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Council committee votes on lobbyists

The headline in the Friday, November 30 Oak Ridger said Lobbyists earn 2-1 vote of confidence. The article about the City Council Intergovernmental Relations Committee meeting the day before said that I voted against the “rehiring” of “the city’s federal lobbyist, The Ferguson Group of Washington, D.C., and the city’s state lobbyist, Bill Nolan & Associates of Oak Ridge, for another year beginning in January 2008.” That article was erroneous; fortunately the News Sentinel and Oak Ridge Observer both reported the story accurately and the Oak Ridger ran a correction the following Monday.

Mayor Tom Beehan and Mayor Pro-Tem Jane Miller voted to keep both contracts, but I (the third member of the committee) voted for Nolan’s contract to lobby for the city in Nashville but against Ferguson’s contract for lobbying services in Washington, DC.

Both lobbyists have delivered value to the city over the years they have been under contract. With the Tennessee General Assembly, Bill Nolan has helped city officials identify legislative initiatives of interest or concern to the city; he’s helped Oak Ridge make its case for fair treatment under the Basic Education Program (BEP); and he has helped the city be effective in presenting its message on behalf of several other priorities. A couple of years back he carried the ball for the city in the unsuccessful effort to get approval to raise revenues by charging “tipping fees” for DOE disposal of radioactive waste in Bear Creek Valley.

Meanwhile, in Washington the Ferguson Group has helped the city secure earmarked appropriations for local projects, including (for example) funding for part of the Melton Lake Greenway in a previous session of Congress and $2 million [correction: $4 million] for “West End” water and wastewater infrastructure in the current session of Congress. According to city staff, Ferguson has not only helped with making Congressional contacts (the classic definition of “lobbying”), but has provided valuable assistance with assembling documentation in support of Oak Ridge’s funding requests.

Seeing the value the city has received, I’ve had mixed emotions about the lobbying contracts. As reported in one of the papers, I commented: “This is a luxury in a city that has an awful lot of needs.” I do believe that lobbying is a luxury for our city.

In committee, I supported the Nolan contract because I perceive that the legislative process in Nashville is pretty much opaque to outsiders, and Nolan’s firm provides unique value to the city in penetrating the legislative system. I think it is likely that Oak Ridge will need that expertise this year to defend our interests with respect to education funding (the BEP again). The rural areas and the big cities, both of which know how to exert political clout in the State Capitol, want bigger pieces of the BEP pie, and the handful of medium-sized cities like Oak Ridge that stretch in order to fund education are likely to be on the losing end if we are not well-supported in Nashville. I anticipate a similar need for support on some other issues, so I think it is worthwhile to continue this contract, at least for the time being.

As for the Ferguson contract, the Oak Ridger accurately reported that I said: “I see the value of what they do, but I do intend to oppose it. I hope to find a way to accomplish what they do without this expense.” The federal items on the city’s proposed wish list are mostly funding for the kinds of projects that every city would like to get federal funding for, and the funding that Oak Ridge ultimately receives will depend largely on the size of our Congressional districts’ “share” of the pot of money that Congress divvies up for earmark (“pork barrel”) projects. Currently, I don’t see the assistance of a lobbyist as substantially increasing our likelihood of obtaining federal funds or the total amount of funding we receive. The city isn’t currently using its DC representation to help address our special situation as a federal government town — if that were to change, my viewpoint might change.

The whole Council will vote on renewal of the lobbying contracts at our next meeting on Monday, December 17.



  1. Ray Kircher says:

    I have seen value in a premise of what our future can be. The value we see in the Ferguson group is not anything more than what our representatives are supposed to be doing. If the representative doesn’t anchor funding for municipal improvements, the representative is voted out.

    Looking at other Ferguson Group lobbying efforts, it appears to be the same. This group has only attached their effort to grants that would have been won without a lobbyist for example, water and sewer projects, green ways and police projects. In an effort to say our lobbyists bring value, can I have a response to how our representatives have worked for important municipal projects in Oak Ridge? Aren’t these the people who have taken credit while we pay for lobbyists?

    Overall, we are paying for work that would have been done anyway by our representative if our elected council were on top of the proper boards applying for these grants. This redundancy is glaringly apparent and needs to stop. Now if City of Oak Ridge were to bring a World’s Fair or an Olympic venue, then hiring a lobbyist would be worth the value.

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    Thanks, Ray. I think we are in agreement, although I don’t think Oak Ridge could handle a World’s Fair or Olympic venue!

    For the record, city staff says that Ferguson has saved staff time by doing some of the paperwork that otherwise would have needed to be done by city staff.

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