I take seriously my oath of office and my responsibility to the voters of Oak Ridge to make informed decisions in the best interest of all citizens. I am advocating that City Council be fully informed and advised before projects of this magnitude are represented as “approved by the City of Oak Ridge.” This was not the case with the Highway 62 overpass resolution.
The history of the Highway 62 overpass project raises serious questions about it future and its consequences for the City of Oak Ridge. In June 1997, a first request was made from the then Oak Ridge city manager to TDOT for access from Boeing Road (now Centrifuge Way) to Parcel 709.1, now part of Oak Ridge Summit (Pine Ridge.) In August 1997, TDOT denied the request on the basis of its “possible negative effects on the capacity and safety on the Boeing Road Industrial access.” What has changed since 1997 to reduce these negative effects?
In December 1998 City Council approved, on first reading, access from Illinois Avenue (Rt. 62) across city-owned property to other acreage on the Summit. A month later, the Traffic Safety Advisory Board voted to recommend against the access. In February, City Council approved access anyway (the current Summit access road.) Between 1999 and 2007, various efforts occurred to develop Oak Ridge Summit. The citizens of Oak Ridge declined by ballot to participate in at least one of those efforts.
In late 2006, the owner of Oak Ridge Summit began petitioning TDOT to allow access to the property via modifications to Centrifuge Way Overpass. Over 3-1/2 years, according to copies of communications with TDOT, the owner funded and brought forward evaluations and design possibilities. I take no issue with those private endeavors. However, when city staff became involved and began to invest hours in design review, the project should have become public knowledge. It did not.
When the product was presented to City Council in July, it was accompanied by a recommendation from the city manager stating that the immediate beneficiary would be USEC with a “companion benefit” of allowing access to the overpass from OR Summit to better market that property. Council was also told that this would benefit Wolf Creek residential area and other properties east of Illinois Avenue. What was missing was any evidence or communication from USEC or the developers of Wolf Creek requesting or agreeing with the requested changes.
The resolution presented for Council was flawed in several ways. First, it purported to serve USEC when in fact the design would cause USEC workers from Oak Ridge to come to a complete stop and make a left hand turn. Currently those drivers and ones headed to Wolf Creek from Oak Ridge make a long curving exit from Illinois with no impediments. The clear beneficiary would be Oak Ridge Summit, if and when there are any new commercial developments proposed for that site. If this is the real purpose and benefit of the proposed modifications, then it should be put forward honestly.
The second problem was the lack of supporting documentation and the lack of inclusion of council in the process. On the day of agenda review, Council was given an 8x11 copy of the privately made design suggested to TDOT. The afternoon of Council meeting, Council was given a copy of a letter sent to TDOT on City of Oak Ridge letterhead and signed by the mayor, the city manager, and the president of the Chamber of Commerce urging TDOT to accept the design changes to the overpass. None of the dozens of pages of correspondence among TDOT, the owner of Oak Ridge Summit, and City staff were offered to Council for consideration or background. Council was not told that design objections had been made by TDOT and City staff nor was evidence provided to indicate that they had been resolved.
The third problem was that the letter of which we were given a copy had been written in response to a request from TDOT for City approval of the project. The letter carried the implication, though not the specific words, that the City approved. It turned out that, in 2007, the then city manager had written a letter to TDOT specifically stating that “the City will support” the overpass plans. None of the above may speak for the City without the approval of the Council.
The fourth problem was that the resolution ignored a promise made when the overpass was originally constructed. At that time, a scenic overlook was eliminated and promises were made to the community that it would be replaced. Subsequently the land on Pine Ridge was sold to private owners without ever requiring a replacement overlook.
Finally, no provision was made within the resolution that its approval by Council was contingent upon the City having no fiscal liability. Even though the design is purported to be without cost to the City, the City failed to include that provision for protecting itself.
In the first year of serving on City Council, I have learned some things about how Oak Ridge’s city government has worked. The everyday business of city services flows pretty smoothly. City workers and department heads have experience, expertise, and processes. There are hiccups in the flow that occur for various reasons, but that’s a subject for another time.
There are issues upon which Council is required to act. Council members are not allowed to converse among themselves in twos or threes about anything upon which they are ever likely to be voting in the future. We can ask questions of city staff. We can ask questions of and talk with people not on Council. Due to the Open Government law for Tennessee, we can’t discuss City business or direction unless the meeting is published and open to the public.
The intent of this law is excellent. Tennessee is not the only state to have suffered from the effects of deals made in closed rooms among power players and secret keepers. One of the unintended consequences of the law, though, is its vagueness and its openness to interpretation. One result of the “we can’t talk to each other” interpretation for Oak Ridge City Council has been to empower the city manager beyond administrative leadership and to leave city staff to establish policy and direction with little input from Council. What happens then is that plans get made and events proceed without the knowledge of Council – or most of Council.
The city manager is charged with setting the Council’s agenda. Past managers have been known to solicit from individual Council members their stand on issues and then to refuse to put items onto the agenda unless and until there were four Council members committed to vote the way the manager wanted. If a single Council member or a small group wants an issue to move forward, they can individually work with the city manager to encourage that to happen.
What this has meant for Oak Ridge is a series of projects, plans, and purchases brought to Council for action with all or some members knowing nothing about them until the agenda package is delivered 10 days before Council meets. Some items are as lacking in controversy as buying holiday decorations. Some are much larger, like having an entire waterfront plan presented that has been devised by a small group of hand-picked people with vested interests meeting without wider public involvement. The Highway 62 overpass resolution is also an outfall of this approach. I find it difficult to make informed decisions without information or considered decisions without sufficient time .
In order to foster public confidence and support quality decision-making in our City government, it is vital that public disclosure of city plans and initiatives start at the earliest stages of consideration and exploration. The potential for added benefit from public input is too valuable to overlook. The best opportunities to remedy any project’s weaknesses often occur in the earliest stages through the widest exposure.
In addition, any representation of the official position of the City of Oak Ridge should be made at the direction of the whole of City Council. It is essential that Council have access to the full background on all projects in order to effectively set that direction. Without this, City Council’s vote is reduced to a rubber stamp.