This is your new blog post. Click here and start typing, or drag in elements from the top ba A lot has been written and said about the school board’s fiscal policies lately. One point I would like us all to hold uppermost is that the original questions were not personally directed at anyone nor intended to question any board member’s integrity. It was therefore puzzling to have Board members direct personal “counterattacks” at community members asking questions.
I still do not question the personal integrity of any members of the school board. These are people who have volunteered to serve the public just as council members have. I believe they are doing their best to fulfill their oath of office.
What I would remind us all, however, school board, school administration, council, and city administration, is that, when a citizen asks a question, it is incumbent on each of us to endeavor to provide a reasonable and prompt response.
This is an opportunity for us to remind ourselves that the city’s and schools’ money belongs to the people of Oak Ridge. Our budgets should be readily available and, just as important, readily understandable. It would be my ambition that our budgets should be readable and understandable to the average Oak Ridge high school graduate. Wouldn’t that provide responsible goals for both administrations and curriculum designers? A well-educated citizenry is better able to help make intelligent decisions.
I believe both city government and school administration need the understanding, advice, and participation of citizens. And I believe we need to answer questions about the citizens’ business as forthrightly, promptly, and efficiently as possible. To that end, we should be designing our websites and our information storage in ways that make all our non-private information available to anyone for a few keystrokes.
While it may or may not be the case legally that the .5% raise in county sales tax in 2006 superseded the Oak Ridge 2004 .5% raise, it seems to me clear that the expectation of the citizens of Oak Ridge by a 76% majority was that any monies accumulated and distributed to Oak Ridge, city and schools, as a result of the last .5% sales tax should be used to pay off the cost of the high school renovation. That those monies should be dedicated to that purpose until the high school debt was entirely satisfied.
It seems to me evident that the schools concurred with that expectation when they paid over to the city, for the retirement of the high school debt, all the funds which accrued to them from the last .5% sales tax both before and after the county’s action. For the schools to suddenly in 2011-2012 decide that, oops, they really shouldn’t be paying for the debt is unethical and childish. In what universe do people of honor decide that they don’t have to pay for what they bought? (I forgot. People who went to college on loans from the rest of us are deciding that very thing right and left.)
Now we find ourselves in a bind. The owner of the buildings (we citizens of Oak Ridge) cannot and would not ever evict this tenant for failure to meet their obligations. Our children are a precious and wonderful treasure on whom our own quality of life depends as much as their own. I believe the only fair and reasonable arbiters of the .5% commitment are the citizens of the city of Oak Ridge. I believe that we must enact a referendum asking the citizens what their expectations are.
Ms. Agle, a tireless and dedicated servant of the schools, has remarked on the reduced income from Oak Ridge sales tax. It seems to me that the schools are lucky that the county decided to apply the .5% universally. The bottom line is that the schools have received a greater amount with which to make their contribution to the debt payment than they would have had the .5% applied only to Oak Ridge. The citizens and the city council realize full well that the schools have had to tighten their belts. The city has had to tighten its belt. The citizens, to the dismay of many, are faced with belt tightening on behalf of the city, in addition to all the other ways in which their income has failed to keep up with the cost of essential goods.
We do not need to argue between the serving bodies nor do any of us want to deposit this in the lap of lawyers and judges. Let’s either agree to continue to dedicate all income from the last .5% sales tax, city and schools, to the retirement of the high school construction debt. Or, let’s take it back to the people.
