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Campaign Announcement

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signI’ve posted the campaign announcement that went to the Oak Ridge news media on Friday.

UPDATE (9/18/2014): It appeared in the Oak Ridger on September 18.

UPDATE (9/24/2014): Now “Former Council member Smith running for City Council” is posted on Oak Ridge’s online news outlet.

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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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“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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Thoughts on history and preservation

Kiosk at Oak Ridge Welcome Center, which promotes Manhattan Project heritage tourism

Today’s Oak Ridger has the first installment of  the responses that City Council candidates provided when D. Ray Smith asked for our thoughts on city history and historic preservation. My complete responses are here. His request was:

What I would like to have to include in a future “Historically Speaking” column are your thoughts on the following:

 1. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park

2. Preservation of the Alexander Inn

3. K-25 Memorandum of Understanding (the history center there in the Fire Hall, the replica building, the viewing tower and the footprint being preserved)

4. The importance of Heritage Tourism as one of the economic development strategies for Oak Ridge

5. Any other thoughts you might have on historic preservation

What I told Ray in response:

Oak Ridge is a place where ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things that contributed to changing the history of the world. I was reminded of the tremendous significance of the Manhattan Project a few days ago when the BBC website had a feature story about “Five of history’s most important places,” listing Los Alamos alongside places like Athens, Greece.

The story of what happened in Oak Ridge needs to be made available and accessible to future generations. I am excited about the prospect of establishing a Manhattan Project National Historic Park because I believe that the National Park Service has the expertise to help us do a more effective job of telling our story and because National Park affiliation will bring more visitors into our city. Oak Ridge won’t become a tourist mecca on a par with Gatlinburg, but we can expect solid economic benefits from bringing more customers to our hotels, restaurants, visitor attractions, and specialty shops.

It’s a shame that none of Oak Ridge’s three Manhattan Project “signature facilities” can be seen by visitors on a regular basis. The Beta 3 calutron building at Y-12 is in a high security area, the Graphite Reactor can be visited only on public bus tours in the summer, and the K-25 building is being demolished. I am still disappointed that DOE did not see clear to preserving a part of the K-25 building. I recall that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation consultants who visited some years ago said that the massive scale of that building was something that visitors in future centuries would be impressed by. Since we couldn’t keep a piece of K-25, the projects spelled out in the K-25 Memorandum of Understanding are a reasonable substitute.

I am very pleased by the news that the Alexander Inn Guest House likely will be preserved and restored. It was an important part of Manhattan Project Oak Ridge; it’s a treasured landmark in the lives of most long-time Oak Ridgers; and a restored Alexander Inn will help tie the Jackson Square area together as a historic commercial district and visitor attraction. Some residents have told me that the Alexander doesn’t have sufficient historic significance to be worth preserving. I agree that it doesn’t meet the same standard of exceptional historic significance as the three “signature facilities,” but very few historic properties anywhere can meet that high of a standard. (The Graphite Reactor is one of fewer than 2,500 national historic landmarks in the country, and the other two facilities are also deemed worthy of that exalted designation.) All in all, I think the Alexander is a significant physical piece of Oak Ridge history that is worth trying to hang onto.

Note: That response was written almost two weeks ago, before City Council voted (unanimously!) to approve a tax abatement that will help make the Alexander Inn restoration a reality.

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Chickens or not?

Following up to my earlier post on chickens… Today’s Oak Ridger reports that the 5 Planning Commission members who attended last week’s work session were negative about the idea of allowing chickens in residential neighborhoods.  I wasn’t able to attend the meeting and I haven’t yet seen what staff presented to them. However,  I do know that there was no advance publicity of the meeting’s topic (unless you count this blog) so there may have been no interested citizens at the meeting,  and it’s apparent from the article that staff presented the idea in negative terms (saying it was  supported by only a “handful of people” and raising concerns about the workload for enforcement and licensing and permitting).

If chickens are going to come to Oak Ridge to roost or lay eggs, people with interest and knowledge of chicken-rearing are going to have to sit down for a two-way discussion with the planning commissioners and staff. The newspaper says the topic will be addressed by the full Planning Commission at its February 25th meeting (5:30 pm in the City courtroom); based on what I know of the subject and what I read in the newspaper reports, I think it’s premature for the Commission to take any final action on this.

Follow-up (written on Wednesday): Community Development staff provided me with a copy of the written material provided to the committee; it included copies of the text of a couple of e-mails I had received from citizens. Staff say that there were several interested citizens at the meeting. It appears that discussion at the meeting dealt mainly with broad concepts.

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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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Cougars, and coyotes, and bears, oh my!

In yesterday’s Oak Ridger, Sam Suffern told about 3 reliable reports of cougar sightings here in Oak Ridge. The cougar thus joins the coyote as a large predator we need to worry about in our backyards. (I’m not aware of black bear sightings here, but it’s possible for them to be here, too.)

It’s romantic to think that native cougars have somehow managed to survive in Oak Ridge’s extensive green spaces, but wildlife experts say that any cougars sighted around here are almost sure to have been individual “pets” that escaped (kind of like the peacock that roamed my neighborhood and other parts of the city several years back). It’s very unlikely that there’s a wild population of cougars here.

Coyotes, on the other hand, have “gone native,” here and everywhere — like it or not, they’ve become part of our world.

Fortunately, all of these animals generally steer clear of humans, but (as Suffern’s letter says) they are dangerous and we all should be aware of their presence.

Added March 13th:

By e-mail, Warren Webb (one-time ORNL wildlife manager, now retired) tells me :

I read the letter. I wasn’t convinced, and I can’t judge the reports reliable on the information given. And yes, we have had black bear reports (probably more likely) . . .

Added June 10th:

As it happens, just this week a black bear was spotted in town, not to mention being photographed… In spite of the extent of Oak Ridge’s greenbelts and the fact that black bears are reported to live in relatively developed places (such as suburban New Jersey), I imagine that this bear was feeling confused — and anxious to get out of town and away from people.

Added June 15th:

Now it seems that “our” bear is in west Knox County, according to the News Sentinel. Those critters can move fast! The family cat and I both spotted another reminder of our ubiquitous wildlife: a large snake slithered through the carport today. It looked like one of the various nonpoisonous varieties, but impressive nonetheless. Too bad that neither snakes nor bears seems able to discourage the deer from eating our tomato plants…

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