Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image


Unexpected news

Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge City Council yard signThis is news I was definitely not expecting:

The Progress PAC (the O.R. Chamber of Commerce political action committee) included me in its list of endorsements, announced to the news media in a press release earlier today.

This was surprising news because I have never been aligned with the Chamber, I have strongly opposed some Chamber initiatives in the past, and I am not shy about my support for principles like conservation of publicly owned open space and putting the interests of existing residents and owners ahead of the interests of new business development. However, I respect the Chamber as the main representative of and advocate for a very important element of our community — and a group whose members and volunteers who are passionate about the future of Oak Ridge. We share many common goals and interests in this community, and if we are going to make progress as a community, it’s necessary for government, the business community, our nonprofit sector, and (ideally) all citizens to try to understand each other’s interests and needs and work together for the benefit of all.

I told the PAC’s committee (hard-working civic volunteers, all) that I would accept their endorsement, just as I would accept the endorsement of any group of citizens who go to the trouble of evaluating candidates for office and making endorsements as a group. I see the PAC’s decision to include me among their endorsements as indicating a recognition that people with divergent perspectives can work together to achieve positive outcomes for our community (indeed, diversity produces more positive outcomes than uniformity!)  — and that I am both qualified and committed to work for what’s best for Oak Ridge as a member of the City Council.

I am well aware that some people are suspicious about the Progress PAC’s motives and the candidates who cooperated with the PAC. As I said long before receiving today’s news, the formation of a political action committee makes the Chamber’s role in local political activity more transparent than it has ever been in the past. The PAC must operate under stringent state of Tennessee rules for multicandidate political action committees — getting its funds from member donations (no money from the Chamber organization) and publicly reporting all donations and expenditures over $100.

Additionally, the Progress PAC will not be providing money to any of the candidates they are endorsing — I’m not sure what the PAC plans to do, beyond publicizing its endorsements.  I recall that several other groups have endorsed (and promoted) slates of local candidates in in past Oak Ridge elections, but I don’t believe that any of those groups registered as a PAC. With that background, I congratulate the Progress PAC for operating in the open, as required by current state law.

Anyone who knows me at all well will laugh at the suggestion that the Progress PAC endorsement will change my opinions, positions, or future votes if I am elected to City Council. As I did in the past, I will make up my own mind, always aiming for what’s best for the community. I’ll do my own analysis, ask questions, seek out public input, and listen to what others have to say — and I will pursue consensus decisions where possible (because it’s rare for a 4-3 vote to result in a decision that everyone is happy to support — and our local government needs to present a more united front and a more positive image than it has done in the recent past).

The questions that the Progress PAC asked candidates were aimed at gaining information about candidates’ views on broad topics in local governance and our ideas and plans for responding to community challenges — they were not narrowly focused on the interests of the Chamber and the business community. I have the impression that most of us candidates (even those who refused to be considered for PAC endorsement) found it worthwhile to develop responses to the PAC questions because it helped us frame positions on questions that many citizens are asking. All of my answers to the PAC questionnaire are available on this blog:

1 – A bit of vision

2 – Where will the money come from?

3 – Patching relations between Council and schools

4- Enhancing housing in Oak Ridge

5 – On the city government relationship with Chamber of Commerce

6 – Signs should help businesses reach customers — and they shouldn’t be ugly



About the Chamber of Commerce PAC

EllenSmithSign Although I went to work on Monday, did some campaign business, and attended a City Council work session, it seemed like I was never far from discussions about the news (added: second news source) that the Oak Ridge Chamber of Commerce established a political action committee (PAC) that is screening the candidates for City Council and School Board to decide who they will support. People were asking for my opinions. Here’s the on-my-blog version of what I told the news media:

I have no objection to the Chamber establishing a political action committee. As I see it, the Oak Ridge Chamber has the same right as any organization to create a PAC to endorse and support candidates of the PAC’s choosing. People who are upset about this should consider that PACs must operate in the public eye, so the creation of this PAC should give citizens more information about the political activities of the Chamber membership than we have had in the past.