Problems with “Not in Our City” - Need Council leadership for citizen collaboration This open letter requests that you as members of our City Council defer or cancel the two Not in Our City resolutions:
The two resolutions first made public on Wednesday, November 10th, would amend The Neighborhood Watch Program (NWP) to have NWP block captains better assess neighborhood housing and environment problems and expedite appropriate action, formalize the Cleaner Container Program already in place, and establish the following new programs: The Top 5 List of Blighted Properties and 5 Most Improved Program (monthly postings), The Policies & Ordinances Program (stricter codes), The Community Development Housing Initiative with a new housing remediation specialist, The Administrative Hearing Officer Program with a new administrative hearing officer, The Land Bank Program which likely established a independent governmental body, and the Residential Properties Utility Program that established firmer standards for property changing ownership or occupancy before a utility account is established. The new duty of block captains sounds like police work. Following is a hurried, probably incomplete, list of problems with ‘Not in Our City.”. 1. The proposed programs do not directly address and, therefore, cannot remediate our huge drug and crime problems or effectively improve our quality of life and community image. We are reported to be a drug and crime center. 2. The broader issue of urban decay, housing, and related issues are marginally addressed. The effort is more like taking an aspirin for a brain tumor. 3. The process and the resulting proposed ‘Not in Our City’ are seriously flawed and inadequate for the intended purpose of remedying the huge wicked* problems for which they are proposed. First, they don’t recognize that the problems are wicked and not resolvable by traditional problem solving approaches. Second, there has been no collaboration with citizens on naming, framing, and solving the wicked problems. Substantial and sustainable improvements to quality of life for our citizens won’t take place without them. We citizens are more than customers. We want a “Fair Process.” 4. If layers of regulations, more bureaucracy, and another independent governmental body are to be added, citizens should be informed fully and be part of the process. 5. The title of ‘Not in Our City’ is personally offensive and projects a bad image of our fine City and citizens.
- To adopt the Not in Our City Conceptual Plan to address drugs and crime, improve housing, and make Oak Ridge a better place to live and invest.
- To adopt an additional initiative – the residential properties utility program – part of the Not in Our City Plan.
I don't want citizens to be moved to the sidelines on these issues. "Americans become citizens by doing the work of citizens." Are you going to provide the leadership needed to bring citizens to the table for the collaboration and deliberations needed to name, frame, and solve the complex wicked problems besetting our community? The National League of Cities and others suggest collaboration as a democratic process that works for communities, especially for wicked problems. And yes, it is difficult and takes more time. I believe the goal is effectiveness. Following are additional comments on ‘Not in Our City.” I want you to know that my views are shaped by books and articles by National Civic League, the National League of Cities, The Kettering Foundation, Stephen Covey, the Harvard Business Review, including other material on leadership, creativity, futuring, getting to yes and collaboration strategies, wicked problems, and the magic of conflict. ‘Not in Our City’ I have several objections to this title. First, the title is absolutely negative and reminds me of “not in my back yard.” The connotation suggests a hostile, punitive, walled, and closely controlled environment; not a democratic community. Valerie Lemmie, in Democracy Beyond the Ballot Box, says “Terms like not in my back yard and not during my term in office reflected the inability of citizens and their political leaders to reach consensus on difficult, controversial issues, and more important, highlighted the growing distance between elected officials and citizens in solving community problems.” I agree. Second, I asked myself, who is the “Our” in ‘Not in Our City’? Considering who initiated and developed the project, the absence of citizen collaboration, and who will oversee and police the compliance to even stricter codes, it refers to the city of the City Manager and staff, not citizens. This is a City Manager/staff proposal. As I recall the Manager told our City Council that the ‘Not in Our City’ program can be implemented by the City staff without engaging the people of Oak Ridge. There has been no collaboration with citizens to name, frame, and solve the community issues of drugs and crime, housing conditions, policy and code standards, and quality of life issues—to my knowledge. The experts alone are telling us what needs to be done. Third, ‘Not in Our City’ is an unhealthy substitute for a clear, compelling vision of its preferred future for Oak Ridge and for citizens working together to create it. We need a common vision for our community instead of the ‘Not in Our City” program. Wicked Problems In 1973, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, two urban planners, published a landmark article on the concept of “wicked problems” – those social problems that cannot be successfully tackled by the traditional approach in which the problems are defined, analyzed, and solved in sequential steps. These conventional approaches are ill-suited to them. Much is now written and on the internet about wicked problems, required leadership, and strategies to deal with them. In their words, “The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail because of the nature of these problems…Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about ‘optimal solutions’ to these problems…Even worse, there are no definitive solutions in the sense of definitive answers.” Classic examples of wicked problems include economic, environmental, and political issues. A problem whose solution requires large groups of individuals to change their mindsets and behaviors is likely to be a wicked problem. In the United States, wicked problems include drugs, crime, mental health, education, poverty, urban decay and issues related to them. These are some of the interconnected problems inadequately addressed ‘Not in Our City.’ The ‘Authoritative strategies’ to tame wicked problems vest the responsibility for solving them in the hands of a few people, like the authorities and experts. This is the apparent strategy of ‘Not in Our City.’ ‘Competitive strategies’ attempt to solve wicked problems by putting opposing points of view against each other, requiring parties that hold these views to come up with preferred solutions. ‘Collaborative strategies’ aim to engage all stakeholders to find the best possible solution for all stakeholders. Typically these approaches involve meetings in which the issues and ideas are discussed and a common, agreed upon approach is formulated. The Australian government has an excellent guide for understanding this strategy. Rittel hints at a collaborative approach; one which attempts, “…to make those people who are being affected into participants of the planning process. They are not merely asked but actively involved in the planning process…” David Matthew of the Kettering Foundation says in ‘For Communities to Work’, “When problems are wicked, a shared understanding of the approximate nature of what people are facing is more important than the technical solution. In fact, dealing effectively with a wicked problem depends on not reaching a fixed decision about a solution early on. The ability of citizens to exercise good judgment and to experiment in the face of uncertainty becomes more important than the often deceptive certainty of experts.” Valerie Lemmie says, “Our recent history teaches us that we can’t fix wicked problems in a community or set reasonable expectations for solutions without citizens. Leadership by City Council I feel compelled to ask that you as the representatives of all citizens consistently provide the rarely seen leadership for and with our citizens on this and other wicked problems. Assuring citizen collaboration in naming, framing, and solving wicked problems is a leadership responsibility of Council. We, the citizens, have a clear stake in them and depend upon you to engage us in such deliberations. I want Council to stop deferring its fundamental community leadership responsibilities to the City Manager, and stop functioning like a panel of judges of City proposals. And stop doing so without open, inclusive collaboration of citizens. I want you to be our leaders; foster and empower leadership on your board members and in our community. The list of 2012 goals established by the City Manager and staff for City Council Boards is another current example. Where is Council leadership for the direction of its Boards? Where is citizen collaboration on their goals? Oak Ridge has no community-based vision of our preferred future, so vital to planning and community building. Start the process. Evelina Moulden and Robert O’Neill Jr said, “Vision statements are aspirational. They articulate what a community or local government wants to be; they answer the question, ‘What will success look like?’ Typically a vision statement is developed before a strategic plan…The entire strategic plan starts with and must consistently relate to the vision statement.” I remember the prophetic statement by a young man at the first public hearing of the Charter Commission. “Oak Ridge doesn’t know where it wants to go.” We have no mental picture of a preferred future for our city in 10 to 20 years. Effective leaders bring their stakeholders together to create a community-based vision. Collaborative problem solving is a fundamentally democratic activity, and one that our Council leadership can initiate and sustain. It is a deliberative process that has emerged and spread because the existing decision-making system isn’t working well. The current system cannot reconcile competing stakes as effectively as can the collaboration of stakeholders themselves. Again, please defer action on ‘Not in Our City” while you spearhead the collaboration of citizens on the wicked problems intended to be addressed by it. And do so with outside consultants. City staff should not lead this endeavor. Sincerely, Don Hurtubise Oak Ridge
From 10,000 feet, Oak Ridge looks practically perfect. It has far more trees and gardens than most cities and towns. It sits in the curves of a gentle lake. Its main thoroughfares are wide and well-traveled. It has few spaces wiped clear of vegetation or hilltops, at least by comparison to its neighboring cities. The streets are lighted at night. There appears to be plenty of commercial light, too, so there must be lots of businesses. There is a plethora of industrial land still available to increase manufacturing and other industries with jobs that pay living wages.
From 10,000 feet, it is easy to envision Oak Ridge moving toward a future that incorporates outdoor sport venues, healthy industries, walking paths, safe and revitalized neighborhoods, jobs for the residents , and wide-ranging lifestyle amenities.
The leadership difficulties, however, are not at the 10,000 foot level. There are several schools of leadership directions here but they aren’t talking with each other much better than Congress. I was not one of the council elected at the 10,000 foot level either. I was elected at ground level where residents have become discouraged with how often things don’t make sense, don’t add up, or seem to be simply obscure. Or, too often, how things are same ol’, same ol’: doing what we’ve “always done” and expecting a better result.
