All the candidates for Signal Mountain Town Council were recently asked a series of questions. Their responses are available at www.citizenadvocateonline.com. There's a lot to read there, and I hope you'll take the time. For some strange reason, I also decided to turn on the camera and summarize my answers here. If you watch the video directly on YouTube, there are specific links to each question. You'll need to twirl down the Show More button to see the links. Feel free to comment and share this post.
1) Why have you considered/chosen to run for Signal Mountain Town Council?
My family's quality of life is improved by living in Signal Mountain. This drives my sense of gratitude and indebtedness to those who thoughtfully participate in its day-to-day operation. Town Council decisions can be impactful for generations to come, and I appreciate the chance to be a part of the policy-making process.
2) Why do you feel you would be a good council member?
I’ll take the time, do the work, and ask hard questions, even when they don’t necessarily support my default positions.
3) What would you do as a council member to increase transparency?
Transparency requires an ethic of doing more than what's required and less than what's allowed. The Tennessee Open Meetings Act "attempts to balance the need of the public to know what government is doing with the need of members of governing bodies to be able to deliberate and reach best decisions." Trust weakens when citizens watch decisions made without access to the same information available to Council members, witness insufficient deliberation, and see questions go unanswered. The way we do it now, citizens have the opportunity to address Council, but rarely to converse with members openly.
In 2009, a change in the Open Meetings Act allowed for an Internet Forum to be created which can be used to openly discuss government business among citizens and elected officials, with the caveat that "decisions are still required to be made at an adequately [advertised] public meeting." Such discussions put elected officials on record in writing and would create a tremendous opportunity for citizens and elected officials to have open and honest communication in full sunshine, without immediate time constraints. The Office of Open Records Counsel (OORC) is available and required to help us properly set up such a forum. We should take advantage of this opportunity. (T.C.A. § 8-44-109 lays out the requirements for setting up an Internet Forum.)
4) What does it mean to you to represent constituents?
It means listening to and evaluating what constituents have to say by engaging in conversation, demonstrating an understanding of opposing arguments which you are then able to accurately support and present before the council as a proxy for the citizen.
5) What factors make Signal Mountain such a unique community?
The majority of homes in Signal Mountain are single-family homeowner occupied by high quality of life seeking people of all ages, from young families to retirees. Our topography, while providing outstanding beauty and cooler temperatures, also and restricts Town growth.
6) What parts of our town and community do you value most?
I value our strong families, safety, scenic beauty, clean air, abundant opportunity for healthy outdoor activities, top-notch schools, and civic-minded citizens.
7) What four things would you like to accomplish during your time as a Council Member?
1. Foster a strengthened sense of community-owned government where citizens, Town staff, and elected officials treat each other with earned respect while working toward established goals.
2. Encourage greater citizen participation in community forums.
3. Remedy our sewage problems so that we can allow our children to wade without fear in unpolluted creeks.
4. Create a comprehensive, mountaintop responsible growth plan through citizen-lead informed buy-in. It's a tall order, but to leave this unaddressed could be devastating to future quality of life for everyone living on this ridge.
8) What are the 3 biggest challenges facing the Town of Signal Mountain?
1. Local government has had a rocky couple of years from a community relations standpoint. I’d like to see us lower the temperature and communicate with civility while presenting competing, merit-based positions on current issues.
2. The elimination of the Hall Tax was a significant hit to the revenue side of our budget. We will face challenges providing the quality services our town expects with relatively static revenue sources.
3. Our infrastructure is being strained by steady growth, even though some of that growth is outside Town boundaries and not under Town control. The increased traffic demands must be addressed, including the need for an additional way in and out of our school complex. We must also correct our stormwater runoff issues which are infiltrating our sewer system and impacting our creeks.
9) How would you address those challenges?
1. Treat each other with respect and recognize the importance of adhering to simple solutions like following Roberts Rules of Order, which can be seen as cumbersome, but expedite good decision making.
2. Be realistic and careful during the budget process, including citizens as much as possible in establishing reasonable expectations.
3. Work with the state and county on roadway solutions and closely follow our subdivision regulations and Land Use Plan as new growth is proposed.
