of our elections and limit the corrosive influence of money in our democratic process.

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Good press for our metro area

Forbes magazine ranks the Knoxville Metropolitan Area (which includes Oak Ridge) #6 in its list of the best “mid-size” metro areas for jobs (and we’re number 33 overall among the 398 U.S. metro areas), with healthy job growth. Interestingly, Knoxville seems to be bucking the trends described in the Forbes article, which says that that job growth is best in cities that are centers for the oil and gas industry (not us) and that college towns (Knoxville is one) and places with a large government presence (another attribute of this area) are doing less well than last year. The Innovation Valley website has a nice analysis of the positive business news in our region, including the diversity of the economic activity that led to this ranking.

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Sizing up the competition

Folks around Oak Ridge are enthusiastic about the prospects for small modular reactors (SMRs) at the southwestern Oak Ridge location known as the “breeder site”, but we need to be aware that there are other project sponsors and communities aiming for financial assistance and quick regulatory review as the first SMRs.  A New York Times blog piece by Matthew Wald reports on utility-manufacturer partnerships in Missouri, Oregon, and South Carolina that appear to be competing with the TVA-Babcock & Wilcox for primacy in SMRs.

Note: The site is called the “breeder site” because it was once destined to become the site of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor, a big federal nuclear technology initiative that ultimately was cancelled after initial construction had begun.

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HB 0368/SB 0893 is harmful to the interests of Oak Ridge and Tennessee

My email to State Senators Randy McNally and Ken Yager:

As a scientist and an elected official in the city of Oak Ridge, which trades on its scientific reputation, I urge you both to vote against SB 0893, the “critical thinking” bill.

Professional science teachers and the scientific community as a whole correctly interpret this as a bill to legitimize the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, and other non-science-based worldviews as science, by relabeling the real science as “debate”. (Science teachers already can and do discuss the fact that scientific teaching may be at odds with what children have learned at home or in Sunday school — passing a new law won’t help them.)

Mere discussion of this proposed legislation is making Tennessee a laughingstock in the scientific community, both nationally and globally. Passing it will do real harm to the ability of Oak Ridge and the state of Tennessee to continue to represent ourselves as leaders in science and technology. Please vote against this, in the interest of the economic future of the city of Oak Ridge and the state of Tennessee.

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Are state and local budget-cutting slowing economic recovery?

This thought-provoking analysis by Nobel economist Paul Krugman probably has implications for the decisions that Oak Ridge needs to be making on various aspects of the city budget. He says that state and local budget cuts are “exerting a powerful drag on the economy as a whole.” He compares government spending during the Obama-era economic expansion (starting in June 2009) with the Reagan-era expansion (starting November 1982):

By this stage in the Reagan recovery, government employment (which is mainly at the state and local level, with about half the jobs in education) had risen by 3.1 percent; this time around, it’s down by 2.7 percent.

Government purchases of goods and services by this stage of the Reagan recovery (adjusted for inflation) had risen by 11.6 percent; this time, they’re down by 2.6 percent.

And the gap persists even when you do include transfers, some of which have stayed high precisely because unemployment is still so high. Adjusted for inflation, Reagan-era spending rose 10.2 percent in the first 10 quarters of recovery, Obama-era spending only 2.6 percent.

He says “We’re talking big numbers here. If government employment under Mr. Obama had grown at Reagan-era rates, 1.3 million more Americans would be working as schoolteachers, firefighters, police officers, etc., than are currently employed in such jobs. And once you take the effects of public spending on private employment into account, a rough estimate is that the unemployment rate would be 1.5 percentage points lower than it is, or below 7 percent — significantly better than the Reagan economy at this stage.”

We could read this as saying that local governments should be increasing property taxes (and water and wastewater rates) to get more money moving faster within our local economy, but Krugman says the spending should happen at the federal level:

We can take a big step toward full employment just by using the federal government’s low borrowing costs to help state and local governments rehire the schoolteachers and police officers they laid off, while restarting the road repair and improvement projects they canceled or put on hold.

That federal spending isn’t going to happen. Oak Ridge has not (yet) laid off police officers, but the schools have cut teaching assistant positions, and there are some capital projects we’ve deferred… How would our economy — and retail shopping areas — look right now if we dug into our pockets and spent more on our local needs? (That’s not likely to happen, but this is the kind of discussion we ought to be having.)

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Some thoughts about school standardized testing

Cartoon of car with a bumper sticker that reads "My child is a great test taker"

Clay Bennett cartoon from the Chattanooga Times Free Press

With school starting up for the year,  everywhere I turn somebody is talking about standardized testing in schools. Oak Ridge schools are making TCAP test scores count for a fraction of kids’ grades (not the school board’s idea — it’s a state mandate!), Tennessee is requesting a waiver from the No Child Left Behind requirements, and Clay Bennett’s editorial cartoon from the Chattanooga paper reminds us that testing often seems to be what today’s schools are all about. Outsiders and residents both evaluate a community on its kids’ test scores, and I have no doubt that test scores are increasingly affecting kids’ sense of self-worth. I was pleased to read that the State of New York is working to improve its standardized tests by eliminating “gotcha”-type multiple-choice questions and requiring use of a readable font. I hope that other states (like Tennessee) follow suit. As a kid, I was a “great test taker” who was good at those “gotcha” questions, but as an adult I’ve learned that multiple-choice tests can be a minefield for many  students who are well-prepared — particularly those with dyslexia or similar challenges. Making tests more straightforward is one small step toward reducing their tail-wagging-the-dog dominance of our school systems.

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