The senior center debate is one of the issues on which many of the people who elected me wanted real answers and progress. Council did promise a new senior center. The city staff deemed the Wildcat Den building to be unfit and irremediable for continued use. Plans were in the works to build a new senior center on a portion of Bissell Park adjacent to the existing city buildings and simultaneously updating the library. In the midst of those plans, a developer came to the city with a proposition to redevelop the mall and have the city participate by moving some of its functions to new quarters in the Turnpike end of the rebuild.
Some say that when the citizens called for a referendum on the bond issue, many of the leaders of that movement were members or users of the senior center. Some people say that when the referendum rejected the deal and the developer pulled out, city staff blamed seniors. I don’t know about that. That falls in the realm of myth and things obscure.
What I do know is that the “temporary” quarters for the senior center activities have been neither inviting nor adequate. It has certainly seemed to me that for a community which boasts so many educational and cultural venues of excellence, we have neglected a resource which once did a much better job of serving the needs of many of our esteemed elders. A former council DID promise a new and improved senior center. The council we have now , except Mr. Hope who is new, promised a new senior center.
It bothers me to hear people question the need or usefulness. Many Oak Ridge seniors are economically and socially well fixed. Some of them see no need for a “center” specific to seniors. Many young people seem unable to understand why they should take on the debt, regardless how large or small, for a facility they don’t ever expect to use. I hear plans, while construction of a new building takes place, to scatter the seniors who have continued to use the temporary space. What I see are opportunities to include more citizens both socially and as resources, opportunities being lost because the facilities are inadequate.
Dr. Barbara Gunn has written for local media of the many reasons why senior centers serve a community and provide a return on investment. I am afraid that the vision of a $15,000 assessment is already pointed at being too narrow. So when the public hearings get scheduled, I hope that folks will bring ideas and examples of ways the former center here and excellent ones elsewhere can serve the community’s needs and help build its future. I will probably not need the center as it currently is conceived. I surely would like to envision wanting to be there. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a center that included flexible, inviting meeting rooms and secure storage for organizational activities? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a place that felt like having a reunion or a 90th birthday party? Wouldn’t it be great to have new technology classes and old skills and crafts classes (where younger people could come learn, too?) Wouldn’t it be great to have a place that was easy for people to get in and out of safely, to park easily?
I am delighted to hear Mr. Beehan acknowledge that Council promised. Council did. This council did and the one before this did and the one before that did, too. Wouldn’t it be great if we thought things through before we made promises and kept the promises we made?
The following was written in response to a July 7, 2011, editorial in The Oak Ridge Observer.
Dear Stan, I beg to differ with some of your premises and conclusions in last week's editorial. First and foremost, council cannot tell the city manager to replace staff. We can replace the manager. We can tell the manager that we have no confidence in particular staff. We can bring to the manager privately or publicly concerns about staff. But we cannot direct the manager to hire or fire, move or discipline staff. One of the outcomes of pulling items from the consent agenda is that sometimes it indicates to the manager and to staff that we do not have confidence in some particular action put forward by staff. Other things that removing an item from consent agenda might indicate.
- We don't understand the item and need an explanation. With agendas now arriving Wednesday evening before a Monday meeting, there is frequently not time to review all the items and get answers before the meeting.
- Some of our constituents don't understand an item and have asked us questions and we want the answers to be heard by the public.
- We feel an item may be misconstrued by the public because we know why it's there but the public hasn't been privy to the same information. We want staff to have a chance to avoid distrust by getting to explain. (I have done that one.)
- We sometimes do feel that an item has been intentionally "hidden" in the consent agenda by staff. So there.
