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Yes, Oak Ridge still has public transportation

citysealOne action at Monday night’s City Council meeting was approval of a new contract with the East Tennessee Human Resources Agency (ETHRA) to operate the city’s demand-responsive van transit system. The one-way fare will rise to $2, but otherwise the service is what I described here back in March. During the meeting, when several Council members asked staff how the public can find out about the Oak Ridge Transit service, I didn’t remember that I had blogged about this problem. (I did remember that I had talked with city staff about the need to make the information more available, but apparently my comments weren’t heeded.)

Just as I discovered back in March, discussion at the Council meeting confirmed that it’s not easy to find out about this service. Oak Ridge Transit can’t be found on the web. The local phone number to call for service rings to ETHRA — that could be confusing because ETHRA also runs a separate 16-county rural paratransit service that has different policies and higher prices. At Monday night’s meeting, city and ETHRA staff said they would do something to make information more accessible. I hope they follow through on that promise, because I know that some people who need this service aren’t finding out about it.

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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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Government transparency meets technology limitations

Today I went online to file my annual “Statement of Interest” with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, but found myself colliding with a dysfunctional software interface. The Statement of Interest is supposed to provide some transparency in Tennessee government. All elected officials and candidates for elected office are required to disclose their financial interests and those of spouses and minor children, including sources of income, investments, and loans.

There’s a website where officials can file their disclosures and where anybody can see the reports that have been filed. In the past, my biggest challenge in filing was remembering my user ID and password. This year, I was able to dredge them up and log in, only to find that there is no visible mechanism for me to “File a Statement” (the help page says I should click on a button with that label, but I can’t see any such button). I can see my reports from past years, and apparently I could amend my report for last year, but I can’t file a new report for 2012, which state law requires me to do before January 31. Technology, including the Internet, smart phones, and social media, is a marvelous tool for improving government transparency and enhancing interaction between citizens and government, but it can be easily defeated by apps that don’t work properly. I see that a few other area officials have managed to file 2012 disclosures, and I’ve sent an email to Nashville to describe my problem, so I’m hopeful that my problems will be resolved well before the filing deadline.

Looking at the instructions for filing (which are a lot more detailed and informative than they were when I had to file a disclosure, several years ago) and looking at other officials’ reports, I’m led to think that it was far easier to pass a law mandate disclosure than it has been to implement it. Regarding income and investments, the original statute (about the only guidance we had the first year I filled this in) is fairly vague:

8-50-502.  Disclosure statements — Contents.

Disclosure shall be made of:

(1) The major source or sources of private income of more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), including, but not limited to, offices, directorships, and salaried employments of the person making disclosure, the spouse, or minor children residing with such person, but no dollar amounts need be stated. This subdivision (1) shall not be construed to require the disclosure of any client list or customer list;

(2) Any investment which the person making disclosure, that person’s spouse, or minor children residing with that person has in any corporation or other business organization in excess of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or five percent (5%) of the total capital; however, it shall not be necessary to state specific dollar amounts or percentages of such investments;

In contrast, the current guidance on the website is far more specific — and includes some items not obviously included in the statute. For example, the guidance now defines “private income” as a long list of items, including  bank interest, stock dividends, honoraria, research grants, royalties, and “retirement income” (pensions and annuities) — none of which are obviously indicated by the language of the statute. Skimming through the disclosures filed by other officeholders in our local area, I concluded that it has been confusing for people to figure out what to report — for example, a couple of people who everyone knows to be receiving pensions did not mention their pensions on their forms, very likely because “retirement income” wasn’t on the list the first time they filed the form.

I guess that “transparency” works only as well as the guidance — and, in 2012, the software.

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Service outage during changeover of City of Oak Ridge website

The City is upgrading its internet services this weekend, but websites and email (including messages to the City Council addresses on the cortn.org domain) are likely to be offline most of the weekend. Anticipating that people will be wondering what’s going on, I’m posting an excerpt from the announcement I received from Oak Ridge City staff:

There will be an interruption in internet services beginning Friday,
November 4th, 2011, at 5pm and continuing until 7am on Monday, November 7th.
This will include access to our website and all services found within.
Some services could begin to reappear on Sunday.

During this period we will be in the process of changing internet
service providers. This move will increase our internet bandwidth from
9mb to 50mb. Multiple other changes will also be accomplished in
conjunction with this changeover.

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Avoid the new “friend stranded overseas” e-mail scam

I’ve gotten these messages twice in the past week. The alleged sender is someone who has sent me e-mail in the past and is now supposedly stranded in London and is asking me for money. It looks like a scammer has gotten hold of people’s e-mail contacts lists and is spamming the contacts. My messages were supposedly from people I know only slightly (and the first message was sent to the e-mail address for the whole city council), so I wasn’t fooled, but if they had been from close friends or family the scam might not have been quite so obvious. Here’s today’s version of the scam:

Hi,

How you doing? I made a trip to London (United Kingdom) unannounced some days back,Unfortunately i ,i got messed up in another country, stranded in London, fortunately passport was back in our hotel room. It was a bitter experience and i was hurt on my right hand, but would be fine. I am sending you this message because i don’t want anyone to panic,i want you to keep it that way for now.

My return flight leaves in a few hours but I’m having troubles sorting out the hotel bills, wondering if you could loan me some money to sort out the hotel bills and also take a cab to the airport about (1,650 Dollars). I have been to the police and embassy here,but they aren’t helping issues,I have limited means of getting out of here,i have canceled my credit cards already and made a police report, I won’t get a new credit card number till I get back home! So I really need your help.You can contact the hotel management through this telephone number [deleted],you could wire whatever you can spare to my name and location via Western union:

Name:Harvey _______
Location: [a London mailing address]

Get back to me with the details,would def refund your money once i get back you can count on that,below are the details needed for me to pick up the money with my passport.

MTCN:
Amount Sent:

I await your prompt response.

Harvey.

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