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The Friendship Bell is special

20100926173814 The International Friendship Bell in A.K. Bissell Park is special. It’s unique, it has substantial aesthetic value, it symbolizes principles (peace and friendship) that everyone ought to embrace, and it is quintessentially Oak Ridge. If anything erected in the city during the decades I’ve lived here deserves to be revered in the future as a historic landmark, it’s the bell and the structure that houses it.

I was very disappointed by the news that the wooden bell structure had deteriorated and was no longer safe. The bell will be “out of commission” for some time — until the community rebuilds its support structure. I am one of the many people who believe that the structure should be rebuilt according to the original aesthetic design, but with structural members that will not succumb when exposed to the elements. Like the bell itself, which is decorated with images of both Japan and Tennessee, the structure is not purely Japanese in its design — it’s a blend of Japan and Tennessee. Architect Jon Coddington designed the bell house to incorporate elements of traditional temples in Japan and traditional cantilever barns in Tennessee. The blend of Tennessee with Japan in the structure’s design emphasized the bell as a symbol of international friendship — and the design was an important element of the campaign to dispel fears of local residents who saw the bell as a Buddhist religious item or as some sort of “apology” to Japan for Oak Ridge’s role in the Hiroshima bombing. I hope that the original structure can be reassembled around (and disguise) a rugged steel frame that can support the bell for many decades to come.

This is an “interesting” issue for city government. The bell was cast and the structure was built with private donations (here and in Japan), and it was placed on public land as a gift to the city. That makes it a city responsibility now, although the original donors still have a strong sense of ownership. I didn’t donate to the bell when it was created (I was a lot younger then and hadn’t lived in Oak Ridge very long — and this was a project of an older generation of Oak Ridgers), but I will happily donate now to the structure’s restoration because I appreciate the bell’s meaning and value. The bell housing can’t be restored without the help of local donors, but it may not be necessary to find donors to cover the whole cost. I was pleased to see that city government and some citizens with a particular interest in the bell have been creative in seeking additional funds and have discovered a grant-making foundation that looks like an excellent prospect for assisting our community with restoring the bell. The Japanese World Exposition 1970 Commemorative Fund awards matching grants for projects around the world that are related to Japan and that promote international mutual understanding. At Monday evening’s City Council meeting it was reported that it probably is too late to apply for this year’s round of grants, but Oak Ridge should be an excellent candidate for a grant next year.

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Clark Center Park

CarbideparkpicnicareaThe future of Carbide Park (officially Clark Center Recreation Area) is on the city agenda right now.

It’s clear why DOE wants to get out of the business of running a community park, and it makes sense that they are offering it to the city of Oak Ridge. It’s a wonderful public recreation resource — 80 acres on Melton Hill Lake, with boat launches, picnic areas, ball fields, swimming area, fishing pier, and access to the Gallaher Bend Greenway. This is an asset that can’t be allowed to slip away. I believe it needs to remain as a public park — and the city needs to say “yes” to DOE. Trouble is that the city will face the same issues of cost and liability that DOE wants to avoid. There’s no room in our city budget to take on new obligations.

When I spoke at the August 25 public meeting, I commented that this is a regional asset, not just a local park, so the city should not “go it alone” in running it. The region should help support its operation and maintenance — maybe through user fees or an annual membership (much like the old days, when use was limited to employees of the federal agency and Union Carbide). It’s costly to hire people to collect fees, though, but there may be a way to implement electronic access controls (think EZ-Pass). I also recommended that DOE should share some of the money it will save by giving away the park with the city. A chunk of the $300,000/year that the federal government spends yearly to run the park would help the city take on this new responsibility — and DOE would still be saving money. There were many good ideas presented at the city’s public meeting on the park (a model for how a public meeting should run — an unstructured opportunity where people had an open-ended invitation to make comments). I think we can make this work — but the community will need to recognize that the taxpayers of Oak Ridge can’t be asked to pay the full cost of a quality public recreation resource that benefits the entire region.

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Some responses to end-of-year questions

Stan Mitchell of The Oak Ridge Observer asked the city manager and members of City Council for our thoughts on the year past (2011) and the upcoming year (2012). The responses he received (from the manager and 6 Council members) were published in Thursday’s paper. Here’s are his questions and my answers (to see the others, you need to pick up a copy of the paper):

What City Council accomplishments from the past year are you most proud of?