There are actually other reasons as well. Since it seems impossible to get real planning and policy discussion meetings scheduled, council kind of has to wade through what's on the agenda and express our several opinions if we want any chance to understand what each other thinks or to have staff get an idea of our several and collective expectations. It's a bit disingenuous to quarrel with our not getting to all the dozens of items on the workshop agenda. The first of the three scheduled hours was reassigned by Mr. Watson to avoid a special meeting and have Paul Golan present to council. Charlie Hensley withdrew his request after talking personally with Mr. Golan so I had no ground to hold the manager to the special meeting. The reason I seconded Charlie's request was that I really did want the BBB telecast for the public to hear Paul. I also was hoping this might lay the groundwork to start bringing back to council the idea that Oak Ridge cannot continue to imagine that DOE will always be here and the money will always flow freely. We have got to have a plan for independent survival and thriving as a town. (Talk about your 10,000 foot view.) The next hour and a half were consumed by a presentation from a set of consultants who had researched needs and proposed reconfigurations for the city library. They could have just given us the giant book report and made copies available at the library for the public. There was no discussion of the contents that drove the designs for the buildings That left us with 30 minutes to address the real issues council needed to work on together. By the way, thanks for reminding me that I need to write out for Mr. Watson what I really asked for which got turned into "roles of the Mayor and City Council." I asked for a session to discuss how we want to operate as a council. I do not consider the mayor to be separate from council as the repeated use of the phrase "the Mayor and City Council" implies. And I really want us to discuss that, too. In my opinion, all the members of council need to be more involved in and better informed about our relationships with county, other city, and state governments as well as economic development issues and groups. We need to spread the responsibilities for forming relationships and gathering information and report to each other. Mr. Beehan was assigned to replace Mr. Haslam on a panel after Mr. Haslam was elected governor. What if Mr. Beehan were asked by the governor to fill a state role that took him away from Oak Ridge? Do we even know what all Mr. Beehan is involved with? So what specifically do you think we might discuss at 10,000 feet? How about how the city moves into the 21st century? How about the idea of doing an analysis of the city demographics and the city's assets and engaging a knowledgeable facilitator to lead us through who does Oak Ridge want to be in 50 years and what is possible/probable? Stan, we have had a manager with a backbone for only 1 short year. We have inspired him to retire some people and get us some new ones. Things are better. Things are still not great and there are a few members of city staff who still think it appropriate to set the agenda for Oak Ridge themselves. We have had a do nothing unless Tom Beehan does it council because Tom had the 4 votes. I challenge council to move Oak Ridge beyond being a dependent of DOE and an adjunct to the federal agenda. We have a CVB that is still trying to sell the Atom Bomb! Our history is interesting and important but it is not and cannot be all this town is.
When one reads about the arrest of a gold buyer by the Oak Ridge police and the statements of the police that they had been watching these buyers for some time, the story sounds like good work on the part of the department. And it is good work. There are, however, two parts to the rest of the story.
The first part is that it took a lot of pressure from a local businessman and the attention of the city manager, apparently, to persuade the city police to do that good work. In recent months itinerant gold buyers have come to Oak Ridge several times. Each time local buyers have asked the police to check on their activities. Each time the response has been dismissive. It was clear to the local dealers that the outside buyers were operating illegally. The police had several excuses for not being “able “ to enforce the law.
In the fall of 2009, District Attorney Dave Clark sent a letter to all the local jewelers, coin dealers, metal dealers, and pawn shops summoning the owners to a meeting at the county seat. He handed out written copies and explained the new state law on the buying of precious metals. The records to be kept are to be detailed and specific. Scales must be state certified. Names and addresses from IDs and descriptions of property bought must be recorded. Lists of all buys must be delivered to the local police by noon the day following the purchase. Significantly, the purchases must be kept securely at the location where purchased for 30 days, accessible to police for comparison to materials reported stolen. Representatives from several local law agencies were at this meeting, including our own Capt. Uher.
The law is direct, simple to grasp, laborious to follow. It is an attempt by the legislature to aid the police in recovering stolen goods. When used promptly and attentively, it could both return stolen goods to the victims and put the thieves in jail. Since its inception, local buyers of scrap metal and surplussed jewelry and household goods have worked to comply. Some local jewelers chose to no longer buy used jewelry. The cost of paperwork and the time one’s money was then tied up made the profit insufficient to justify the effort.
Meanwhile, the police told some buyers not to bother bringing their lists in to the city. The officers would come to the buyers periodically to look at the records. Those who know how fencing works realize that delay examining the sales means the chances of catching thieves go steadily down.
Then come the here-today, gone-tomorrow dealers. No license is required because they are not selling so there is no tax involved. (Let’s skip the part where sellers are supposed to submit uncollected sales taxes to the state.) These buyers take out full page ads in local papers. Come Now! Best Prices! Only 3 Days! They set up in local hotels. Despite the requirement in law, they may or may not notify the local police that they will be here and how long they will stay.
