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Too busy to blog?

Whatever I’ve been up to lately, it’s clear I haven’t been doing much blogging. So what have I been up to? Here’s a partial list.

  • EQAB is about to finalize the first report on Oak Ridge’s progress in implementing the climate action plan and meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goals that City Council adopted in 2009 and 2010. The city and the community are on track to meet the first greenhouse gas goals that we adopted for 2015. That’s good news, but the goals for 2015 were modest ones — baby steps toward what needs to be done over the longer term.
  • I’ve been fretting about events surrounding the May 6 county primary election in Anderson County. The way things used to be, our local newspaper would publish profiles of the competing candidates in local elections — so voters could see a factual  report on who was running (at a minimum, the paper would provide basic facts like name, address, age, and occupation). Apparently those days are over — it looks like our local newspaper is no longer attempting to provide election guides. (I hope I’m wrong on that — but since early voting is almost over, a guide published now would be almost too late.) It used to be that the League of Women Voters would hold campaign forums where people could hear all of the candidates in an impartial setting, but this year one of the county’s political parties decided to schedule its own “forum” the same evening as the LWV’s forum. It used to be that local candidates tried to deliver positive messages about themselves, rather than publishing attacks at their opponents, but this year we’ve even received attack ads from candidates for judgeships. All in all, I think it’s harder than ever for voters to make good, informed decisions about the election.
  • And I joined a volunteer crew that pulled up garlic mustard in the greenbelt behind the Garden Apartments (now known as the Rolling Hills Apartments). Garlic mustard is an introduced plant from Europe that’s an invasive weed in this area — it threatens to out-compete our woodland spring wildflowers. It’s not common around this areas, but there’s a population behind the Garden Apartments, in an area that has a pretty amazing collection of spring wildflowers. After several years of volunteer effort, we just might manage to eradicate this weed.
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Good news about our schools, but not in the Knoxville newspaper

Still photo of the animated sign display in front of Oak Ridge High School It’s happened several times lately. The Knoxville News Sentinel runs a story about some sort of statistics from area school districts, covering Knox County, Anderson County, Blount County, Maryville, Lenoir City, Loudon County, Sevier County, Claiborne County, etc. — but where’s Oak Ridge? Today’s story is on bullying.

Oak Ridge data are included in the state report that’s the basis for the story, so I can’t help but wonder if the newspaper’s education reporters are unaware that Oak Ridge has its own school system, separate from the county.

I looked at the state report because I was curious about the statistics for Oak Ridge Schools — particularly after recent allegations of rampant discipline problems in the schools. The report says our schools had 14 reports of bullying incidents in 2012-13. Five of the 14 cases were reported as “indicating bully occurred” based on investigation (the News Sentinel describes these as “confirmed” cases), and 5 cases (probably all 5 of the confirmed cases) involved “sex or gender discrimination.” There were no cases involving “race, color or national origin,” disability, or “the use of electronic technology.”

The Oak Ridge numbers are way below the 182 reported bullying cases (all of which were confirmed) in Knox County or the 150 reported cases in Lenoir City (71 confirmed) or the 129 reported cases (53 confirmed) in Anderson County.

Maybe the reporters didn’t find Oak Ridge’s statistics interesting enough to report because there were so few bullying incidents. Good-news stories about the absence of problems don’t sell newspapers. The story they didn’t print is good news.

Based on my experience as a parent — and before that as a kid —  Oak Ridge’s numbers seem unrealistically low (maybe our schools don’t use the same definition of “bullying” as some of those other school districts). However, I’m pleased (and not surprised) by this indication that our schools are generally orderly and our students are mostly well-behaved. (This is not a school system that’s out of control.) Too bad that the readers of the News Sentinel aren’t reading this good news.

Added at noon on October 27 following discussion on Facebook:

There is no question that different districts are using different definitions of “bullying” and what it takes to confirm a case. For example, is a physical altercation in the schoolyard between two boys, followed by a verbal threat of “I’m gonna kill you” an incident of bullying (I think it probably is) or just a case of “boys being boys” (the way school authorities have been known to interpret this kind of situation)?

In this area, Maryville and Union County both claim zero reported cases of bullying — it seems highly unlikely that nobody reported a bullying incident in an entire school year. Considering that bullying is often a case of “he said, she said” (or “she said, she said”, etc.), it also seems unlikely that Knox County didn’t have any bullying reports that school officials didn’t confirm.

