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City Council’s best and worst: September 27th Observer question

The Oak Ridge Observer‘s question for Council candidates this week was “What’s the best thing City Council has done in the past ten years? And what’s the worst thing?”

I chose to focus my 75-words-or-less answer on the five years that I’ve been on Council. The first part of my response (in the September 27 edition of the Observer) says:

Council’s best action in my five years in office was making a good hire for city manager. Under Mark Watson, there has been real progress against chronic problems such as neighborhood blight.

In a council-manager government like ours, it is pretty much a given that the single most important thing the Council does is to choose and employ a good city manager. It’s the manager, not the council, who directs the rest of the city staff and runs the city on a daily basis. When city manager Jim O’Connor left for another position at the end of 2009, we had to recruit and select a new manager. Mark Watson arrived in the summer of 2010. Change didn’t occur overnight, but after two years it’s clear that his personnel actions (such as the hiring of Police Chief Jim Akagi), the policy initiatives he’s brought to Council, and his day-to-day direction to staff, have made inroads against some chronic problems in the city.

In the second part of my response, I said:

Council’s biggest shortcoming has been our failure to undertake a critical examination of the city’s economic development efforts. The results we have achieved aren’t commensurate with the amounts we spend on marketing, lobbyists, special events, etc.

In a typical year, Oak Ridge spends over $900,000 of our city budget in the name of “economic diversification.” That money goes to the Convention and Visitors Bureau for tourism promotion; to the Chamber of Commerce and several other regional economic development organizations for business recruitment and promotion; and to the city’s lobbyists in Washington, DC, and Nashville. It also pays for all or part of a variety of special events, such as the Secret City Festival, July 4th fireworks, and “Secret City Sounds” concerts on summer evenings. These things have been supported year in and year out because of a general perception that they are good things for the city to support.

In addition, business incentives such as tax abatements are a cost to the city, and the city Industrial Development Board uses funds obtained from public resources to pay for infrastructure improvements, spec buildings, and other activities at industrial parks and other business properties. In total, city government spends a good bit more than $1 million a year on economic development.

For the most part, these are things the city should continue to support. However,  I don’t think that the expenditure over 1 million dollars a year is achieving  the amount of benefit we ought to expect from that amount of money, so we are overdue for a critical evaluation of this entire program. Council is not qualified to devise a new strategy for economic development, but we need to try to measure the return on our investment, ask why Oak Ridge is supporting a particular set of activities — and whether decisions made long ago still make sense, seek recommendations on actions and strategies that might produce better results, and ask what is the right amount for the city to be spending on these efforts. Ideally, a re-examination of the city’s economic development activities would happen annually.

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Phew!

Phew! This year’s Secret City Festival was a big success but it’s a relief that it’s over, and a relief that we made it through last evening’s marathon City Council meeting.

We had a long agenda and a long meeting. Kudos to John Huotari for quickly spinning out reports on two of the major business items addressed at the meeting:

1. Mayor Beehan and Mayor pro tem Miller were both re-elected to two-year terms. I supported Beehan (he was elected unanimously) but I was one of the three who voted for David Mosby for the pro-tem position, as I saw him as the better choice to provide leadership for the City Council and the City in the absence of the mayor. Several people contacted me over the weekend and on Monday to urge me to support Miller, citing the help she has given them in getting city staff support with issues related to things like animal control and code enforcement, but that type of constituent service (which any Council member can provide) is not what I see as needed in a mayor pro-tem.

2. We delayed action on the proposed lease for the senior center to allow more time for senior services advocates to put together a funding package to allow acquisition of the former Trinity Methodist Church for use as a senior center. I’m very pleased at this result (which came on another 4-3 vote), and I hope that the senior advocates can pull it off. (This deserves its own blog post.)

In some of our other business, Council approved new one-year lobbying contracts — with Bill Nolan Associates to represent the city in Nashville and with Ferguson Group for representation at the federal level. I opposed both. One reason is because I was irritated that Council members had been uninformed about what the lobbyists were doing for the city over the 6-month contract until the 11th hour before this meeting. (OK, 3 pm Monday wasn’t the very last hour before the 7 pm Monday meeting, but there was very little margin…) I hope for better communications in the future. Also, I believe that the benefits we get from the federal lobbyist could be provided at less cost by other mechanisms (such as a combination of “Washington insider” newsletters to provide current information on issues and opportunities, plus grad student interns here in Oak Ridge to do legislative research, “legwork” on grant applications, and drafting of letters and discussion points for officials to use).

Also, we received a letter from TDOT’s Gerald Nicely regarding options for the next phase of the widening of State Route 95. The exciting part is that TDOT says that a redesign changing the “typical section” from a 48-ft depressed grass median to a 12-ft paved median (this is being called “Alternative 2″ — basically, this is the change from a “rural design” to an “urban design” that some of us had been asking for) could be accomplished without delaying the September 2009 bid opening, but the City would have to compensate TDOT for any additional costs of construction. Other alternatives include a total shift of the road alignment away from the current right-of-way (this is being called Alternative 1 and is favored by some Southwood subdivision residents, but it’s impractical, and would result in a long delay in the highway project) or (in what’s being called Alternative 3) making small modifications to the “rural” design to reduce its impact (steeper slopes, modified ditches, and guardrails to reduce encroachment on the neighborhood and avoid some loss of vegetation, and lower speed limit to address noise and safety concerns). I think the new “urban” option is the right direction to go — I’m delighted that TDOT is revisiting its plan and proposing what I think is a “context sensitive” solution for this highway segment. City Council probably will have a work session to discuss the proposal on Monday July 6, followed by a special meeting to act on it on Monday July 13.

Added June 24: I forgot to say that City Council approved on first reading (second reading will be July 20th) an ordinance to change the speed limit from 55 to 45 mph on the stretch of Hwy. 95 that passes the Southwood subdivision. The lower speed limit would apply all the way west to a point 200 ft west of the western entrance to the Rarity Oaks subdivision. Among other things, a lower speed limit should improve safety near the subdivision and reduce noise for residents.

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Lobbyist contracts renewed

As the local newspapers have reported, on December 17 Council voted 6-1 to renew the Ferguson Group lobbying contract (I was opposed) and 7-0 to renew the contract will Bill Nolan Associates.

There was little discussion of the matter at the meeting, but it appeared that other Council members’ votes on the Ferguson contract were influenced by the staff recommendations, by the amount of money that staff said Ferguson had helped bring in, and by the fact that experience with Ferguson was far for the city than the experience with the Baker-Donelson law firm had been earlier.

As I’ve said earlier, I continue to believe that the city could gain federal funds for local needs without the services of a lobbyist. Further, the fact that this firm is serving us better than Baker-Donelson does not mean that we need their service.

However, now that Ferguson Group is on board for another year, I look forward to working with them to further Oak Ridge’s interests.

The Council Intergovernmental Relations Committee will meet January 9th (4pm in the municipal building training room) to review and make recommendations on the city’s federal and state “agenda,” which the full Council will consider on January 28th. There’s time for citizen input. Equity for local contractor retirees (see this earlier blog post) is one of my highest federal priorities for the city, but there are plenty of other potential wish list items on both the federal and state level.

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