The police, despite the urging of local businesses, are unwilling to require that the buyers show them up front what provision has been made for securing the goods for 30 days. Local buyers point out to the police that there is no safe in the hotel and no guarantee that the buyers will be around to make the goods available. No action. In some cases, it is observed that the buyers do not deliver any lists to the police. When locals suggest this to the police the response is, “Go away. You are meddling in police business.” And at the end of their allotted stay, the itinerant buyers pack up and leave town taking their purchases with them. So the law meant for citizens’ benefit and burdensome to law-abiding local business people becomes useless. That’s one.
The second part is sadder. The itinerant buyers play upon the ignorance of customers in order to pay seriously less than market price for gold and silver. They are then gone and not answerable. The flashy ads lure people to dig out broken or seldom-worn jewelry with the intimation of “cash in your attic” hidden wealth. Then the buyers offer 10 to 30% of what local buyers would pay. The customers may be disappointed but, having decided to sell, are reluctant to take their items back home.
How do I know this? Local buyers have tested the itinerants time and time again. This latest group, whose leader was finally arrested, offered $6 for an earring for which a local buyer had paid a fair $18. On a heavy gold ring for which another buyer had paid over $500, the itinerants offered $50. This isn’t illegal. Caveat emptor. This is merely greedy and morally reprehensible.
So here, emptor, is your caveat. If you intend to sell jewelry or Grandma’s silver forks, go to your local dealers who care about their reputations. Go to more than one for comparison. Check the current price of gold or silver or collectible coins on the Net or at the library. Know approximately what your materials weigh and what percentage of sterling or 10-carat is the precious metal. Learn the difference between grams and pennyweights. Don’t be a victim.
Perhaps it is time to consider a variation on the Green River Law for Oak Ridge. We might, by ordinance, require all peddlers, itinerant service providers (e.g., driveway pavers and roofers,) and buyers of goods from the general public to have a local business license. Getting the license could require a background check and proof of permanent address. Share your opinion or ideas on this with your local city manager or council person.
This letter was written in response to a citizen's letter in the Oak Ridger suggesting that asking the community about hiring a new police chief was a "waste of our time" and indicative of lack of ability on the part of the new city manager.
Dear Mr. Zobel: The new city manager is, in my opinion, eminently qualitfied to select a new police chief. As a council member, I have come to regard his approach to city management as thoughtful, richly competent, and even wise. When he asked for public meetings to discuss citizens' concerns and expectations in this manner, I was delighted.
There are many issues which have caused divisions in our community. One of the deepest divisions has been the result of perceptions concerning the police department's policies. Mr. Watson is asking us, his collective employers, to add to his knowledge of our needs and wants. This, to me, is an action of respect and inclusion. If you have no issues with the police department, Mr. Zobel, I respectfully request that you attend one or both of the meetings to hear what others in the community have to say.
For the benefit of the search professionals, Mr. Watson is also asking for additional input from city staff, police department employees, and city council members. The information from all sources will be added to the search process to create as comprehensive a list as possible. It helps to prioritize the appropriateness in fit of candidates' training, experience, and personal management strengths.
This appointment is one of the most important hiring decisions the city manager ever has to make. The fact that he is being open, inclusive, and thorough about the process bodes well for our town. I do not think participating in a community information sharing is a waste of anyone's time. You will have to make your own decision on that. I assure you that Mr. Watson will very competently make the final decision on hiring. A better informed decision because of our participation.
I believe the most important thing that Council did in 2010 was to hire Mark Watson as the new city manager. Thus far his enthusiasm, his broad knowledge and experience, and his management skills have already served the town well and portend many positive efforts to come.
I'm afraid I still think that what Council continues to fall short on is asking for adequate specific information supporting requests for funding and policy. I agree with Mr. Hensley in particular that Council's responsibility is to set direction and policy, not manage staff. In order to set useful direction, however, Council members need to understand the particulars of any action: what the causes for seeking the action are, what is required to act, and what the consequences of the action are likely to be. Too often we are presented with plans for action that come with too many assumptions and too late for council members to educate ourselves well and ask helpful questions. In addition, we have delayed following up on the whole council retreat work sessions.
