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Lobbyists and TVA land — are Oak Ridge’s leaders tuned in to us?

This is a partially written blog post that I filed away last October and failed to finish — until now.

At its October 2006 meeting, City Council extended both of the city’s lobbying contracts for more than a year — through the end of 2007. That same evening, Council voted to lodge a strong objection to the TVA land policy changes that were then under consideration.

I spoke against both actions, as documented in a newspaper article about the meeting (excepts below)…

From The Oak Ridger, October 24, 2006

Council approves lobbying contracts

Opposes Tennessee Valley Authority land-policy change
by John Huotari

Oak Ridge City Council members on Monday night approved renewed contracts with state and federal lobbyists, extending the contracts through the end of 2007 at an estimated cost of close to $200,000.

Council members voted 6-1 to renew and extend a contract with the city’s federal lobbyist, The Ferguson Group LLC of Washington, D.C. That company’s contract is worth $8,000 a month plus up to $500 a month in reimbursable expenses, pushing the maximum total value up to $119,000 through 2007.

Meanwhile, Council members voted unanimously to renew and extend a contract with Oak Ridge’s state lobbyist, Bill Nolan and Associates, of Oak Ridge. Nolan lobbies Tennessee officials in Nashville, and he is paid $4,650 a month, which works out to roughly $65,000 during the next 14 months.

City officials say The Ferguson Group has helped the city organize its funding and grant requests, and provided information about and support for pending legislation and federal programs…. …Oak Ridge resident Ellen Smith questioned the wisdom of paying $119,000 to a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. “I’d feel better if we were spending a fraction of that money to help staff here,” she said.

Contrary to the impressions held by some Oak Ridgers (including another Council candidate), the Washington lobbying firm that the city employs is not addressing the city’s strategic interests with respect to the Department of Energy or complex legislative proposals. Instead it is focused on finding opportunities to insert grant funding for Oak Ridge projects (“earmarks” or “pork barrel”) into the fine print of appropriations bills. This work, which mainly has the effect of helping staff avoid having to apply for grants that Oak Ridge appears to qualify for (for projects such as greenways or connecting our city infrastructure to places like Rarity Ridge and the Horizon Center), does not require unique legislative expertise.

We are sending city dollars off to Washington, DC, for work that may not be needed at all and that easily could be done here at home — not only at lower cost, but by workers who would spend much of their income here in the community.

If the city is interested in reducing costs of city government, this lobbying contract is the first item to cut.

From that same article:

[The City Council] also unanimously agreed to send a letter to Tennessee Valley Authority officials, expressing concern with a proposed land policy and rejecting at least part of it.

Regarding TVA, city officials are responding to a proposed land policy that would restrict how the federal agency disposes of public land for private use. The policy — presented to TVA’s new board of directors in September — was developed after two controversial land deals involving local developer Mike Ross and Chattanooga developer John “Thunder” Thornton.

Officials say the proposed policy would eliminate the potential for residential and commercial development on the agency’s lands, and hinder industrial development. They said those changes run counter to TVA’s economic-development mission. “I don’t understand the motivation for moving in the opposite direction,” Oak Ridge City Councilwoman Lou Dunlap said. City officials question how the policy would affect potential development at the Clinch River Industrial Site in west Oak Ridge. “This to me … is an overcorrection,” Oak Ridge Mayor David Bradshaw said. “This suggested policy change is not in our best interest.”

Some Oak Ridge residents disagree, though. Smith, who is also Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board chairwoman, said many residents believe the city’s quality-of-life is enhanced by having public TVA lands on local waterfronts. “There are citizens in this community who believe this is in the public interest,” she said. Some opponents to TVA land deals have suggested that land seized by the federal government from private parties should be returned to those individuals when and if TVA no longer needs the land. But, Beehan said, “We’re a couple of generations away from that.” TVA officials have placed a moratorium on major land actions while they review their existing policy. The public utility is accepting comments through Nov. 3.

As things happened, comments on TVA’s land policy were overwhelming in favor of maintaining publicly-owned lakefront lands for public use, and restricting residential and commercial development on the small amount of lakefront land that remains in the agency’s hands. The agency adopted a policy very similar to what was proposed — and neither the proposal nor the adopted policy actually prevents industrial development at sites such as the Clinch River Industrial Site (which was once the site of the Clinch River Breeder Reactor project).

I believe that the vast majority of Oak Ridgers who had any opinion on the issue favor the land policy that TVA adopted, contrary to City Council’s views regarding the public interest.

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One Comment

  1. Ray Kircher says:

    The waterfront during this weekend’s regatta has shown exemplary water control by TVA. Why shouldn’t TVA control their land properly also? I believe this policy has left our city safe for industry development, if we can only fill our vacant homes and buildings for what TVA is planning to attract, industry.

    The Terra Flop computer consumes as much electricity as the City of Oak Ridge, when the Jaguar computer comes online, it will consume as much electricity as Knoxville. TVA is looking for larger block consumers. While the community may see more rate hikes, I do believe this policy will keep East Tennessee attractive to industry for decades to come, not to mention water front property will see a favorable appreciation.

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