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Phew! This year’s Secret City Festival was a big success but it’s a relief that it’s over, and a relief that we made it through last evening’s marathon City Council meeting.

We had a long agenda and a long meeting. Kudos to John Huotari for quickly spinning out reports on two of the major business items addressed at the meeting:

1. Mayor Beehan and Mayor pro tem Miller were both re-elected to two-year terms. I supported Beehan (he was elected unanimously) but I was one of the three who voted for David Mosby for the pro-tem position, as I saw him as the better choice to provide leadership for the City Council and the City in the absence of the mayor. Several people contacted me over the weekend and on Monday to urge me to support Miller, citing the help she has given them in getting city staff support with issues related to things like animal control and code enforcement, but that type of constituent service (which any Council member can provide) is not what I see as needed in a mayor pro-tem.

2. We delayed action on the proposed lease for the senior center to allow more time for senior services advocates to put together a funding package to allow acquisition of the former Trinity Methodist Church for use as a senior center. I’m very pleased at this result (which came on another 4-3 vote), and I hope that the senior advocates can pull it off. (This deserves its own blog post.)

In some of our other business, Council approved new one-year lobbying contracts — with Bill Nolan Associates to represent the city in Nashville and with Ferguson Group for representation at the federal level. I opposed both. One reason is because I was irritated that Council members had been uninformed about what the lobbyists were doing for the city over the 6-month contract until the 11th hour before this meeting. (OK, 3 pm Monday wasn’t the very last hour before the 7 pm Monday meeting, but there was very little margin…) I hope for better communications in the future. Also, I believe that the benefits we get from the federal lobbyist could be provided at less cost by other mechanisms (such as a combination of “Washington insider” newsletters to provide current information on issues and opportunities, plus grad student interns here in Oak Ridge to do legislative research, “legwork” on grant applications, and drafting of letters and discussion points for officials to use).

Also, we received a letter from TDOT’s Gerald Nicely regarding options for the next phase of the widening of State Route 95. The exciting part is that TDOT says that a redesign changing the “typical section” from a 48-ft depressed grass median to a 12-ft paved median (this is being called “Alternative 2” — basically, this is the change from a “rural design” to an “urban design” that some of us had been asking for) could be accomplished without delaying the September 2009 bid opening, but the City would have to compensate TDOT for any additional costs of construction. Other alternatives include a total shift of the road alignment away from the current right-of-way (this is being called Alternative 1 and is favored by some Southwood subdivision residents, but it’s impractical, and would result in a long delay in the highway project) or (in what’s being called Alternative 3) making small modifications to the “rural” design to reduce its impact (steeper slopes, modified ditches, and guardrails to reduce encroachment on the neighborhood and avoid some loss of vegetation, and lower speed limit to address noise and safety concerns). I think the new “urban” option is the right direction to go — I’m delighted that TDOT is revisiting its plan and proposing what I think is a “context sensitive” solution for this highway segment. City Council probably will have a work session to discuss the proposal on Monday July 6, followed by a special meeting to act on it on Monday July 13.

Added June 24: I forgot to say that City Council approved on first reading (second reading will be July 20th) an ordinance to change the speed limit from 55 to 45 mph on the stretch of Hwy. 95 that passes the Southwood subdivision. The lower speed limit would apply all the way west to a point 200 ft west of the western entrance to the Rarity Oaks subdivision. Among other things, a lower speed limit should improve safety near the subdivision and reduce noise for residents.


Lobbyist contracts renewed

As the local newspapers have reported, on December 17 Council voted 6-1 to renew the Ferguson Group lobbying contract (I was opposed) and 7-0 to renew the contract will Bill Nolan Associates.

There was little discussion of the matter at the meeting, but it appeared that other Council members’ votes on the Ferguson contract were influenced by the staff recommendations, by the amount of money that staff said Ferguson had helped bring in, and by the fact that experience with Ferguson was far for the city than the experience with the Baker-Donelson law firm had been earlier.

As I’ve said earlier, I continue to believe that the city could gain federal funds for local needs without the services of a lobbyist. Further, the fact that this firm is serving us better than Baker-Donelson does not mean that we need their service.

However, now that Ferguson Group is on board for another year, I look forward to working with them to further Oak Ridge’s interests.

The Council Intergovernmental Relations Committee will meet January 9th (4pm in the municipal building training room) to review and make recommendations on the city’s federal and state “agenda,” which the full Council will consider on January 28th. There’s time for citizen input. Equity for local contractor retirees (see this earlier blog post) is one of my highest federal priorities for the city, but there are plenty of other potential wish list items on both the federal and state level.


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.


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.


Oak Ridge leads the region — but it’s a dubious distinction

Earlier this week the Knoxville News Sentinel reported on the phenomenon (discussed here earlier) of local governments employing Washington, DC lobbyists to give “extra muscle” in seeking targeted pork-barrel funding for local projects. The report indicates a new dubious distinction for Oak Ridge — we spend more on federal lobbying than any other local government in the area.

