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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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Celebrating a community playground build

Many hands made light work: Painting the locomotive on Sunday afternoon

Phew! The last 5 days were a whirlwind of activity that concluded with the completion (well, almost) of the new Cedar Hill Park playground. Some finishing touches remain: hooking up a few more swings, installing the waves around the new pirate ship (you’ll have to see it to understand), hanging some plaques in the castle and the pirate ship, and putting a protective coat of polyurethane onto various decorated surfaces.

Jerry Creasey (Anderson County Commission member) designed the wildcat that hangs over one of the slides, but it took a village to paint it and install it on the last afternoon of the build.

I was pleased to be able to make it out to the build site every day as a volunteer. I didn’t work on the 1988 build (I was the mother of an infant), but my family enjoyed the playground over the years, so I figured it was my turn to build for another generation. It turned out to be fun — not only were we converting a lot of very raw material into a fun place, but working together with other citizens was a great opportunity to reconnect with old acquaintances and get to know people I hadn’t met before. I worked on several bits and pieces of the playground — making slats for the suspension bridge, helping to make a “vertical ladder” (not to be confused with horizontal ladders), painting primer on several surfaces that were later decorated by more artistic folks, making plaques for kids to decorate (the plaques are being placed around the low perimeter wall), painting the train station and locomotive in the toddler area, plus a few other things. Teamwork — and good direction from the Leathers company — makes the various pieces come together.

Oak Ridge loved the old Cedar Hill Park playground, but I predict that kids are going to tell us that the new one is even better.

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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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Cedar Hill playground is alive and well as Fort Kid fades away

Children playing on the Cedar Hill Park Playground. Photo on http://www.easttennesseewildflowers.com.The morning news on WUOT included a report that the City of Knoxville is phasing out the popular Fort Kid playground near the World’s Fair site. It’s going to be replaced by a new playground on the Fair site, apparently one of the modern plastic and steel variety.

Fortunately for fans of amazing wooden playgrounds designed by local kids, the Cedar Hill Park Playground in Oak Ridge is not going away. The Cedar Hill playground (built in 1987) was the first of these wooden playgrounds in the Knoxville metro area, designed and built by community volunteers with the advice of the Robert Leathers organization, and soon it may be the only one.

The kids who designed the Cedar Hill playground as elementary school students are now well into adulthood, and last year the Recreation and Parks Department told the City Council budget committee that the playground is showing its age and needs continuing repairs, but it’s still open for the enjoyment of all.

The playground photo is from Kris Light’s website. See more of her photos of Cedar Hill at EastTennesseeWildflowers.com.

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