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LOC R.I.P.

I’ve been trying to let the Local Oversight Committee (LOC) rest in peace and not to dwell on the matter, but I continually find myself dealing with fallout from the demise of the LOC. It was terminated once and for all last Monday afternoon (January 9). This was the fourth in a series of “special called meetings” of the LOC Board that began in early September of last year at the behest of Roane County Executive Ron Woody and Anderson County Mayor Myron Iwanski. I wasn’t at the table this time, as Oak Ridge Mayor Tom Beehan had removed me from my position as City of Oak Ridge alternate — and thus as LOC Board chairman — via email on December 2 (after I tried to hold a regular meeting of the LOC board to address 5 months of accumulated business).

The local news media have had little coverage of this matter, but my series of blog posts should help fill in some of the details. Frank Munger of the Knoxville News Sentinel interviewed me after the January 9 meeting and described the interview in his Atomic City Underground blog: Oak Ridge environmental leader: ‘There’s been a lot of heavy-handedness’. As I told him, I feel like I was treated like a non-person. Adults in public leadership positions could have spoken directly about concerns that they may have had about the LOC’s management and direction (for example, they could have attended some of the regularly scheduled public meetings of the LOC Board on which they held seats). Instead they plotted in secret to dissolve the LOC and divert its funding to other uses, and their only communication with the rest of us was very impersonal, consisting primarily of emailed notices (I started to think of them as summonses) of special called meetings whose purposes were limited to dismantlement of the organization. As far as I know, the leaders of this effort (the Oak Ridge and Anderson County mayors and the Roane County executive, supported by the Oak Ridge City Manager) did not speak directly with the organization’s executive director about this matter until after they had finally obtained an LOC Board vote (last week) to terminate her employment. And I’ve heard reports, mostly fourth-hand and thus unverifiable, about stories exchanged by some area officials regarding the alleged misdeeds of the LOC bear only the vaguest resemblance to any actual events that I’m aware of.

I probably will never know if I’ve been one of the targets of character assassination in relation to the LOC (how can the victim ever be sure?), but I do know that this episode has seriously damaged my working relationships with some of my “teammates” in Oak Ridge city government. Furthermore, as I told Frank Munger (and as Leonard Abbatiello told the mayors, but to no avail), I believe that the death of the LOC has diminished this region’s access to the technical resources and the regional interactions that we need to make sure that the legacies of the Manhattan Project, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and Department of Energy (DOE) are appropriately addressed.  I also expect political damage to the various elected officials who were determined to eliminate the LOC, in the face of a diverse variety of citizens telling them (over the past several months) about the unique value it has had for them.

And what benefit do the individual mayors and local governments expect to get to balance against these losses? Indications are that the governments want to divide the LOC funding between them. The LOC grant has been about $170,000 yearly. If that gets cut by 10%, it becomes $153,000. Divided between 8 jurisdictions (7 counties and the city of Oak Ridge), that’s a bit more than $19,000 each — not a very big prize when measured against the damage that has been done.

I hope that the LOC-affiliated volunteer citizen groups that survive (Oak Ridge’s Environmental Quality Advisory Board, Roane County’s Environmental Review Board, and the successor to the LOC’s Citizens’ Advisory Panel (which was rebuffed on its request to hang on to the LOC’s nonprofit charter and IRS 501(c)(3) status) will be able to recreate some of the value — and potential value — that we are losing with the LOC. I think Oak Ridge and the region need them, even if certain political leaders don’t think so.

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My plea for more listening

Here’s the guest column that I supplied to the Oak Ridge Observer this week. It’s in the print edition, of course (along with a few items that the dailies didn’t carry) and on the Observer website, but you can read it here, too:

As we move into another new year, I propose a resolution for everyone involved in Oak Ridge’s public life in 2012 – that all of us resolve to communicate better. In particular, we need to resolve to do more listening, rather than assuming that we know what other people are thinking.