The City of Oak Ridge’s annual expenditure of approximately $100,000 for work by the Ferguson Group leads the Knoxville metro region in lobbyist spending, exceeding the $40K spent yearly by the City of Knoxville and the $90K total cost of a lobbying contract shared by Blount County, the cities of Maryville and Alcoa, Maryville College, and Blount Memorial Hospital. Within Tennessee, Memphis seems to be the spending champ at $160,000, but at just 24 cents per resident, Memphis’ spending on DC lobbyists doesn’t come close to Oak Ridge’s expenditure of almost $3.60 per resident. (Chattanooga is reported to have spent $90,000 in the first half of 2006; the article doesn’t indicate whether their annual cost is twice that, or if they dropped the contract after mid-2006.)

In an editorial today, the News Sentinel appeared unable to decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but they the editorialist did point out that “there are problems with using taxpayer money at the local level to chase more taxpayer money at the federal level.” There are problems, indeed — so let’s stop paying lobbyists to “game” the federal system on our behalf.


Democratic takeover of Congress changes the environment for lobbyists who specialize in earmarks

Reports in the news (Pelosi Says She Would Drain GOP ‘Swamp‘) and on blogs suggest that the Democrats who are about to take control of Congress hope to rein in the practice of earmarking.
An article in the Washington Post last winter explained earmarking:

An earmark is a narrowly focused appropriation. …These home-state projects — which range from highways to research grants — now are commonplace in Congress’s 13 annual appropriations bills that fund the federal government….

…Earmarks are supposed to go through a public process. Lawmakers, acting on a need in their districts or states, submit a written request to the appropriate congressional subcommittee and ask the panel’s members for support — in private and at an open hearing.

Instead, projects, many of which are never openly considered, are handed out as favors in exchange for votes on key pieces of legislation by party leaders and appropriations chairmen. Alternatively, earmarks are withheld as punishment when lawmakers fail to toe the party line. In addition, earmarks are regularly slipped into legislation at the very end of the process — during House-Senate conference deliberations.

Thomas A. Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said that 98 percent of the 3,000-plus earmarks added to a single appropriations bill last year were added in conference. Such last-minute earmarks are routinely included in a conference report that cannot be tampered with before final passage.

Schatz said that the proliferation of earmarks started after Republicans took control of the House in 1994. Then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) directed appropriators to help GOP lawmakers with tough reelection races by giving them projects they could boast about back home.

The amount of federal spending allocated by earmarking and other pork-barrel mushroomed during the 12 years of Republican control of Congress (see Washington Post graphic). Earlier this year Republicans instituted some reforms that were supposed to open the process a bit; I hope the newly elected Democrats are willing to go farther…

By hiring a DC lobbyist to the tune of $8000 a month (under a conract that runs until December 2007) Oak Ridge has “invested” heavily in buying influence to get earmarks. Reforms in the process would benefit US taxpayers, while making our city’s “investment” in lobbying services look even less worthwhile than it does already.

If reforms in earmarking come to pass, maybe the city can recoup some of our money by finding useful things for the hired DC political experts to do until the contract runs out. They were hired to help lure garden-variety transportation, recreation, and economic development grants, but Oak Ridge is a city with a major federal government presence that has created some unique problems. Could we use their help with those unique problems?


The phenomenon of local governments paying lobbyists to seek “earmark” federal funding

I’m bothered by (and have commented previously on) the City of Oak Ridge’s lobbying activities in Washington, DC. An article earlier this year in The New York Times, titled “Hiring Federal Lobbyists, Towns Learn Money Talks”, describes the disturbing national trend in which Oak Ridge is eagerly participating.

This hot trend is for local governments to hire professional lobbyists to help them gain Congressional “earmarks” — federal pork-barrel funding quietly inserted into bills, bypassing Congressional debate and the federal agency processes that are supposed to select projects for funding based on their merit (and priorities set by Congress).

According to the July 2, 2006, article:

Since 1998, the number of public entities hiring private firms to represent them in Washington has nearly doubled to 1,421 from 763…. Most of these new clients had never sought earmarks — some had never even heard of them — before someone knocked on their door, essentially offering big pots for a pittance. Others had read in the newspaper about neighbors with lobbyists building bridges or beach walks and felt pressure to keep up with the municipal Joneses. “We’re all in competition for the same dollars, and you want all the advantages you can have,” said John Litton, city manager in Lake Mary, Fla., about 20 miles north of Orlando.

The collective bill over eight years has topped $640 million. Enlisted almost exclusively to land earmarks, lobbyists for local governments have boomed alongside a broader explosion in such appropriations, to 12,852 items worth $64 billion last year from 4,219 pet projects totaling $27.7 billion in 1998. The prolific earmarking does not change the overall budget’s bottom line, but how the pie is cut: dollars are doled out, often in secret, at the whim of a lone legislator — often under the influence of a lobbyist — rather than through a competitive process.

It is against the law to use federal money to hire lobbyists. Yet local officials’ near-unanimous justification is that the lobbyists pay for themselves many times over through the infusion of federal funds.

