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Oak Ridge High School

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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No, I have never proposed nor supported merging Oak Ridge Schools into the county system

I don’t know who is spreading the rumor, but it isn’t true. I have never proposed and I do not support merging Oak Ridge Schools into one of the county systems. Apparently a rumor is going around that makes the absurd claim that I want to combine our schools with one of the county systems. That would be a bad idea — and it’s a bad rumor.

The excellent Oak Ridge Schools are one of the city’s greatest strengths and a source of community pride.  Throughout the city’s history, Oak Ridge parents (myself included) have had high expectations for their children’s education and have held the schools to the highest standards. I believe that most citizens favor continuing the high level of  financial support that our city has traditionally provided — and continues to provide — to its schools. For me, and most Oak Ridgers, it would be unthinkable to give our fine city school system to one of the county systems — systems that serve communities with different educational expectations and that provide much less funding per pupil. The August 2004 referendum, in which Oak Ridgers voted overwhelmingly for a 1/2 sales tax increase dedicated to high school renovation, showed the breadth and intensity of public support for our city schools.

I was shocked when, several months ago, some city residents began to tell me that they thought that Oak Ridge Schools should be consolidated into the Anderson County system. The first time I heard this, my reaction was disbelief (how could anyone even consider it?). After I heard the idea from several more people, I realized that people considered this a serious idea. I interpreted it as  a indication that some of my fellow citizens were losing confidence in our school system. The people who suggested school district consolidation to me were particularly concerned about two things: (1) continuing growth in the school budget, even while enrollment was falling, and (2) the news that the portion of that 1/2-cent sales tax that is now collected by the county and distributed to the Oak Ridge Schools was no longer being made available to help pay the debt for the high school project.

I have a guess about where the bad rumor got started. At a public meeting earlier this year involving City Council and Board of Education members, I commented that the school system’s unwillingness to use county sales tax for the high school debt could undermine public support for the schools (because it means breaking the promise made a the time of the sales tax referendum, that the school project would not require a property tax increase). I mentioned the shocking suggestion I had heard from citizens (that is, other people) that the schools should be “given” to the county as a disturbing indication of erosion of public support for the schools. Maybe my words were grossly misinterpreted by someone who was in the room but was only half-listening. Regardless of how the rumor started, it isn’t true — and I hope people will stop repeating it.

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Signs too soon and signs too flashy

Traveling around Oak Ridge, I’ve been seeing two disconcerting trends related to signage, one temporary (“signs too soon”) and one more permanent (“signs too flashy”).

The temporary trend is political signs going up too soon. Oak Ridge’s sign ordinance (part of the zoning ordinance) specify that political signs can’t go up until 30 days before the election. Since early voting for the August primary starts July 16, that means signs shouldn’t appear until June 16. The county doesn’t have that kind of rule, though, and it looks like the signage that is sprouting legally outside the city limits has spread over the city line.  This weekend I’ve noticed yard signs for Rex Lynch for county mayor, Bill Haslam for governor, and John Shuey for county commission, plus a large truck-mounted sign for Aaron Wells. There may be others. Political signs are an important way for candidates to gain visibility, but many people are annoyed by the “sign wars” that accompany elections, so it’s sensible to limit the duration of those wars. I doubt that the candidates can restrain their over-eager supporters until June 16, but city staff should be reminding the candidates of the rules — and I can imagine that some voters will remember who put up their signs “too soon.”

The permanent trend relates to electronic signs with flashing messages and animation. Some people love that kind of sign, but there are many others who consider them to be visual clutter and a potential public nuisance.  I have thought that Oak Ridge’s sign regulations didn’t allow flashing and animated sign displays. Section 14.16 of the regulations says:

2. No sign shall have blinking, flashing, or fluttering lights or other illuminating device, which has a changing light intensity, brightness or color.

Also, Section 14.15 lists several kinds of signs that are prohibited, including:

Flashing signs or signs that contain reflective materials, which present a hazard or danger to traffic or the general public.

