At a meeting on Friday afternoon, Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan and several county mayors from around the region are expected to vote to dissolve the Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee (LOC), asking the state to instead direct the LOC’s funding to a “board of mayors and county executives” who will decide how to spend the money for the benefit of their local governments.
Since 2007 I’ve served as the LOC board chairman, representing the City of Oak Ridge. Right now, I’m feeling a bit like I was “hung out to dry” by other city officials who were working to eliminate the LOC, unbeknownst to me, at the same time that I was trying to fulfill my duties as a board member by seeking answers to questions about the prospects for continued funding to pay the organization’s bills.
The LOC is a nonprofit that was formed 20 years ago to represent the interests of local jurisdictions affected by Department of Energy (DOE) environmental contamination, contamination rumors, cleanup, and other DOE activities in Oak Ridge. Its efforts have included conducting public education, evaluating and making recommendations on DOE reports and actions, and communicating local concerns to state and federal governments. The LOC has a 2-person staff and operates with grant funding from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), which in turn gets the money from DOE under the Tennessee Oversight Agreement (TOA). It is led by a board of directors consisting of the mayors (or county executives) of Oak Ridge and seven area counties, plus the chairmen of three environmental advisory boards. In practice, most jurisdictions are represented by alternates who have particular interests or government responsibilities in environment or emergency management.
A volunteer Citizens Advisory Panel (CAP) does a lot of the LOC’s work. Over the years, the CAP membership has included a variety of people wanting to “give back” to the community by evaluating technical materials and helping with public education. Among them are long-time area residents retired from jobs with federal contractors, current employees of DOE contractors and waste processing businesses, and newcomers to the region eager for the chance to learn about local conditions and set their minds at ease about living here.
I’ve been on the board of directors for a large fraction of the LOC’s existence, first during stints as chairman of the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) and since 2007 representing the Oak Ridge City Council as the mayor’s alternate. Also in 2007, I succeeded Leonard Abbatiello (the previous mayoral alternate) as chairman of the LOC board.
The latest five-year TOA was up for renewal this year. That renewal has been delayed, apparently mostly because of differences between DOE and the state of Tennessee regarding how much of a funding cut the state should have to suffer. When the new state fiscal year started on July 1 with no money for the LOC and no new TOA agreement in sight, I guessed that the LOC’s funding would be reduced or possibly eliminated However, there were oral assurances from TDEC that the new TOA would provide money for the LOC, so we did not take the drastic steps of shutting down the office and laying off staff when last year’s money ran out, but I did make sure that staff understood that they could choose not to work, since there might not be any money to pay them.
I believe that state officials were sincere when they gave assurances about future funding, but they were confused by the fact that, at the same time I was asking them about funding for the LOC, other officials from my city government were privately urging them to terminate funding for the organization. (Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel has documented some of that story on his blog — he and I both obtained copies of city manager Mark Watson’s August 3rd letter to the state on August 23.)
At a special meeting of the LOC board on September 1, called by Ron Woody and Myron Iwanski of Roane and Anderson counties to discuss the LOC’s finances and future, several of the mayors in attendance (only two of whom had ever previously attended an LOC board meeting) expressed their desire to dissolve the LOC and use TDEC funding for other local purposes. This Friday, at another LOC board meeting, I expect that most of the region’s eight mayors will vote as members of the LOC board to dissolve the organization and ask TDEC to give the money that would have gone to the LOC to one of the local governments to be used as directed by a regional “board of mayors and county executives.” Added (September 8, 2011): The Roane County News reported on the meeting.
It’s not entirely clear why the mayors want to do away with the LOC. It’s probably valid to generalize that they don’t think the LOC’s activities are relevant to them. In recent years, DOE and its environmental cleanup has not been seen as a crisis for the region’s local governments. That’s a contrast from the LOC’s early years, when mercury in the East Fork Poplar Creek floodplain was a hot topic, DOE was actively conducting Superfund investigations of sediments and fish in Watts Bar Lake, and owners of Watts Bar marinas and resorts said that worry about possible contamination was costing them business. In the 1990s, local governments sought LOC’s help in working with federal and state regulators and in providing public education resources to help dispel people’s concerns. In more recent years, DOE activities were no longer a crisis for local governments (although there are some serious issues that should not be ignored) and the LOC staff has found it a struggle to interact effectively with the region’s local officials, particularly with all seven counties getting new mayors since August 2010. As board chairman, I’m acutely aware of ways in which the LOC has fallen short of its potential, and I’ve had a longstanding concern about a need for more effective involvement of the member jurisdictions.
Instead of using their positions as board members to redirect the LOC’s management and activities, the mayors want to dissolve the organization. They give multiple reasons. At the September 1 meeting, one mayor said that he considered the board’s six yearly meetings to be too tedious to attend (a judgment apparently based on the meeting agendas). It was also said to be inappropriate for the LOC to communicate with DOE and state agencies on behalf of the region — at least one mayor says that only the individual governments should communicate with DOE. Oak Ridge city manager Mark Watson has observed that a stand-alone nonprofit organization such as the LOC has some costs (which I summarize as “organizational overhead”) that would not exist if the TDEC grant funds were managed under the umbrella of a city or county government. He would like the funding to be used for the direct benefit of individual local governments, such as for training, instead of paying for an organization’s operations. At least one of the mayors is critical of the LOC for not having directors and officers liability insurance for the board (a good idea, but something that had never been suggested previously by any board member or alternate).
This whole sequence of events has been strange and upsetting for me. I foresee this episode undermining future working relationships within the City Council and with the City Manager. There are additional implications for the relationship between the mayor and other Council members, considering that our mayor is not a voter-elected executive but is elected by other council members for a list of duties (in the city charter) that does not appear to include abolishing nonprofits without Council authorization: “The mayor shall preside at meetings of the council, shall have a vote on all matters but no veto power, shall be the ceremonial head of the city, shall sign ordinances and resolutions on their final passage, shall sign deeds, bonds and contracts when authorized by the council to do so, shall be the officer to accept process against the city, shall not have any regular administrative duties, and shall perform only such duties as shall be specifically conferred.”
I can only imagine how Susan and Joyce, the LOC staff, are feeling, as they watch their jobs get swept away by politics.