Ronald D. Utt, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a frequent critic of earmarks, said he was most troubled at seeing firms solicit public clients with virtual guarantees that they could deliver “dollars for pennies” (or billions for millions). “The mystery to me is the way they are able to promise returns,” Mr. Utt said, pointing to the revolving door between Congressional appropriators’ payrolls and lobby shops, as well as to lobbyists’ generous campaign contributions. “It goes beyond mere influence peddling to just outright, classic third-world corruption.”

Beyond any question of quid pro quo, some critics say the new ubiquity of private lobbyists paid with public money perverts basic democratic tenets. Of the 250 top-grossing firms in Washington, 48 have state, local and tribal governments as their leading source of revenue, far more than any other sector, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which monitors lobbying.

Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of several Washington watchdog groups critical of earmarks, said it was local politicians’ mandate to make their needs known — and the job of members of Congress to look out for them.

“If you’re a mayor or a city councilman and you have to hire a lobbyist, what a gross admission of failure on your part,” Mr. Phillips said. “I would think they have a fiduciary responsibility to not put taxpayer dollars into lobbyists when they’re elected to be, really, the lobbyist for the people.”

The mayors and city council members, though, point to the special appropriations as proof of their fiscal prudence.

Alcalde & Fay is one of three firms — along with Patton Boggs and the Ferguson Group — that collected $25 million from public clients in the past eight years, much more than any other lobbyists. A close look at Alcalde & Fay’s 44 public clients in Florida alone shows that, since 2001, $9.8 million in lobbying fees translated into $173 million in earmarks, or a return of $18.41 on every dollar spent.

A snapshot analysis shows that hiring a lobbyist seems to help. North Miami Beach and Homestead, Florida, Alcalde & Fay clients with about 40,000 residents each, got a combined $13 million in earmarks in the past five years, while six cities of similar size got none. (Dunedin, population 35,691, lacked a lobbyist but got three earmarks totaling $2.7 million while its congressman, Mr. Young, ran the Appropriations Committee.)

Local leaders say they lack both the knowledge of bureaucratic procedures and the political contacts to navigate the complex world of federal appropriations. Besides, they are thousands of miles from Washington, picking up garbage and running recreation programs and putting police officers on beats.

Large governments — along with ports, airports and public utilities — have long had people in Washington looking out for their interests. What has changed in the past few years is the number of smaller entities looking to get in on the action.

The number of cities with lobbyists, for example, has grown to 511 from 234 in 1998, and the number of counties has also doubled, to 186 from 85. Fifty-nine public school districts had lobbyists last year, up from 19 in 1998, while the number of police and fire departments with their own paid representatives jumped to 16, from just 2.

One Congressional staffer told the Times (describing his boss):

“When asked the question whether a city or county needs to hire a lobbyist, he has always told them they don’t need to hire a lobbyist to work with their own congressman. That’s his job. Those are the people he was elected to represent. He doesn’t need to work through somebody else to schedule a meeting with a mayor or a city council member.”

In a July 10, 2006, editorial
Lobbyists, Yes. The People, Maybe the Times editorialist said:

The news that the Washington lobbying industry is rapidly extending its tentacles into cities, towns and school districts across the country should be an outright embarrassment to Congress. Elected lawmakers — not high-paid lobbyists — are supposed to be best attuned to meeting the needs of their localities. But not in the booming marketplace called earmarking — the rapid-fire, debate-free amending of budget bills with millions in special-interest boons for favored pleaders. In this case, lobbyists are shopping themselves as gifted middlemen for mayors and school boards. And localities are biting, having seen the sorry evidence that lawmakers tend to deliver earmarks more readily for Beltway lobbyists than for hometown nobodies.

In Florida, 44 public sector clients of one well-connected lobbyist netted $173 million in earmarked projects since 2001. This is a return of better than $18 federal dollars for every local dollar spent on lobbying, according to a report by Jodi Rudoren and Aron Pilhofer of The Times. The founding fathers surely didn’t envision such a lucrative warping of the federal-local relationship. But lawmakers do very well by it. They not only deliver tailored pork back home, but they also are rewarded by the circular money game where grateful lobbyists and special interests raise vast sums for the re-election campaigns of cooperative incumbents.

The City of Oak Ridge was one of only a handful of Tennessee local governments listed in the article as having lobbyist representation in Washington. Our current lobbyist, the Ferguson Group, named in that article as one of the lobbying firms that makes the most from local governments; their contract with Oak Ridge is worth more than $100,000 a year of local taxpayers’ money.

City officials claim that this is a winning arrangement for the city, because the size of the grants received exceeds the “investment” in the lobbying firm. On the contrary, I think the only winner in this arrangement is a booming political-manipulation industry in Washington, DC that we are supporting with our local dollars. We are paying these to manipulate the political process so we can get federal grants (for example, a DOT grant to complete the next phase of the Melton Lake Greenway) that we probably would qualify for anyway through normal agency processes (the same way we got previous grants for the greenway), and that generally still require that the city contribute local matching funds. This is a losing arrangement for taxpayers, and for the cause of good government, in general.