I plan to complete the questionnaire that the Progress PAC sent to candidates — and I look forward to an interview with the PAC committee as an opportunity for dialogue with some of Oak Ridge’s business leadership. It’s valuable for candidates to exchange ideas with all citizens and learn more about their interests and concerns. There’s no denying that the Chamber and I have been on opposing sides in some major local issues, but I believe the Chamber and the business community it represents are particularly important groups to talk with, learn from, and try to work cooperatively with for the good of the city.

I’m confident that no city funds will go into this PAC. That would be a stupid mistake for the Chamber and the PAC, and the Chamber leadership isn’t stupid. PACs generally get their money from member donations, and I expect that’s what the Progress PAC plans to do. I think it is legitimate to be concerned that Progress PAC might be trying to get more City money for the Chamber, but (based on the questionnaire and my past experiences with the Chamber) it appears to me that their goal is to encourage a strong business climate (not to augment the Chamber budget).

It would be presumptuous to say whether or not I would accept support from the Progress PAC. No support has been offered and I have no particular reason to expect it. However, I believe in transparency, so if the PAC offers to support me as a candidate, I will definitely tell the public about the offer and my decision — and I will disclose the information again if I’m ever in a position to vote on a matter related to business between the City and the Chamber.


Government transparency meets technology limitations

Today I went online to file my annual “Statement of Interest” with the Tennessee Ethics Commission, but found myself colliding with a dysfunctional software interface. The Statement of Interest is supposed to provide some transparency in Tennessee government. All elected officials and candidates for elected office are required to disclose their financial interests and those of spouses and minor children, including sources of income, investments, and loans.

There’s a website where officials can file their disclosures and where anybody can see the reports that have been filed. In the past, my biggest challenge in filing was remembering my user ID and password. This year, I was able to dredge them up and log in, only to find that there is no visible mechanism for me to “File a Statement” (the help page says I should click on a button with that label, but I can’t see any such button). I can see my reports from past years, and apparently I could amend my report for last year, but I can’t file a new report for 2012, which state law requires me to do before January 31. Technology, including the Internet, smart phones, and social media, is a marvelous tool for improving government transparency and enhancing interaction between citizens and government, but it can be easily defeated by apps that don’t work properly. I see that a few other area officials have managed to file 2012 disclosures, and I’ve sent an email to Nashville to describe my problem, so I’m hopeful that my problems will be resolved well before the filing deadline.

Looking at the instructions for filing (which are a lot more detailed and informative than they were when I had to file a disclosure, several years ago) and looking at other officials’ reports, I’m led to think that it was far easier to pass a law mandate disclosure than it has been to implement it. Regarding income and investments, the original statute (about the only guidance we had the first year I filled this in) is fairly vague:

8-50-502.  Disclosure statements — Contents.

Disclosure shall be made of:

(1) The major source or sources of private income of more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), including, but not limited to, offices, directorships, and salaried employments of the person making disclosure, the spouse, or minor children residing with such person, but no dollar amounts need be stated. This subdivision (1) shall not be construed to require the disclosure of any client list or customer list;

(2) Any investment which the person making disclosure, that person’s spouse, or minor children residing with that person has in any corporation or other business organization in excess of ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or five percent (5%) of the total capital; however, it shall not be necessary to state specific dollar amounts or percentages of such investments;

In contrast, the current guidance on the website is far more specific — and includes some items not obviously included in the statute. For example, the guidance now defines “private income” as a long list of items, including  bank interest, stock dividends, honoraria, research grants, royalties, and “retirement income” (pensions and annuities) — none of which are obviously indicated by the language of the statute. Skimming through the disclosures filed by other officeholders in our local area, I concluded that it has been confusing for people to figure out what to report — for example, a couple of people who everyone knows to be receiving pensions did not mention their pensions on their forms, very likely because “retirement income” wasn’t on the list the first time they filed the form.

I guess that “transparency” works only as well as the guidance — and, in 2012, the software.