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Unexpected news

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signThis is news I was definitely not expecting:

The Progress PAC (the O.R. Chamber of Commerce political action committee) included me in its list of endorsements, announced to the news media in a press release earlier today.

This was surprising news because I have never been aligned with the Chamber, I have strongly opposed some Chamber initiatives in the past, and I am not shy about my support for principles like conservation of publicly owned open space and putting the interests of existing residents and owners ahead of the interests of new business development. However, I respect the Chamber as the main representative of and advocate for a very important element of our community — and a group whose members and volunteers who are passionate about the future of Oak Ridge. We share many common goals and interests in this community, and if we are going to make progress as a community, it’s necessary for government, the business community, our nonprofit sector, and (ideally) all citizens to try to understand each other’s interests and needs and work together for the benefit of all.

I told the PAC’s committee (hard-working civic volunteers, all) that I would accept their endorsement, just as I would accept the endorsement of any group of citizens who go to the trouble of evaluating candidates for office and making endorsements as a group. I see the PAC’s decision to include me among their endorsements as indicating a recognition that people with divergent perspectives can work together to achieve positive outcomes for our community (indeed, diversity produces more positive outcomes than uniformity!)  — and that I am both qualified and committed to work for what’s best for Oak Ridge as a member of the City Council.

I am well aware that some people are suspicious about the Progress PAC’s motives and the candidates who cooperated with the PAC. As I said long before receiving today’s news, the formation of a political action committee makes the Chamber’s role in local political activity more transparent than it has ever been in the past. The PAC must operate under stringent state of Tennessee rules for multicandidate political action committees — getting its funds from member donations (no money from the Chamber organization) and publicly reporting all donations and expenditures over $100.

Additionally, the Progress PAC will not be providing money to any of the candidates they are endorsing — I’m not sure what the PAC plans to do, beyond publicizing its endorsements.  I recall that several other groups have endorsed (and promoted) slates of local candidates in in past Oak Ridge elections, but I don’t believe that any of those groups registered as a PAC. With that background, I congratulate the Progress PAC for operating in the open, as required by current state law.

Anyone who knows me at all well will laugh at the suggestion that the Progress PAC endorsement will change my opinions, positions, or future votes if I am elected to City Council. As I did in the past, I will make up my own mind, always aiming for what’s best for the community. I’ll do my own analysis, ask questions, seek out public input, and listen to what others have to say — and I will pursue consensus decisions where possible (because it’s rare for a 4-3 vote to result in a decision that everyone is happy to support — and our local government needs to present a more united front and a more positive image than it has done in the recent past).

The questions that the Progress PAC asked candidates were aimed at gaining information about candidates’ views on broad topics in local governance and our ideas and plans for responding to community challenges — they were not narrowly focused on the interests of the Chamber and the business community. I have the impression that most of us candidates (even those who refused to be considered for PAC endorsement) found it worthwhile to develop responses to the PAC questions because it helped us frame positions on questions that many citizens are asking. All of my answers to the PAC questionnaire are available on this blog:

1 – A bit of vision

2 – Where will the money come from?

3 – Patching relations between Council and schools

4- Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

5 - On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

6 – Signs should help businesses reach customers — and they shouldn’t be ugly

 

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Signs should help businesses reach customers — and they shouldn’t be ugly

Possibly the worst kind of signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

Possibly the worst signage: out-of-town businesses that stick illegal signs in front of Oak Ridge businesses

The last item on the Chamber of Commerce questionnaire was an open-ended question:
Do you have any other issues you would like to address?

My response: I support the city sign ordinance. It helps to maintain the kind of esthetics that I believe people look for in a high-quality community. The visual clutter from competing signs that I see on the streets of some other area communities isn’t good for anybody – it’s ugly, and everyone’s messages get lost in the clutter of many competing signs.

However, I have heard and am sympathetic to the concerns of businesses that lack the visibility they need to help customers find them, the difficulty people have in interpreting the rules about signs, and the impression that certain businesses are allowed to have much better signage than their competitors. I hope that city government and the business community can work together to revamp the sign ordinance so that it allows businesses to have the visibility they need to reach customers, while maintaining esthetics.