If I could change one thing I did during 2010 it would be to be more clear about why I ask for costs of actions. I asked originally for costs on the Secret City Festival because it seemed to me an effort which is distinct from other ongoing activities and should be fairly easy to track.. This was taken by many, apparently, to be an assault on the festival. To the contrary, I hoped we could demonstrate that this popular event was inexpensive enough that we could presume a positive ROI from the associated elements that we can't track like hotel rooms, meals, gas and other purchases. Staff did an impressive job of pulling together approximate costs. What dismayed me was that we don't automatically track costs in ways that make it easier to decide what to keep and what to give up or postpone. As the city finds it necessary to make tough choices for the next few years, council and the rest of citizens need to know what things cost.
Consider, if you will, that the materials and contractor oversight for the Cedar Hill playground rebuild cost less that half of one year's expense for the Secret City Festival. The playground is expected to be more user-friendly than before and even safer and last for 20 to 40 years. The playground is available to the city's children every day. It is available to folks from outside Oak Ridge and attracts many on a continuing basis. The cost of materials looks like a big figure in a lump sum. If we ever had to choose between doing the festival one year and rebuilding the playground, wouldn't we want to know that the festival does not make a profit for the city? It's a delightful asset. I hope it can be continued indefinitely and evolve and grow. Wouldn't we like to know at what point it really is self-supporting?
For the coming year, I hope to direct more of my own attention to existing and new efforts to bring different additional retail and commercial service to town and to support the existing businesses. I also hope to spend more time building relationships with neighboring cities and the counties and engaging in cooperative efforts.
In addition, I hope to participate in a city-wide effort to recreate mutually supportive relationships between the citizenry and the police department and cooperation among all the city's groups.
When I ran for council, I had very limited knowledge of how council worked or even what its exact role was for Oak Ridge. What I did know was that I saw a gap between council’s decisions and the expectations and hopes of many of my friends and associates.
From a few people who had served on council or were active in the Chamber of Commerce I too often heard laments about the workers on federal projects who wouldn’t even consider living in Oak Ridge. I also heard that the infrastructure was old and crumbling, the housing ought to be leveled so new houses could be built, the population was becoming too old or too poor or too whatever was “not us.” I heard from my neighbors and friends a counter- lament that the leadership was too negative about Oak Ridge.
Since I wasn’t raised here but chose this town, the heavy negatives seemed unbalanced. Last Sunday one friend told me excitedly about meeting a young engineer who, with his wife and two children, had decided to only look in Oak Ridge for a home when they came here to work. The lesson is not that we are right about our town’s attractiveness. It is that we have become discouraged as city leaders bewailed the city’s losses instead of celebrating its assets.
My first vision for Oak Ridge is that city council members will begin to act as a representative body. We need to bring together our disparate views of who Oak Ridgers are and what the town’s assets are and build a joint agenda toward the future.
Second on my list is that we develop a solid financial picture of where we are and how we get solvent. The Charter Commission stalled when given the chance to return financial accountability to the oversight of the citizens. Council still has the opportunity to expand on the effort led by Mr. Hensley last year and to look in deeper detail at our expenditures and indebtedness. Then we need to bring that understanding to a long term planning workshop to look at realistic options and make difficult choices. We need to set priorities together with the direct input of the citizens.
I see Oak Ridge as a place many people will want to live based on a wide variety of lifestyle choices. Across this country (and around the world) are people who prefer to live in a town that is a cross of big city culture and small town relationships. We have a wealth of substantial housing which has either been updated all along or is ripe for creative updating at costs below new housing. Many of those houses are on lots with mature plantings and grown shade trees. We have a plethora of building lots and some lovely new houses for those who prefer them. We have new apartments and more going up and a variety of condominiums and town houses available. We have refurbished apartment homes with the charm of simpler times.
I also see a town that gets tough on landlords who contribute to neighborhood decline through neglect and greed. We need to honor and encourage landlords who take pride of ownership in investing in the city’s renewal.
I foresee outdoors lovers and fishermen and entrepreneurs and retirees. I see folks who want or need to live less expensively than Farragut but who are willing to invest sweat equity. I see a town made up of the broadest possible variety of folks: scientists, skilled craftsmen, laborers, educators; old, young, high energy, relaxed; differently abled and differently engaged.
