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City Council

Liquor licensees — changing the rules in the middle of the game?

citysealAt tonight’s City Council meeting some rules got changed in the middle of the game.  That was unsportsmanlike — and it was not business-friendly.

Oak Ridge has an ordinance (dating back nearly 50 years) requiring that owners and operators of retail liquor establishments (liquor stores) must be city residents, unless Council votes to waive the requirement. And Council has routinely waived that residency requirement for everyone who requests a waiver. I’m not aware that anyone was ever denied a waiver — and very few liquor sellers actually live in the city.

Since we don’t require owners of any other type of business to live in the city and since the residency requirement hasn’t been enforced, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep it on the books. It’s just one of several antiquated ordinances related to liquor that need to be updated (a topic I’ve discussed with legal staff). But we have to live with it for now.

Tonight Council considered a request for a residency waiver and a “certificate of good moral character” from two young men (I think they are brothers) who purchased a long-operating local liquor store and needed city council approval in order to get a state license. All the usual checking of police records, etc., had been done to verify that they met the legal requirements for “good moral character,”  and one of the young men even told us that they used to live in Oak Ridge and hoped to move back here (from Knox County) after getting into business here.

I expected they would receive the approvals that are routinely granted to liquor license applicants, but it didn’t happen. One Council member said he wanted to support local small business, and he wasn’t sure he likes  the residency requirement, but he would vote against a waiver because he didn’t like the idea of waiving the residency requirement. He said he understood that it had been waived in the past, but he had never voted for a waiver and he didn’t want to start now. Another Council member apparently agreed with him and voted not to grant the waiver. Two “no” votes was enough to defeat the resolution because it needed 4 votes to pass, and there were only 5 Council members voting (Councilwoman Trina Baughn was absent and Mayor Warren Gooch had recused himself due to a possible conflict of interest).

So Council changed the rules in the middle of the game for these young men. And contrary to that Councilman’s recollection, he had voted for waivers previously. As recently as March of this year, he voted “yes” when 6 members of Council voted to waive the residency requirement for 7 applicants for new or renewed licenses. (It’s recorded in the minutes of that meeting.)

So two young men who invested in a local small business and were eager to get started are being told “no” because of Council members who decided to change the rules in the middle of the game. In my book, that’s arbitrary regulation — the exact opposite of “being business-friendly.” I hope that this action doesn’t lead to the closure of the store these young men bought.

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Not for sale

citysealIt’s rumor control time: The Oak Ridge City Council is not planning to sell the public library or the outdoor swimming pool, and we are not voting next Monday on either of these ideas.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s a little factual information related to this rumor.

  1. City Council meets Monday, July 27, 7 pm in the municipal courtroom to enact a city budget for Fiscal Year 2016, which started on July 1. (This is an important meeting.)
  2. At a Council work session earlier this week, the city manager told City Council that he would like to look into the possibility of hiring a private contractor to manage our public library. This has been done in some communities and reportedly has significantly reduced operating costs, mainly by changing the way new library materials are prepared to be added to the collection. According to the city manager, a contractor that serves many libraries can more efficiently label and catalog new materials, add protective covers, etc., thus greatly reducing “back room” costs — and possibly freeing up some “back room” space in our library for more interesting uses.
  3. The city manager also said that contracting might be a good option for increasing efficiency in operation of the indoor and outdoor swimming pool facilities.
  4. City Council members encouraged the manager to look into these possibilities. No decisions have been made and no vote has been scheduled.
  5. The city manager’s proposed FY16 budget provides full funding for the library and swimming pools as they are currently operated.

As for my opinion on these proposals… I am pleased that the manager is looking into opportunities to improve the efficiency of city government operations. A number of different functions of city government probably could be performed more efficiently by specialized contractors that do the same work for many communities. Contractors may be able to give Oak Ridge the benefit of their experience in other place and they may be able to obtain more competitive pricing and other efficiencies in procurement of products and services. Local government purchasing cooperatives are another option that some communities are using to reduce operating costs — and that our city should explore.

However, there are serious concerns in a contracting arrangement. For starters, local control and autonomy should not be sacrificed, and any cost savings achieved should not come from reducing employee pay or benefits (for both current and future employees).  The city manager says that this has not happened in the places that have brought in library contractors. I’m skeptical, but I’m interested in learning more…

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Looking ahead to the new City Council

citysealIs it three weeks since the election already?!? Yes, it is. I’m elected to Council again, sworn in, and now it seems I am the new Mayor Pro-Tem.

The election results posted by the county election commissions show that a total of 8,966 voters participated in the election in Oak Ridge — well over 40% of the registered voters. Here are the vote tallies, with my calculation of each candidate’s percentage of the voters, and winners marked in bold:
Kelly Callison 4022 44.9%
Rick Chinn 4151 46.3%
Anne Garcia Garland 2620 29.2%
Warren Gooch 4556 50.8%
Gary Love 1494 16.7%
David Mosby 3126 34.9%
Pedro Otaduy 762 8.5%
Aditya “Doc” Savara 1741 19.4%
Ellen Smith 3627 40.5%
Eric Tobler 3115 34.7%

Now we move on to the business of governing. Monday night’s swearing-in was more of a ceremonial occasion than I ever recall in the past, impressively conducted by long-time city judge Bob McNees in his judicial robes.