I got to musing about the need for better listening after a recent interaction with one of the most active observers of public life in our city. He commented to me about where I stand with respect to “the two major groups in Oak Ridge.” I had to ask: “Only two major groups? I thought we had a lot more than two.” He explained the “two major groups” as “those who are basically for growth (often dangerously) and those who are basically skeptical of much of city government and prefer to act very cautiously.”

I see a lot more than two “major groups” in Oak Ridge (one might say that our city has as many opinions as it has people). If informed observers perceive that we have just two major factions regarding such a broad topic as growth and development, I think it means that people are not hearing each other, but instead are making erroneous assumptions about the opinions and motives of people who disagree with them.

From what I hear from citizens, I don’t believe there is anybody in Oak Ridge who is all-out opposed to development. People do oppose development that adversely affects resources they care about. For a significant number of people, the resource they care about is tax money — they don’t want a penny of tax money to benefit any private developer. For some other people, it’s the quality of their neighborhood or a tract of green space (which in both cases might translate to an adverse effect on the value of their property). There are some people in town who don’t like development that will create competition, particularly if they perceive that the new competitor will get an advantage at public expense. For still others, the resource of concern is free-flowing traffic (they don’t want traffic congestion to reduce their mobility).

Much of this opposition never forms – or melts away quickly — when a development project is one that does not push people’s buttons the wrong way. There have been two great examples of this in Oak Ridge in the last couple of years. I heard nary a peep from the residential neighborhood when Eddie Hair announced his major expansion near Georgia Avenue, and Woodland neighbors have generally very favorable to Terry Wheeler and Walter Wise in their plans for the Woodland Town Center development facing South Illinois Avenue. However, people in those same neighborhoods have been strongly against some other development proposals in those same areas because they expected adverse impacts on the quality of their lives. These neighborhoods are not part of an anti-development faction; rather, they are communities of people respond negatively or positively to proposed projects depending on the quality of the specific projects and the quality of the developers’ interactions with the neighbors.

Here’s the guest column that I wrote for the Oak Ridge Observer this past week. It’s in Thursday’s print edition

One powerful source of opposition to much development in Oak Ridge – particularly development with public subsidies — is our residents’ long memories. Many Oak Ridgers are suspicious of new development proposals because of past promises that were not kept and previous development/subsidy schemes that turned out bad (or that residents considered to be bad ideas from the start). Different residents have different lists of the past “mistakes”, but “mall wars” and “golf course” are on the top of many lists. Regardless of what’s on a person’s specific list, the litany of past mistakes and betrayals has convinced them not to trust city government, various individuals and businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, CROET, or other allied entities.

As for the pro-development “group,” I know that business leaders and city officials evaluate each proposal critically, but I have the impression that some people from this group feel that they must express wholehearted support for each new development proposal that gets publicly announced, without revealing any private misgivings they might have. I assume that this uncritical cheerleading is aimed at silencing opposition, but it doesn’t work because it doesn’t respond to the reasons for opposition. In fact, it seems to me that this cheerleading is almost guaranteed to arouse the concerns of folks who are deeply suspicious as a result of Oak Ridge’s past mistakes. Both good proposals and bad will continue to look bad to a large fraction of Oak Ridgers if the proponents don’t hear and respond to their specific concerns and objections.

Public life in Oak Ridge would be less likely to turn into public combat if people (this includes me) listened to each other more, instead of making assumptions about other people’s opinions and motives – particularly when those other people appear to disagree with us. I resolve to listen better in 2012; I hope that other community leaders will do the same.

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Progress delayed by a silly misunderstanding

The New Year is past, but Monday night’s Council meeting indicates that I need to make and follow a resolution for future meetings: Whenever I’m commenting on or asking questions about an agenda item, I should always mention (probably more than once) how I intend to vote on that item (unless, of course, I still haven’t decided), ideally using words of one syllable. Call it “Communications 101.”