It may be that this town needs to change its collective mind. When did we lose interest in each other’s ideas? When did we decide that the “other” is always wrong? When did we decide we only wanted one kind of housing, one kind of family, one kind of vision? DOE provides amazing employment and attracts interesting people. So do large and small private companies. Each is an asset.
One of the practical visions I have is the kind that won’t sit well with a lot of people. When 95 is four lanes from I-40 to I-75, Oak Ridge will effectively be the Rainbow Route between the two. I see truck repair shops and 4-wheel services. Perhaps there is room for both an airstrip and a distribution center on formerly federal land. How about hotels and restaurants for travelers? We are halfway between Toledo and Tallahassee for the snowbirds. We are halfway between St. Louis and Savannah for spring break. We are halfway between Baton Rouge and Baltimore, Houston and Hartford, St. Augustine and St. Paul. Perhaps there are entertainments we would like to create that would provide an attractive trip break for those travelers whose interests don’t draw them to Pigeon Forge.
Oak Ridge is already steeped in a love of music, education, art, dance. What if we built on our arts as well as our outdoors? Could we attract the world to our playhouse? To our symphony? To art venues? (People travel hours to get to the galleries of Atlanta, San Francisco, New York.) Wouldn’t this be a lovely place to shop for art? Isn’t it a delightful place for artists to live and work?
Because we already have a large percentage of older residents, we have attracted much better health and support services than most communities our size. Our climate is moderate and our seasons gorgeous. Why aren’t we more excited about attracting replacement retirees for the precious ones we are losing? We have a growing learning community to keep us all mentally sharp. We have clean air, fresh water. Good roads make cities available for the few days we need them. We are lucky enough to be near a small city which is eagerly reinventing itself and with whom we can be partners for area efforts.
So what do you think? Want to float some ideas for us all to consider?
Both local news editors have recently criticized city council for not acting as a cohesive unit and for looking into details of city operations instead of developing a vision for the city and a view from “10,000” feet from which to provide direction. While I agree about many of their “shoulds,” I am not in the mood to be taken to the woodshed as a group. For one thing, I am not any of the other council members and they are not I. For another, it is next to impossible to act as a unit when we don’t spend time talking with, arguing with, reasoning with each other over vision or direction.
We have a city council which reflects the diversity of thought that characterizes the city’s population. The requirements of the state Open Government laws dictate that we cannot get together for discussion of city affairs without advertising the meeting, making it open to the public, and having a record made of what is discussed. Just getting to the place where we can talk with each other with trust in our intentions needs more than the very effective goal-setting retreat of last winter.
After Jim O’Connor announced his departure, many of council were reluctant to continue the work begun in the retreat until we had a new permanent manager. It is my feeling that council should not be waiting for the city manager to lead. Even though we are setting goals for the city manager, we also should be leading the process of developing a community -wide vision and direction. Council should be setting up a process by which citizens can participate and argue for their views of city direction.
Once upon a time, the city developed a comprehensive plan. That plan either needs to be wholly updated or scrapped and a new one developed. Charlie Hensley has been a proponent of a strategic plan since his campaign and I support him in that. We need to have a process in place for developing a strategic plan to achieve the design and a process for adjusting the comprehensive plan that isn’t piecemeal.
None of this is to say that I believe council ought not also investigate or evaluate actions of city staff. Oak Ridge is very fortunate to have on staff some of the most talented and dedicated workers anywhere. They report to the city manager who reports to council. Most of the time staff’s work is seamless to the point of invisibility. That said, I would remind those who complain about our efforts to keeps tabs on city programs and actions: council reports to the citizens. We are the ones directly accountable to the citizens for how money is spent and how well city services are performed. Citizens are always welcome to bring ideas, compliments and complaints about city staff and services to their council members.
I spend a lot of time answering questions from people about how, when, where, who, and why. Who does one ask about this? Why is a city crew doing that? How do I find out about the other? I enjoy that part of the job a lot. I get to help people connect with city services and staff experts and I get to learn a lot.
What I don’t spend a lot of time answering are questions about vision. The reason I don’t is that mostly people don’t ask, “What is your vision for Oak Ridge?” In my next message I will talk about what my own vision is in hopes that people will offer us theirs.