The vote for Mayor took a lot longer than I had expected, due to an unexpectedly even split of votes among the 4 announced candidates. I congratulate Warren Gooch on his new position as Mayor, and I hope to do a good job as his back-up in the position of Mayor Pro Tem (the Council member who fills in when the Mayor is absent). Thanks to my fellow Council members for entrusting me with that position.

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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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Candidate forum season enters the home stretch

cityseal There are three candidate events remaining on the calendar for Oak Ridge City Council and Board of Education elections. All are open to the public, without charge.

  • 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

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

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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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Patching relations between Council and schools

Sign in front of Oak Ridge High SchoolThe Progress PAC’s third question was about patching the relationship between Oak Ridge City Council and the Oak Ridge Board of Education. My submitted response is below. At the October 1 forum conducted by the PTA-PTO Council, I was pleased to hear several school board candidates make statements that suggest they are thinking along similar lines.

Question 3: The relationship between the Board of Education and City Council has been strained. What is your plan to help build consensus between the two bodies?

My response: The strain in the relationship between the city and the schools has the same cause as many breakdowns within loving families: poor communication about money.

To repair the relationship, we need to establish open, honest, and timely communication about budgets and money. Discussions should not be just between the Board and the Council, but also must involve staff of both organizations –- the people who develop budgets and can explain the details. Ground rules are needed for these communications before they begin. Among these ground rules, I would like to see the Board accept that Council must make decisions that balance between all of the competing priorities for city money (including city operations, schools, capital needs, and the desire to minimize property taxes), and that a full understanding of the “innards” of the school budget (and the reasons for various expenditures) may be necessary to help Council weigh the Board’s funding requests against the other competing priorities. On the other hand, Council needs to agree that it has no authority to direct or interfere with Board decisions on how it spends the school budget or on how the schools are run. Ground rules should also include strong admonitions not to make personal statements critical of other participants – or other remarks that personalize the discussion.

I support the Council’s plan to re-establish a budget and finance committee in which Council members can study and discuss budgetary matters related to the entire city government and the schools. I think that meetings of this committee (which are public meetings) will provide the right setting for the two bodies to begin new conversations about money. Even if all members of both bodies are in attendance, I believe that the setting of a working committee (rather than a formal meeting of the full memberships of both bodies) should help to minimize posturing and grandstanding by individual members of the Board and Council, which has sometimes impeded meaningful communication in the past. Early discussions (starting soon after the November election) are needed, so that neither the Council or the Board will be surprised by the other body at budget time in May and June.

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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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Traffic cameras in Oak Ridge — again

signschool One of the thorniest issues that City Council faced in my 5+ years is back. On Monday, Council decides whether to renew the contract with Redflex (possibly in new form), whether to cancel it, and (with or without cameras) whether to ask the state to let the city install a pedestrian-crossing stoplight in front of Oak Ridge High School (instead of continuing existing safety measures like crossing guards and traffic cameras — and to be paid for with traffic camera revenue).

It’s my impression that the majority of Oak Ridgers support the traffic cameras for their positive impact on traffic safety (something that can’t be proven from the available accident statistics, mostly because we don’t have enough accidents to make statistically significant comparisons). Back in 2008, I voted for the city ordinance that allows the use of traffic cameras in Oak Ridge. However, I voted against the contract with Redflex, largely because the plan to use cameras seemed to be more about cameras than about achieving safety goals — it wasn’t connected to engineering analysis or a program of alternative (non-enforcement) methods for improving driver behavior (such as better signs and traffic calming).  Now the city has a chance to re-evaluate the program and improve it for the future.

What should Council vote to do now?

Stop operating some cameras as “speed traps.” The biggest thing I learned from the camera data recently shared with Council and the public (finally, after nearly 5 years of camera operation and many requests) is that there is a solid factual basis for the complaints that I received as a Council member (mostly from out-of-towners) who claimed Oak Ridge was running a speed trap. Redflex data show that about 1.4% of the vehicles passing through a camera-equipped school zone during school-speed-limit hours get tickets, on average. For westbound traffic passing the high school, that goes up to 2.1% (about 1 in every 50 vehicles), and for westbound traffic on Robertsville Road passing Willowbrook School, it’s a whopping 3.9% (about 1 in every 25 vehicles). Those are the kinds of violation rates that people associate with speed traps. Almost one-quarter of the camera tickets issued are for school-zone speeding — the camera operations that function like speed traps. When one person in 25 or one person in 50 is breaking the speed limit and getting ticketed, and this happens day in and day out, I think it says that the speed limit might be unreasonable — or the city needs to be trying other methods to promote safety. I don’t know if this means reducing the number of tickets by reducing the duration of school speed limits (I’ve talked to quite a few people whose camera tickets came when no children were present — for example, 2o minutes after school started) or upping the enforcement threshold (from 6 miles over to 10 miles over, for example), or if it means something like adding more flashing lights in school zones to remind drivers that children are present.

Add a pedestrian crossing light in front of the high school — thus eliminating or reducing the need for crossing guards, traffic cameras, and/or the school-zone speed limit. A pedestrian light is a feasible and affordable way to resolve the longstanding problem of kids crossing Oak Ridge Turnpike at that location — and it seems to me that a pedestrian light could eliminate the need for those other measures (after a phase-in period for people to get used to the new arrangements). I asked for this for several years (ever since city staff outlined a plan for it), and I was disappointed when city staff shelved the idea (largely because of national guidelines that said school speed zones and crossing guards are the preferred means for protecting school kids).  Council should support this now.

To be continued…

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