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On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

citysealQuestion 5 from the Progress PAC was about City Council relationships with the Chamber of Commerce and “other business developers.”

Question:
What relationship should the city council have with the Chamber of Commerce and other business developers?

My response: City Council should look to organizations like the Chamber of Commerce as good sources of insight and advice on the needs and concerns of the business community, as well as economic development and related matters. Similarly, I hope that organizations like the Chamber – and its individual members – will contact Council members (either individually or as a body) when they want to offer advice or advocate for particular concerns.

I support Mark Watson’s recent changes that ended the close partnership relationship between the City and the Chamber, replacing it with a relationship in which the Chamber is more like a service provider for the City. It appears to me that the Chamber can advocate more effectively for its membership if it isn’t also operating as a quasi-branch of the city government, and I believe that City government should not prefer any one set of businesspeople (in this case, Chamber members) over the business community as a whole. However, I know that the Chamber is often in a unique position to work with city government to perform functions that the city government needs to support, so the two organizations should plan to continue to do business together.

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Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

Building at Kareday ApartmentsQuestion 4 from the Progress PAC is about housing. My responses are below. For blog posting, I’ve inserted a couple of hyperlinks into the plain-text response that I provided to the PAC.

Question: Healthy housing is important to a healthy community. What three specific actions would you take to enhance housing in the city?

Response:

Three actions:

1. We need greater demand for housing in Oak Ridge in order to stimulate investment in housing. The marketing study (and its followup) that I mentioned in response to question 2 is an important step toward building demand for housing in Oak Ridge. Increased investment in existing neighborhoods, particularly in the central part of the city, is particularly important. The plans to redevelop the mall property as “Main Street Oak Ridge” should make a contribution to stimulating demand for homes, particularly in the center of the city.

2. Owners and buyers of existing homes are in need of practical assistance and financial resources so that Oak Ridge homes from the 1940s through the 1970s (the majority of our housing) will have greater appeal to the next generation of homeowners. To help with this, I recently contributed many hours of my time to a cooperative initiative that developed a grant proposal to TVA to obtain funds for “extreme energy makeovers” on about 300 older homes in lower-income neighborhoods in Oak Ridge. If the proposal is successful, this program will reduce living costs for some lucky residents (more…)

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A bit of vision

Cedar Hill ParkNow that the deadline for answers to the Progress PAC’s questions has passed (and it’s no longer possible for candidates to copy off each other’s papers), I’ll post the responses that I provided to their questions. These were interesting questions — you don’t have to be a Chamber member to be interested in candidates’ answers.

Question 1: Please explain your vision for the City of Oak Ridge for the next 5 years.

My response: Five years from now I want Oak Ridge to be recognized as one of the most desirable residential communities (ideally, the single most desirable community) in the Knoxville metropolitan area. Attainment of this vision will require significant progress in retail development, housing/neighborhood quality, and effective marketing of the community. It also requires maintaining and enhancing the quality of our schools, public services and amenities, as well as minimizing increases in residential property taxes.

An additional vision that doesn’t fold easily into the above: I want the Manhattan Project National Historic Park to be up and running, with national park logos on highway signs leading into Oak Ridge, a revitalized AMSE that is successfully transitioning to nonprofit operation independent from DOE, regular tours (paid for by visitor fees) of Manhattan Project historic facilities, and increased visitor recreational access to federal lands (such as the Wheat community and Freels Bend) that represent the historical landscape where the Manhattan Project was sited.

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It’s candidate forum season

citysealThere are lots of candidate forums and “meet the candidates” occasions scheduled this year for Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education elections. All are open to the public, without charge.