Statewide, my calculations indicate that there were 0.008 bullying reports per enrolled student. Anderson County, Lenoir City, Roane County, and Sevier County statistics show higher rates than that state average (Lenoir City is highest of this group, at 0.068 reported cases per student). Alcoa, Blount County, Clinton, Knox County, Loudon County, Morgan County, and Oak Ridge report rates below the state average. Oak Ridge and Knox County both had about 0.003 reports per student.

Note: In case you care, the enrollment numbers I used in those calculations were “average daily membership” numbers for the 2011-2012 school year — the most recent compilation I found.

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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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Announcement of candidacy for re-election

Here’s the press release I sent out a little while back to announce that I’m running for re-election. It’s appeared in The Oak Ridge Observer and on Oak Ridge Today, but I haven’t seen it in The Oak Ridger yet.

Oak Ridge City Council member Ellen Smith, who was first elected to Council in 2007, has announced her candidacy for re-election in the November 6, 2012, city election.

In announcing her candidacy, Ellen Smith said: “It has been both an honor and a significant responsibility to serve Oak Ridge’s citizenry as one of the city’s elected leaders. I hope that my work over the last five years has justified the citizens’ trust, and that Oak Ridge voters will choose me for another term in office.”

She commented: “In 2009, the members of City Council drafted a vision statement that said we want Oak Ridge to be ‘a highly sought after community for people of all ages to live, work, play and do business.’ Add to that a concern for people, a concern for fairness, a conviction that government decisionmaking should be transparent to the public, and a never-ending pursuit of value for the public’s money, and you’ll have a pretty good summary of what guides my government actions.”

Ellen Smith is an environmental scientist on the research staff in the Environmental Sciences Division of Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Originally from Connecticut, she is a graduate of Carleton College (Minnesota), where she majored in geology, and she holds a master’s degree in water resources management from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She and her husband, Rich Norby, have lived in Oak Ridge since 1981. They have one adult son who was born and raised here and attended Oak Ridge Schools.

Before her election to City Council, Ellen was a 16-year member of the city Environmental Qjuality Advisory Board (EQAB), serving for several years as its chairman. She represented EQAB and later the City on the Board of Directors of the Local Oversight Committee, chairing that body from 2007 until 2011.

She is a member of organizations including the League of Women Voters and Altrusa, and is a founding member of both Keep Anderson County Beautiful and Advocates for the Oak Ridge Reservation, on whose boards she serves.

As a City Council member, she has added to her understanding of local government and worked to build connections with other communities through conferences and other activities of the National League of Cities and the Tennessee Municipal League, as well as by completing Level 1 of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service’s Elected Officials Academy and several additional classes. Currently she is participating actively in the five-county Plan ET regional initiative.

Some of her earlier volunteer civic activities include being a charter member and officer of the East Tennessee Chapter of the Association for Women in Science in the 1980s; participation in the 1992-1993 Greenways Task Force that developed a master plan for what is now the city greenway network, the 1992-1994 Lower East Fork Poplar Creek Citizens Working Group, and a late 1990s city task force that investigated and made recommendations on karst problems; and service as a volunteer leader in Linden School Cub Scout Pack 226.

Ellen’s website at www.ellensmith.org provides information about the candidate and her current campaign, as well as blog postings and other commentary posted over the 8 years since the website was established.

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Speed limit(s) on west Oak Ridge Turnpike

Oak Ridge Turnpike project in 2008 -- before the trees came do

Construction has been going on so long, it's hard to remember when it started.

As Friday’s paper reported, City Council has been asked to approve new speed limits for west Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) — to take effect after TDOT’s seemingly interminable widening project is finished. This portends  an end to the construction that we west end residents have endured  for the last 2-1/4 years (reportedly, TDOT has bought the new signs and is ready to put them in the ground), but I think the new limits recommended by TDOT don’t make sense, and I want to share the full story of my concerns.

Currently, city ordinances set the speed limit at 45 mph on Oak Ridge Turnpike from Illinois Avenue west to a point 200 ft west of Rarity Oaks Parkway (about 1 mile west of Wisconsin Avenue), where it increases to 55 mph. (Yes, many of us always thought the 35 mph speed limit applied west to a point somewhere around  Jefferson or Louisiana Ave., but the ordinance says the 45 mph limit starts at Illinois Ave.)