One item on Monday’s agenda was a resolution supporting the use of traffic camera revenues for traffic and pedestrian safety improvements. I am under the impression that I have repeatedly endorsed this in the past — for example, I was quoted in the Oak Ridger supporting this back in January — and I recently made a comment to the same effect here on this blog as well as on Facebook. My position has been that the camera revenue should be used for one-time purposes (because we should not depend on having this money forever — there is a chance that the cameras will be discontinued as a result of a political or legal decision, and if they remain drivers ought to start behaving better and paying fewer fines) and because the stated purpose of the cameras is safety, the first priority for use of this money should be safety improvements. And as the newspaper reported in January, I have commented that some  safety improvements  could eventually eliminate the need for some cameras.

The resolution presented to City Council on Monday would authorize using “the Special Programs Fund [that’s the city account where the FY 2011 traffic camera revenue has been directed] for traffic capacity/safety, school crossing, and bicycle/pedestrian safety improvements.” I pushed for the creation of this separate fund in City budget discussions last year, and whenever the topic of the use of this money arises I have mentioned improvements related to traffic safety. Accordingly, I fully intended to vote for this resolution, but I (along with the rest of Council) was prevented from doing so on Monday because fellow Council member Charlie Hensley was convinced I was going to vote against it — and he managed to get Council to delay action for 5 weeks (until the next City Council meeting) to avoid what he was sure would be (in the absence of Council member Jane Miller) a 3-3 vote.

I’m not entirely sure what I said Monday evening that led Charlie to firmly believe that I had switched 180 degrees on this topic (and I don’t have access to a video recording of the meeting), but I do know what my position is — and what I thought I said.

The City staff has generated a list of projects for which the traffic camera money could be used, and that list was attached to the resolution. City engineer Steve Byrd and his staff have developed conceptual designs  for some of the higher-priority projects. I have a few questions and doubts about design details (many of which are subject to change before implementation), but I believe it is high time to move forward on the highest priority projects.

  • The top item on my priority list (and number 2 on the staff’s “major” project list) is installation of a “pedestrian signal” (i.e., stoplight with walk light) at the crosswalk between Oak Ridge High School and the Oak Ridge Civic Center. I believe there is strong community support for making this crossing safer (the main disagreement being from people who would prefer a pedestrian overpass), and I have a hunch that this stoplight could eliminate the need for the speed camera and crossing guards currently deployed at this location.
  • I also think it’s appropriate to move forward on the staff’s number-one “major” enhancement project, which is a package of pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike (SR 95) and Illinois Avenue (SR 62). That complex intersection is not friendly to pedestrians in its current form, but staff has defined ways that it could be made much safer without detriment to traffic.
  • Those two projects could absorb all of the funds currently available, but there are two projects at the top of the staff’s “minor” enhancements list that are related to the locations where cameras are installed and that I think should be pursued without further ado: a northbound left-turn signal (traffic-activated) on Illinois Avenue at the intersection of Robertsville Road and a walk light and pedestrian crosswalk at the intersection of Oak Ridge Turnpike with Tyler and Administration Roads.

Monday evening I said that those four projects should move forward, but that I thought some of the other projects on the staff list (lower on the list than these) reflected the loudest voices in the city and were not necessarily the highest priorities, so I wanted additional public discussion regarding the priority list before proceeding on those items. Since I expressed disagreement with some elements of the staff proposal and since two other Council members were calling for public discussion before passing the resolution, Charlie misinterpreted my remarks as indicating that I would vote against the resolution.  He announced that the resolution was going to fail by a 3-3 vote (mystifying me, as I counted at most 2 votes against it) and moved to defer action for one month to allow for a public meeting on the proposed traffic enhancements, and his motion passed 5-1 (I was the only one to oppose it).

I’m disappointed in this result, as it means an unnecessary 5-week delay in making something very positive happen in Oak Ridge. Next time, I must remember to repeat “I intend to vote for this item” in the beginning, middle, and end of my comments — and hope that Charlie is listening to what I am actually saying and not what he thinks I am saying.

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