  • Wednesday, September 17 – League of Women Voters forum for school board and state candidates (yes, you already missed it!)
  • Thursday, September 25 – League of Women Voters forum for Oak Ridge City Council, 7 pm, Oak Ridge High School amphitheater (upstairs from the lobby)
  • Tuesday, September 30 – Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum for City Council candidates, 7:30 am at the Chamber offices (informal meet and greet starts at 7:00 am; light breakfast available)
  • Wednesday, October 1 – PTA/PTO candidate forum for school board, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge High School amphitheater. Meet and greet starts at 5:30 pm.
  • Thursday, October 2 – Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce forum for school board candidates (see September 30 for time and location, etc.)
  • Wednesday, October 8 – PTA/PTO candidate forum for city council, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge High School amphitheater. Meet and greet starts at 5:30 pm.
  • Thursday, October 9 – DFET (Democracy for East Tennessee) meet-the-candidates event, 7:00 pm at Oak Ridge Civic Center gym
  • Tuesday, October 14 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for City Council, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road
  • Thursday, October 16 – Elks Lodge Meet the Candidates Night and forum for School Board, 6:00 pm at Oak Ridge Elks Lodge, 684 Emory Valley Road

Added September 26: There’s also a local League of Women Voters forum about the state constitutional amendment referendum questions on the ballot:

  • Tuesday, October 7, 7 pm, at Pollard Auditorium.

Early voting starts Wednesday, October 15, and runs through Thursday, October 30. Election day is Tuesday, November 4.

Updated October 12 after I discovered that the Elks Lodge is holding two candidate forums.

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About the Chamber of Commerce PAC

EllenSmithSign Although I went to work on Monday, did some campaign business, and attended a City Council work session, it seemed like I was never far from discussions about the news (added: second news source) that the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce established a political action committee (PAC) that is screening the candidates for City Council and School Board to decide who they will support. People were asking for my opinions. Here’s the on-my-blog version of what I told the news media:

I have no objection to the Chamber establishing a political action committee. As I see it, the Oak Ridge Chamber has the same right as any organization to create a PAC to endorse and support candidates of the PAC’s choosing. People who are upset about this should consider that PACs must operate in the public eye, so the creation of this PAC should give citizens more information about the political activities of the Chamber membership than we have had in the past.

I plan to complete the questionnaire that the Progress PAC sent to candidates — and I look forward to an interview with the PAC committee as an opportunity for dialogue with some of Oak Ridge’s business leadership. It’s valuable for candidates to exchange ideas with all citizens and learn more about their interests and concerns. There’s no denying that the Chamber and I have been on opposing sides in some major local issues, but I believe the Chamber and the business community it represents are particularly important groups to talk with, learn from, and try to work cooperatively with for the good of the city.

I’m confident that no city funds will go into this PAC. That would be a stupid mistake for the Chamber and the PAC, and the Chamber leadership isn’t stupid. PACs generally get their money from member donations, and I expect that’s what the Progress PAC plans to do. I think it is legitimate to be concerned that Progress PAC might be trying to get more City money for the Chamber, but (based on the questionnaire and my past experiences with the Chamber) it appears to me that their goal is to encourage a strong business climate (not to augment the Chamber budget).

It would be presumptuous to say whether or not I would accept support from the Progress PAC. No support has been offered and I have no particular reason to expect it. However, I believe in transparency, so if the PAC offers to support me as a candidate, I will definitely tell the public about the offer and my decision — and I will disclose the information again if I’m ever in a position to vote on a matter related to business between the City and the Chamber.

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Live blogging the May 16th City Council special called meeting

The special meeting is about proposed amendments to the city budget for FY 2014, which starts July 1, 2013. The agenda for the meeting, plus backup material about staff analysis of the different proposals by council members, is online on the City of Oak Ridge website. Mayor Tom Beehan has asked to have discussion of the ideas before motions are introduced. Other council members are asking to discuss the budget-cutting items before the items that would add to the budget. 5:23 PM

Trina Baughn says her goal is to reduce the property tax rate by 5 to 10 cents. (The total tax rate currently is $2.39, per $100 of assessed value. Single-family residences, farmland, and forest are assessed at 25% of appraised value; commercial and industrial property is assessed at 40% of appraised value. She wants other Council members to state their goals up-front, too. 5:28 PM

City manager Mark Watson said that the last 3 years have seen a lot of shuffling of personnel in the city organization, during which time the city has maintained the same tax rate. He’s been wanting to keep the tax rate level. He hears in the community that people like the way things are going and think they get a pretty good bang for their buck in city government. Good things that are happening include 20% reduction in crime, the upcoming dog park, new roof at Woodland School, traffic improvements paid for by red-light camera money, etc. Finance director is concerned about not reducing reserves. 5:33 PM