The proposal would replace that single speed limit with four different limits in  a few miles’ distance:

  • 35 mph for the first 1300 ft west of Illinois Avenue (to a point just before the first entrance to the South Hills Garden Apartments)
  • 40 mph for the next 2/3 mile or so, to a point 700 west of Jefferson Avenue
  • 50 mph for about 3-1/4 miles west of that spot, to a point 380 ft west of Oklahoma Ave.
  • 45 mph west from there to that point 200 ft west of Rarity Oaks Parkway

This proposal was discussed at a City Council work session on September 7 and was voted on at the Council meeting on September 13, so it seemed like old news to me by the time it hit the newspaper on September 17, but it’s not law until it has passed on second reading, which is scheduled for October 11. As the newspaper reported, I spoke against the change and voted against it (Anne Garcia Garland also voted against the proposal, which passed 5-2 on first reading). Here are some specific concerns I presented at the meeting:

  • Frequent changes in speed limits can be confusing to drivers, who may not see all of the signs giving notice of different limits.
  • 50 mph seems too high for safety in view of the number of businesses, residences, and street intersections along the roadway that require turning movements; plus the new sidewalks and on-street bike lanes that are being created as part of the project
  • It is particularly illogical (and confusing) to lower the speed limit (from 55 to 45 mph)  for drivers entering town from the west, then raise it again (to 50 mph) where the road enters a more congested area
  • The closeness of the road to many homes is also a concern

I pointed out that just last year the City Council had heard from residents living near Hwy 95 on Southwood and Sweetgum Lanes (west of the gatehouse, near Wisconsin Ave.) who were concerned about safety for residents and noise from the roadway, particularly after completion of the TDOT project to widen that section from 2 lanes to 4. We discussed the fact that highway noise is much greater at 55 mph than at 45. After considering the residents’ concerns and receiving a report from the city engineer on his evaluation of the situation, City Council voted to lower the speed limit near their homes from 55 mph to 45 mph.

After that action last year, it seems incongruous to be talking now about raising the speed limit on a section of the same road that is closer to more homes, has higher traffic counts, has many more turning movements associated with intersections and driveways, and will have sidewalks (adjacent to the curb) and on-highway bike lanes that will expose pedestrians to traffic. It would be inconsistent to set the limit at 50 mph on this section if the city decided that 45 was the right speed to protect the public welfare on a section with fewer potential safety and noise issues. (Not only are some residents closer to the road in this section than on Sweetgum or Southwood Lanes, but because their homes are uphill from the roadway, they receive more road noise than the downhill homes on those “S” Lanes. Also, unlike the “S” Lanes, residents in some west end neighborhoods who had long been buffered from road noise by wooded areas were not informed that they would lose those trees until after TDOT’s contractors started clearcutting.)

At first I intended to proposed an amendment to the proposal to simplify it by specifying just two speed limits: 35 mph in the areas where TDOT recommended 35 or 40, then 45 in the areas recommended as 45 or 50. However, I abandoned that idea after seeing the level of opposition by city staff. Due to past litigation about speed limits, city staff doesn’t want to change speed limits without doing an engineering evaluation first, and it has been suggested that the evaluation can’t be done until after the completed project is open to traffic. Considering that the new road configuration will be only slightly different from the 4-lane configuration that existed before the project (in spite of the long project schedule, the only substantial changes are addition of a median and those bike lanes and sidewalks), I believe that  the city has all the necessary data for an evaluation now (notably, the engineer has many years of traffic counts and knows the physical layout of the road, including intersections and driveways). Reportedly, TDOT’s recommendation is based only on physical design of the road — things like grades, curve radii, and sight distances. If TDOT engineers can make recommendations on that basis before construction is complete, surely an Oak Ridge engineer can look at that same information, along with factors like turning traffic at businesses and residential driveways, and make an even better recommendation before the reconfigured road reopens.

I think there is ample time to do an evaluation before the Oct. 11 second reading of the proposed new ordinance. However, if no new study is going to be done, I think the next best plan is simply to keep the 45 mph speed limit that’s on the books now. Accordingly, I voted against the proposed new speed limits.

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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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Brenda Starr, Dick Tracy, and Gasoline Alley?

I do not feel good about the future of our local daily newspaper after seeing the new comics line-up in this morning’s Oak Ridger. I’ve followed Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley, and Brenda Starr at various times in my life, but all were old strips long before my time, and I don’t recall reading any of them in over 30 years. I’m sure that these and the other strips that the paper has acquired are cheap, but I don’t see them helping to maintain the readership base.

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