Liveblogging: Charter Commission Forum

First, the rules: no questions will be allowed that are directed to a particular candidate.  Questions are screened to eliminate redundancy.  Opening remarks are limited to two minutes, and answers to questions are limited to a minute and a half.  No video recording is allowed; the media is allowed to tape the forum, but are not allowed to permit the recording to be altered in any way, nor used for any candidate advertising.

Gene Caldwell, Pat Postma, and Dave McCoy had their opening comments read by representatives, as they were unable to be here.

Each candidate makes an opening comment.  Of the first six, Chuck Agle is the first to stay within his time limit, but finding time to remind the audience of our history with district elections — that candidates were elected with fewer than 100 votes, and that in 1971, more than half of the council races (seven of twelve) were uncontested.

Ella Dubose compares the city to a computer, with the City Charter as the operating system.  We’re charged now with determining whether an "upgrade" is needed, especially since all software doesn’t work with all systems.

Scott Linn, a history teacher at Jefferson Middle School, says it’s essential to be open minded and reasonable when considering changes to the City Charter.  District representation didn’t work — Oak Ridge can’t afford to experiment with failed policies.  We need to work together.

Mike Mahathy points out that challenges are opportunities, but the future of Oak Ridge rests in the results of this Charter Commission.

Mary Helen rose recalls that she was the recording secretary for the last Charter Commission, and served on the Charter Review Committee last year.  "When I’m unhappy with Council, it’s usually because I don’t like one of their decisions, but I doubt that I would be any happier if they were elected by district, or if there were nine instead of seven."

*  *  *

Questions from the local media are next on the agenda.  Stan Mitchell, publisher of the Oak Ridge Observer, asks first:

Because the current City Council is elected at large, it has been said that this leads to some areas being unfairly represented.

Abbatiello: Both forms of government are representative; it’s just a different technique.  Districts create yet another sub group.  It can work reasonably well, until you never have enough candidates to compete.  Our primary issues are citywide, and we need to find the technique that allows us to focus on these citywide issues.

Burns: Two recent decisions were on the mall, and on Crestpoint.  Council’s votes on those matters indicate that Council is not hearing, or not listening, to the people.

Agle: During Abbatiello’s term, our tax rate remained relatively stable.  If we changed to districts representation, there would be no hope of restraint in spending.

Dittner: The Woodland hotel issue illustrates that the current Council is not working, that Council is not listening to neighborhoods.

DuBose: I believe that our Council represents all of the city, and that they’re working on neighborhood revitalization.

John Huotari asks, why districts?

Fain: A broad opportunity for people to be listened to, strengthening the health of our democracy, would be supported by district representation.

Flowers:  There are pros and cons for district representation.  You can get into some one-upsmanship, with Council members refusing to vote for a project because another district council member voted against a different project in their own district.  "If you don’t like the way the coach is calling the game, you don’t change the rules."


Linn: what concerms me about district representation is that it takes away from the individual’s voting power.  Now, we vote for 100% of council members; under the CDAR proposal, one would only be able to vote for up to four of nine.  The Founding Fathers did provide for a blended government (districts for the lower house, at-large for the senate), but they also made the constitution very difficult to amend.  It is a concern how easily our charter can be amended.

Stan Mitchell asks if we need to raise the threshold for referendums.

Mahathy: I believe that the standard for a referendum should be raised.

Jones: Of course we need to have referendums.  We wouldn’t have this call for change if they felt like they were being heard.

Rose: I’m inclined to think that it should be a little more difficult to call for a referendum, especially for a Charter Commission.

Schramm: Referendums are absolutely necessary.  This is not the end of the process, it is the beginning.  If we elect a Charter Commission

Jjohn Huotari asks, what other issues do you think the Charter Commission ought to consider.

Abbatiello: the democratic process is designed to garner input in a respectful manner.  He outlines the sections of the charter, but does not answer the question.

Burns: only interested in the district question.

Agle: Need to point out the unintended consequences.  Recent court rulings indicate that we may end up with a ruling that we must also have a district or hybrid school board.  The charter is an opportunity to put into place some planning mechanisms.  We have no real plan for growth going forward, so every time there’s an opportunity — it’s a surprise!  We need to take the surprise out of the process.

Dittner: I got into this only to discuss districts and the number of council members.

DuBose: I think the things that should be considered is driven by the citizens.

Stan Mitchell asks, who do you think runs this city, and do you think a strong mayor form of government should be considered?

Fain: On the map of the city, there is a strong pattern of where Council members, as well as people who sit on city boards, live.  There are neighborhoods that are seriously out of balance int he amount of power.  (She didn’t answer the question).

Flowers: With the City Manager form of government, you have a strong separation of powers.  In a town this size, you’ve got to have someone whose administrative role is to attend to the day-to-day form of government.  I’m a strong proponent of the City Manager form of government.

Humphries: It should be the City Manager who runs the city, but Council meets only once per months.  Now, they have a meeting before the meeting, which is better, because the other way looked too much like rubber-stamping the City Manager’s proposals.  I have no personal feelings on the strong mayor form.

Linn: a balance of legislative policy with city council and with the city manager dealing with the business seems to work well.  I would be open-minded to look into something like that, but the current practice seems to work well.

Iskander: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But I think it is broken.

Mahathy: If you’re not happy with the results, vote for a new Council.  If elected, I will move to adjourn on the first meeting.

Jones: 26 cities in Tennessee have a mixed form of government.  She recalls that in Knoxville, a Council member named O’Connor favored at-large, and a council member named Cas Walker favored a mix of at large and districts.

Rose:  We keep hearing that we’re not represented, but I believe that our 7-member Council represents us well.  When we are unhappy, it’s not because the Council member doesn’t live in our district, it’s because we’re unhappy with some decision that was made.

Schramm: the previous charter commission didn’t even consider districts.  Running at-large takes a lot of time, and more importantly, a lot of money.  People who run are those with the deepest pockets.

*  *  * (5-minute break) *  *  *

Candidates have answered audience questions, but there wasn’t really any new information brought forth.


6 thoughts on “Liveblogging: Charter Commission Forum

  1. Thanks for posting this – very informative. I’m glad to read that most of the CDAR candidates made their agenda, however myopic it is, clear. What kind of attendance was there?

  2. It appears that the candidates for district representation have single vision and are unable to see the whole picture. They are only interested in their agenda.

  3. I believe that it was Mr Agle who mentioned that Oak Ridge has 27 named neighborhoods. Under the CDAR proposal, that means 4 1/2 neighborhoods will be in each of the six districts on average.

    There appears to be a disconnect between the CDAR idea of knowing your representative personally and the reality of the size of these districts. The reality is that your neighborhood may well be divided into different districts making your personal issues a minority position even in your own district, much less city-wide.

  4. Actually, I think it may have been Mr. Dittner who pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce lists 27 named neighborhoods, but your point remains valid. In neighboring Knoxville, the optimal council district size (28,982) is just slightly larger than all of Oak Ridge.

    Because we’re a small city rather than a teeming metropolis, it’s quite possible to know every member of City Council, and I think that everyone should make it a point to do so.

    Of course, that might take just a tiny bit of effort on the part of the citizen — some assumption of personal responsibility. Doesn’t seem like nearly as daunting a task as changing the whole structure of our city government.

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