Mayor Tom Beehan says people are happy with the services they receive. He doesn’t want to cut services or raise taxes. Cutting services or raising taxes would send the wrong message to people who are considering moving here. 5:35 PM

Anne Garcia Garland says our tax rate isn’t a problem. It’s not egregious. It’s not a burden on most people. It’s lower than a lot of rates in other parts of the country. City manager has been making some significant changes, trying different things, and we need to give that process a chance. He’s proposed some changes in his proposed budget. We’re looking forward to growth there. There are setbacks now due to the federal government, but this is the wrong time to be making cuts. Focus on how the city’s organizations and services are managed, not on cutting what we spend. Keeping our tax rate level for several years has meant that we are cutting things every year because the budget isn’t keeping up with inflation. 5:39 PM (more…)

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Upcoming City Council business

I’ve already heard from one citizen with a question about an item on the April 13 City Council agenda (the agenda was posted Friday), so I guess it’s high time to discuss some of the business items. There’s a rezoning, action on the Chamber of Commerce contract, numerous bids and contracts including purchase of new police vehicles, “and much more.” Here are my musings about a few of these items (I’m interested in hearing what other residents think):

Rezoning request (updated April 7th)

The proposed rezoning is for a 1.25-acre lot at the corner of Tulsa Road and Tusculum Drive (there was a rezoning sign on the property, which is next to the entrance to the Burnham Woods subdivision, but I didn’t see the sign on Saturday). Requested rezoning is from R-4-B (multiple family residential) to O-2 (office district), to allow SMB Group (a construction contractor) to build a company office. (The company now has its office in the building at 100 Tulsa Road, at the corner of Tulsa and South Illinois Ave.) In addition to offices, permitted principal uses in the O-2 zone include multi-family dwellings, churches, hotels, day care facilities, and barber/beauty shops.

The Planning Commission recommended the rezoning by a unanimous vote at its March 26th meeting. The impact of the rezoning isn’t entirely clear. The R-4-B zone is supposed to be phased out, and uses in the new R-4 zone (which presumably would replace R-4-B) are pretty much the same as in the O-2 zone. The biggest difference I see are (1) in the R-4 zone buildings can occupy no more than 50% of the property, but the O-2 zone allows them to cover up to 80%, and (2) building plans in the O-2 zone require Planning Commission approval, but only staff review is required in the R-4 zone.

One possible concern is that the lot is mapped as being in the floodplain (of East Fork Poplar Creek and Gamble Valley Creek), but outside the floodway. Oak Ridge’s zoning ordinance does not restrict development in the portion of the floodplain outside the floodway (this is called the “floodway fringe”), as long as the ground floor is at least 1 ft about the calculated height of the 100-year flood. Fill already placed on the lot appears to have raised it above the flood level, so this is no longer a concern. The contamination (by mercury and PCBs released from the Y-12 Plant) in the floodplain of East Fork Poplar Creek also should not be a concern because the project should not disturb soils.

We’ll learn more about the rezoning proposal at the City Council agenda review work session on Monday, April 6 (6:30 pm in the City Services Center on Woodbury Lane, behind K-Mart), and there’ll be a public hearing at the April 13th City Council meeting (7 pm in the municipal building courtroom).

Chamber of Commerce contract

The City of Oak Ridge has a contract with the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce under which the Chamber (including the affiliated Oak Ridge Economic Partnership) provides economic development services to the City. The current contract is worth over $250,000 annually, including a $20,000 addition that the Council approved by a 5-2 vote in January of this year (Tom Hayes and I were the two who opposed this) to help fund an additional staff member to support the Chamber’s “Live Where You Work” residential recruitment program. The current contract expires June 30, 2009. It could be renewed for an additional year, but the Chamber wants to negotiate a new 3-year contract to begin July 1. City Manager Jim O’Connor is asking for Council authorization to negotiate with the Chamber to determine which option is in the City’s best interest.