Before I answer, I should point out that the City Council cannot and does not function in isolation – it’s difficult to distinguish the accomplishments and shortcomings of the City Council from the accomplishments and shortcomings of the city government as a whole. Accordingly, my answers consider the accomplishments of the city government, not just actions taken by City Council during the year.

I’m proud that, in these difficult economic times, Oak Ridge enacted another budget that both maintains city services and avoids a property tax increase.

I also take pride in the rebuilding of the Cedar Hill Park playground – not only did we build a new playground, but the volunteer project helped build community. The start-up of the new Recreation and Parks Advisory Board is bringing citizen leadership and fresh ideas into some city programs that are important to residents’ lives, and the hiring of Jim Akagi as police chief is bringing fresh approaches to law enforcement.

I’m proud that Council “bit the bullet” regarding the U.S. EPA wastewater order, rather than trying to fight the requirement to upgrade our sewer system. This big expenditure will increase everyone’s sewer rates and it’s not something that we would chosen to do on our own, but it’s the right thing to do to protect water quality, and I believe that fighting the order would have left Oak Ridge in a worse position over the long run.

Finally, I’m pleased to see the new wheelchair-accessible entrance at the Municipal Building and the improved accessible parking spaces at the Civic Center. I hope that the local businesses that are also subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act will follow the city’s example by making their facilities more accessible.

What areas do you feel City Council fell short on and how do you wish those particular areas would have turned out?

1. I am very concerned about actions of the City Manager and the City Council majority that may indicate a failure to appreciate the size, complexity, and importance of the environmental legacy from seven decades of federal government activities in Oak Ridge. I refer to the initiative – which is still in progress – to terminate the Oak Ridge Reservation Local Oversight Committee (LOC) and divert its funding to a variety of purposes in the local governments in the LOC region. This is funding that has been allocated to our region to help local governments (and the communities they serve) understand the implications of legacy conditions and DOE actions, provide credible information to the public, and communicate local concerns to state and federal governments.

In spite (or perhaps because) of the fact that these are technical matters outside the normal expertise or jurisdiction of local governments, it appears that several of the region’s officials believe that the kind of technical expertise that the LOC has provided is not needed to help the region ensure that environmental cleanup and other DOE activities are conducted on a schedule and in a manner that protects the interests of our region and our constituents. I do not believe that we can count solely on the political communications skills of our city and county mayors to deliver messages about matters like the need to restore the Oak Ridge Environmental Management budget (which has now fallen below the level that the DOE Oak Ridge office has said is minimally adequate to maintain the program – and far below the level needed to make meaningful progress on cleanup, at the same time that other DOE sites have seen significant increases in EM funding), much less to reassure the public that our region’s environment is safe whenever some piece of disturbing news turns up in the media or on the Internet.

Area mayors have brought forth some good ideas about placing the LOC function under the legal and fiscal umbrella of a local government, thus reducing administrative costs and burdens. However, instead of diverting the LOC funding for purposes like paying a jurisdiction’s dues to a national organization and augmenting salaries for county staff who attend meetings of volunteer advisory boards (ideas I’ve seen from some of the local governments), I believe that the region needs to continue to employ someone with appropriate technical expertise who can stay focused on monitoring and interpreting developments related to DOE’s environmental footprint on our region, communicating with concerned members of the public as the need arises, and assisting local governments with their political messages.

2. I’m getting impatient for visible progress on some initiatives that have been announced and approved by Council. Early in the year Council authorized staff to use traffic camera revenue on some measures for pedestrian and traffic safety, but little has happened so far. Similarly, the “not in our city” initiative is supposed to include more effective enforcement of laws and ordinances against nuisances like vehicles being abandoned on city streets, but residents are not seeing hoped-for results.

3. I’m dismayed that essentially no progress has been made on implementing the Climate Action Plan that the Council adopted in December 2010. The city has had several opportunities to demonstrate leadership in reducing energy consumption, but instead has maintained a “business as usual” approach., replacing gas-guzzling vehicles in the city fleet have been replaced with newer models (including conventional SUVs to be used solely to transport people over paved streets), refusing to consider the option of piggybacking onto an energy services contract negotiated by the City of Knoxville, and passing up the opportunity to obtain electrical vehicle charging stations that were being made available through DOE at next to no cost. (I’m pleased to read in the newspaper that the City of Gatlinburg is getting charging stations, but I’m disappointed that the City of Oak Ridge is not showing similar energy leadership.) [UPDATE on January 7: I’ve learned that the city staff overcame its concerns about electric vehicle charging stations,  so the City put in an application for two charging stations before the December 31 deadline! The proposal is to install them at the east end of the library parking lot, near the Commemorative Walk.]