A “flashing signs” is defined in the ordinance as “Any sign which contains an intermittent or flashing light source, or which includes the illusion of intermittent or flashing light by means of animation, changes in the degree of light intensity, an externally mounted intermittent light source, or reflective metal strips.”

Still photo of the animated sign display in front of Oak Ridge High School

ORHS’ animated sign display next to Oak Ridge Turnpike

The ordinance does allow “moving copy signs” in several zoning districts. A moving copy sign is defined as “A sign which incorporates an electronically or mechanically generated changeable copy message within the sign frame, but which does not incorporate any mechanical movement of the sign itself or any use of pulsating or undulating copy message.”

Late last year, City Council was asked to amend the sign ordinance to allow a fairly large electronic “moving copy” sign on a pole in front of Oak Ridge High School (ORHS) — in a zone where signage previously was limited to relatively small ground signs. We were told that an electronic sign was advantageous because copy could be changed/controlled remotely from the school office, rather than requiring someone to get on a ladder to move letters. That seemed very reasonable, but I ultimately voted against the ordinance amendment, partly because I thought it would become a precedent for other organizations to ask for similar signs, and partly because of statements from school officials and students that suggested it would be used to display flashing messages and animations. The amended ordinance says:

For school facilities with a student population greater than one thousand (1,000), one (1) indirectly or directly illuminated or non-illuminated pole sign shall be allowed. The pole sign may be either a changeable copy sign (readerboard) or a moving copy sign. The surface display area of the pole sign shall not exceed sixty (60) square feet. The top of the pole sign shall be no higher than fifteen (15) feet from ground level.

As I read it, these ordinances prohibit the types of flashing light displays that I’ve seen lately at Rivers Car Care Center and TitleMax — not to mention the animations and flashing messages that ORHS has chosen to display on its new sign. Past conversations with city staff have suggested that they didn’t interpret the ordinance the same way I do. I intend to revisit that issue with staff, and I see from an Internet search that the interpretation and enforcement of similar ordinances is becoming an issue around the country: At the Citizens for a Scenic Florida website, I read that federal law prohibits flashing signs and animated signs on Interstates and other “federal-aid primary” highways, and many municipalities have definitions and restrictions similar to Oak Ridge’s sign ordinance. Comments on an online forum for professional planners indicate a general impression that bans on electronic signs aren’t being enforced; one person wrote:

Code enforcement departments seem to have written off sign regulations, as evidenced by the growing proliferation of animated and flashing signs in communities that otherwise prohibit or strictly regulate them. Are the days of static signs and commercial corridors that don’t resemble the Vegas Strip over? Are sign code issues passe among planners?

Several people have complained to me about the flashing signs I mention. I don’t hear much objection to those electronic signs that display a changing informational message, such as the text signs at IHOP and the CVS Pharmacy. However, people are bothered by animations and other rapid changes in lighted signs, regardless of whether the image is of a waving American flag, the company’s logo, fireworks, or this week’s special prices. The aesthetics of the resemblance to the Las Vegas Strip are one concern, but there are safety issues, too. It is particularly troubling when those flashing images are in a driver’s line of sight, as they can distract drivers from watching the road. Considering the negative responses some people have to these signs, I can imagine that flashing signs could “turn off” some prospective customers — the opposite of the result the businesses are hoping for.

Obviously, I haven’t yet heard from a cross-section of the community on this, but it’s my hunch that many of us would be much happier if local businesses would stop using all the fancy capabilities of their electronic signs. That is, treat them as electronic message boards, with static messages that change no more frequently than once every 10 seconds or so — and no dramatic changes in brightness, color, etc.

Update, June 13, 2010: Hurray for Oak Ridge High School! A few days ago, the animation came off their electronic sign. The last time I looked, it was displaying time and temperature, plus a “Welcome Class of 1960 – 50th Reunion” message. I believe that’s the kind of informational message the community was expecting when the sign was approved.

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