10) Do you believe the town should sell its water system? Why or Why not?
It is important to remember that the reason this became a topic for discussion was an inquiry by Tennessee American Water to purchase our town water system. The discussion did not start because of a particular problem. The research being done into the costs and benefits of selling, keeping, or entering into an operations and maintenance agreement are still underway. A decision of this magnitude needs to be thoroughly studied before making a call. I’m comfortable saying that my default position is that we should own our public utilities, and be leery of selling for a cash windfall. I am open to the idea that a town could find itself in a situation where it couldn’t afford to run a water company, but I've seen no evidence that we face that situation. It is essential for everyone to understand that the water department, while owned by the town, has a budget that is separate from the town. Our water department is solvent and has an ongoing, and on-schedule, working maintenance plan. There is currently $2.6 million in the water fund available for improvements. This fund is supported only by those who purchase their water through the Town, so, in essence, the fund was not built by all citizens.
The Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) is presently doing a viability study on our water system. When this is complete, we will have the option of asking them to perform a water rate study. Pending contrary advice from MTAS, I recommend we conduct this study.
We should all be clear that, based on our current cost of purchasing water, we will need to have a water rate increase. It is important to note that this increase will take place regardless of who owns the system. Keeping our water system under local control gives us the option of two competing companies that want to sell us water, which is then distributed to homes through infrastructure which we all own and maintain. If we sell, we lose that competitive edge which could mean higher long-term water bills, even if it appears to be better in the short term.
11) Would you support or advocate for state law to be changed to make it possible or easier for municipal/independent school districts to be created in the state? Why or Why not?
I am concerned that due to our size and limited tax base this is a risky proposition. Other towns that met the criteria and split from their county school systems were able to fund improvements through taxation because of large commercial areas within their town limits. We don't have this option. I'd also like to see us exhaust our options for improvements by showing up for Hamilton County School Board meetings and participating in the process that exists.
12) Do you think our town needs and can support more commercial development? Yes or No. If yes, what type of commercial development does Signal need in addition to what we already have?
You can't stop someone who owns commercial property from properly developing their property according to existing laws. The recent controversy wasn't about that; it was a request to rezone from low-density residential to highway commercial. This is the most extreme form of zoning change. For such an extreme change there would have to be extremely compelling circumstances and the community would have needed to be overwhelmingly in support. I voted against this zoning change as both a Planning Commissioner and Council Member.
As to what types of commercial development we need, I'm uncomfortable making this call. The market should dictate while following existing building and zoning regulations.
13) If the town sells the water system, what do you believe should be done with the proceeds?
That decision should not be made immediately, and for the sake of checks and balances, probably not by the council that decided to sell. It would require the careful study of long-term implications. If forced to choose, I’m inclined to think that paying off town debt, at least in part, is a good idea, but there are dangers in that, too, and not all debt is bad. There’s also the question of whether the 2.6 million in the water fund maintenance budget should be returned to the ratepayers that built that fund. This all needs to be carefully considered, and I don’t pretend to know the answers. It would be easy to pay off all of the town's debts, and then quickly end up back in debt again, but without an asset to sell.
14) Are you in favor of creating a municipal/independent school district for Signal Mountain? If yes, what are the next steps in the process?
I’ve studied this issue with great care. I think there are too many risks for a town of our size. We barely fit the criteria for being able to do it, and I think we risk financial catastrophe due to our limited opportunity for commercial development.
15) Do you have concerns about residential growth inside the Town of Signal Mountain, Walden, and/or unincorporated Hamilton County? If so, please explain your concerns.
My position on this is similar to the question of commercial growth. We can't deny property owners the ability to do what is their legal right, but we also have a responsibility to look out for those who have already developed their property, built their homes, and wait in traffic queues. It is the responsibility of government to guard against overburdening a system to the point of diminishing returns for all involved.
As I mentioned in the question about my goals as a council member, I'd like to participate in creating a comprehensive mountaintop growth plan.
I’m setting this up because many people don’t use Facebook. I’ll basically copy to this blog anything involving my activities as a Signal Mountain Town Council member.