4. We’ve not done nearly as good a job as we could have in communicating within Council and within city government, nor in engaging the citizenry in the business of the City.

As a Council member, I’m bothered by the fact that there is little communication regarding the external situations where the mayor, other individual Council members (myself included), or city staff represent the City. Tennessee’s open meetings laws severely restrict private communications between Council members, and if we don’t have time during public meetings to exchange information about our activities, the exchange of information never happens.

On the citizen side, the large number of highly qualified applicants that come forward when we advertise for candidates for advisory boards are indicative of the quality of our community and our residents’ high level of interest in participating in making Oak Ridge an excellent place to live, work, visit, and do business. I’m pleased that the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board has reached out to involve people who weren’t appointed to that board in their activities, but other opportunities for productive engagement have been missed. For example, the program requirements for the Transportation Enhancement grant opportunity (which the City responded to with a proposal for improvements to the Jackson Square parking lot) called for one or more public “design” meetings, which could have given citizens a chance to feel (and be) engaged in the decision process at an early stage, but staff chose instead to meet the requirement with a rather perfunctory public hearing during a City Council meeting.

What are you most looking forward to working on and accomplishing in 2012?

As my answers to the last question indicate, I see plenty of unfinished business left over from 2011. In 2012, however, I particularly look forward to accomplishing some improvements in the areas of Council communications and citizen engagement.

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Online survey on waterfront pavilion

November 30 is the deadline for input in the City’s survey on the design of the planned pavilion at Melton Lake Park. It’s a bit hard to find on the City website, so I’ll provide links to background on the project and possible design concepts,  sketches of possible building shapes (see the background paper for some photos), the descriptions of the design concepts and possible features (scroll down to “Waterfront”) as well as links to the other pages, and the survey itself.

I like the short list of design concepts that the Recreation and Parks Board has settled on. I know they’ve considered construction cost, maintenance cost, functionality, and aesthetics, and I think they’ve identified some options that do an excellent job of balancing all three of these. Their recommended designs include clerestory roofs that will increase light levels inside the pavilion as well as adding aesthetic value.

Public input will  help give confidence that the final decision is one that Oak Ridgers will be happy with. UT-Batelle donated funding for construction, which is something I expect most residents will be very happy with.

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Cedar Hill playground goodbye — and hello

Dragon and other play features at Cedar Hill Playground

Last day at Cedar Hill playground (1988-2011)

It wasn’t exactly crowded, but on Sunday afternoon Cedar Hill Park playground entertained several families visiting for the last time before it closed on Monday to be torn down and replaced.

It’s been a wonderful play space since 1988. My family is one of many that have fond memories of good times there.

However,  it’s showing its age — much like the kids who helped design it and build it in the 1980s. The wood is getting splintery and some of the play areas no longer meet current safety rules. That’s why it’s being replaced with a new similar “kid-designed” playground, once again to be built by community volunteers under the direction of Leathers & Associates. The new playground will be similar in design, but it will be built with recycled plastic lumber that should last about 50 years — and can be painted much more extensively than the pressure-treated wood used in the 1988 playground.

The community build will happen Wednesday, May 18 through Sunday, May 22. Hundreds of volunteers are needed each day. There are volunteer jobs for just about everybody — from actual building to child care (so parents can help build) to serving food to the volunteers. I hear that the Leathers folks know how to find useful tasks that even young children in the child care area can feel they are part of the construction process. Sign-up is on this webpage. The 12-hour work day is divided into three shifts: 8 am to noon, noon to 5, and 5 to 8 pm, and volunteers can choose a job that suits their abilities and interest.

I haven’t picked my jobs and times yet, but I know I will be there to help make a new playground that will be as great for tomorrow’s kids as this one was for my son and his friends.

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Anticipating an excellent Parks & Recreation Board

Tonight City Council has the wonderful opportunity of choosing 9 fine citizens to serve on the new Parks & Rec Board, but we also will have to “not choose” 51 equally fine applicants. I can’t vote for nearly everyone I have a high opinion of — so I’m thinking about how to harness some of the energy and enthusiasm demonstrated by the applicants we can’t appoint.