Although it’s unlikely that meaningful changes will be made between now and July 1st, I hope to re-open meaningful dialog on the purpose and scope of the City’s relationship with the Chamber. Many residents question the City’s whole relationship with the Chamber of Commerce, asking whether it’s in the public interest to subsidize a chamber of commerce, which is fundamentally operated for the benefit of its membership. The cost of the contract and its benefit to the city are also perennial concerns. The rationale for the contractual relationship with the Chamber has to do with a concern that open-government laws would conflict with the need for confidentiality in business recruitment, as well as a perception that city government is inherently not very good at economic development. I think there is merit in this rationale, but it does appear to me that the City is essentially subsidizing the chamber without having a clear picture of what the public is getting for its money.

Much effort went into creating quantitative performance metrics for the current contract. It’s clear to me that it’s a lot of work for the Chamber to calculate and report those metrics (it turns out that the statistics they are asked to report are not readily available or easily determined), but it’s not clear that the metrics serve the intended purpose of ensuring that the City’s objectives are being met. I think the metrics need to be revisited.

I’d also like to see emphasis placed on helping local businesses (both new start-ups and long-existing companies) succeed, whether or not they are Chamber members. It’s an unfortunate fact of life that many small businesses fail, but if local government resources are being spent on supporting business development, we should be helping existing small businesses (folks who have already invested in this city) avoid the types of mistakes that often lead to doom. Also, we should be helping local retail businesses promote themselves through measures like improved signage, special events, and “shop Oak Ridge” campaigns.

The “Live Where You Work” campaign is a great initiative (and long overdue), but I would have preferred to see it included in the current contract (which was supposed to include residential recruitment), instead of being added on as if it were an extra activity. I am waiting to hear whether the Chamber and City Manager want to enlarge the contract on a permanent basis, or if the $20,000 is a one-time thing (as Council was told back in January).

New police vehicles

Council is being asked to approve bid awards to spend $186,000 to buy six new Ford Crown Victorias (equipped for police use) and two Chevy Tahoes.

The Crown Victorias would replace some existing police cars (including some that have already broken down). Replacement of these cars is included in the City budget. I’m unclear on the purpose of the Chevy Tahoes, but the documentation indicates that the police would like to buy a third Tahoe if the city gets a federal grant. The bid prices for all of the vehicles are exceptionally low, so the City would get a good deal on the purchases.

It’s clear that our police vehicles need to be replaced on a regular basis, and that these bids are a pretty good deal, but I question the business-as-usual approach of continuing to buy new gas-guzzling Crown Victorias and SUVs. Two new directions that we should be exploring are (1) greater fuel efficiency and (2) take-home vehicles.

Fuel-efficient wheels for police. After experiencing last year’s high gas prices, and in face of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, many police forces around the country and the world are testing more fuel-efficient cars for police use. This includes our local Anderson County Sheriff’s Department, which is trying out Dodge Chargers for patrol use. The Charger is a muscle car like the Crown Victoria, but it is rated as more fuel-efficient. Some other jurisdictions are testing smaller vehicles and hybrids for police use, including Chevy Impalas in Mobile, Alabama, the Pontiac Vibe in Cahokia, Illinois, and Toyota Camry hybrids in Salt Lake City, and even the Toyota Prius in Marion County, Florida. I know that police officers like their Crown Victoria, but if other vehicles meet the performance requirements of police work without using as much fuel, they can both save money and help reduce our impact on global climate and air quality.

Take-home vehicles. In a meeting some time back, I was surprised to hear Police Chief David Beams say that it would be possible to stretch the service life of some police cruisers by assigning them to police officers as take-home vehicles. Take-home vehicles would last longer because they would be used for only one shift (instead of being used around the clock). There’s plenty of support for this idea. In addition to saving on vehicle replacement costs, this could increase the police force’s ability to respond to unusual incidents, as officers called in from home could respond quickly. Only officers who live in Oak Ridge city limits should be eligible to take vehicles home, they should be used only to travel to and from work, and a police officer in a vehicle would have to be required to respond to any incidents he or she observes while in the vehicle. For those who qualified, a take-home car could become an added fringe benefit — this would even provide a tangible incentive for our men and women in blue to live inside the city. A take-home program wouldn’t eliminate the need to replace six cars this year, but it might be worth trying out on a small scale to see if it’s truly beneficial.

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