I hope the board members will be people who are effective at getting things done and working as team members, open to new ideas, and respectful of other views — and I want them to represent a variety of experiences, recreation interests, stages in life, and neighborhoods. I’m acquainted with about half the applicants, including several who have amazing track records at making good things happen. I find myself evaluating applicants on minor things like whether their jobs demand a lot of out-of-town travel that would cause them to miss meetings.

I’ve told the city manager that the staff and board should be encouraged to create several “task forces”, consisting largely of non-members, to work on several specific topics on this board’s plate — particularly items that need some focused effort in a limited time period. Task forces I envision include:

  • Dog park. This is a need identified by a number of residents — and a special interest that is unlikely to be a focus for most members of the parks board. Also, if a dog park is started, there will need to be a strong user community (of dog owners) to police it. Starting a task force that is related to the parks board, but separate from it, would be a good start towards creating that community of responsible users.
  • Play. The organization KaBoom! designates “Playful Cities USA” based on a city’s commitment to play (for kids, not dogs). This would be a nice designation for our city, and some of this think it could be attained at minimal cost. Starting a “Playful City” program is likely to require some intensive involvement from a core group, but for a relatively short period. That’s a good thing to assign to a task force that will report regularly to the full committee.
  • Edgemoor Road corridor. Planning for integration of bike paths and other recreational facilities with the widened highway is another activity on city staff’s menu for this committee. This is another topic that is likely to require fairly intensive involvement for a defined period of time, making it a good thing to assign to a focused task force. Additionally, this is something that would be a strong fit for the experience, skills, and interests of some parks board applicants, but is unlikely to be of particular interest to the majority of applicants/appointees.
  • Programming for seniors. This is not supposed to be part of the new board’s scope, but there are a few parks board applicants whose main/sole stated interest is the senior center and who may have some good things to offer — and opportunities may exist for improvements. This task force would involve an intersection with the Elder Citizens Advisory Board (ECAB) and would look at possible new activities for the senior center and opportunities for increased integration/coordination with other recreation programs inside and outside the city’s recreation and parks department. I believe there are opportunities for program enhancements at minimal cost, and some fresh thinking on senior programs could be very helpful in planning for future senior center facilities.
  • City relationship with various local sports/recreation interest groups. Developing and revising policies and protocols is likely to be a long-term challenge for the parks board, but some early focused discussions and interactions could be beneficial.

I am looking forward to hearing from people who have other good ideas — and I’m anticipating awesome contributions from this new board!

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Referendum on guns in city parks?

Thursday’s Oak Ridge Observer reported that Alex Moseley  is circulating a petition to force a referendum on the matter of whether handgun carry permit holders should be allowed to carry guns in Oak Ridge city parks.  The strange thing about this news is that there is no provision in the city charter — and apparently not in state law, either — for citizens to petition for a referendum to override the City Council resolution to “opt out” of the state law that would otherwise allow permit holders to carry guns in parks.

State law does allow citizens to petition for referendums over general obligation bond issues (that law was the basis for the Crestpointe referendum in 2007 and the referendum on the mall project several years before that) , but nothing allows for a referendum over any other type of City Council action (otherwise, we’d probably have  referendums in Oak Ridge almost every month).  Furthermore, the city attorney tells me that the General Assembly didn’t put any  provision for a referendum in the state law that allows guns in parks.

The charter does have a provision allowing for recall petitions against City Council members, and it was rumored that handgun advocates were going to try to recall those of us who voted to keep guns out of our parks. However, the newspaper article clearly indicates that Moseley isn’t pursuing a recall campaign. The article goes into great detail on the requirements that Moseley’s pettition would need to meet (2,610 signatures in 60 days) and how he expects to use the Memphis Commercial Appeal‘s database to identify the local handgun permit holders who are assumed to support the proposed referendum. Also, there’s an editorial suggesting that the referendum will teach City Council that we should follow “the will of the people”.  What’s missing is any  indication of the supposed legal basis for this petition drive and referendum.

It’s hard to believe that Moseley, who was the Republican nominee for the Tennessee House of Representatives last year, is unaware of the law.

Oh, and as long as assertions are being made about the “will of the people” regarding this measure, it should be noted that the great majority (well over 60%) of the many people who contacted me about the opt-out resolution  favored opting out (that is they opposed allowing guns in our city parks).

I suppose  maybe we can  chalk this story up to  confusion caused by the long hot days of August…

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