Friday, January 29, 2010

Just completed one of our "agenda" sessions which was quite productive. I was given a preliminary draft of the potential locations for a future sidewalk down James Blvd. I want to begin by correcting an error on my part. I have said several times that my understanding was that we did not have the right-of-way across the street from the Country Club to build a sidewalk, but that is not the case. This preliminary document shows potential locations for a sidewalk on both sides of the street in the town's right of way. While other issues may arise (and apparently the issue of utilities is also pretty much equal on both sides), at present it seems that either side would be feasible. It think it is important that everyone know this. These plans will be available at the public meeting next Wednesday, Feb. 3 from 6-8pm. This is a "drop-in"meeting, so come when you can and stay for as long as you want.

Representatives of the Country Club, including club President Doug Fisher and Mike Feher, the Club's representative to the Council attended. They arrived with a very cooperative attitude and the discussions were mostly polite and open on both sides. There was some heated discussion between Mr. Fisher and Vice-Mayor Robertson over some statements she apparently sent out stating that only a few trees would need to be removed if the sidewalk goes in on the CC side. This seems to be overly optimistic based on new information and she admitted this. Clearly we are all gaining new information all the time (as my mea culpa above indicates). The meeting next Wednesday will be a good opportunity for information and input from the town's citizens to the engineers on this project. This is NOT a Town Council meeting. I have to work and will be unable to attend, but I'm sure the other members will be there to listen. I will receive copies of all comments and engineering advice and will give my own input and questions. I want to say that this should not be a "town vs the Country Club" issue and comments about elitists, etc are totally out of line. Apparently there have been some nasty personal comments made (probably on both "sides") and I hope this will stop. I'm tired of "sides". We need to decide what the town wants (and it seems that most do want to go ahead with the sidewalk) and how best to do it. Clearly we should do this the safest way possible and with the least negative impact on the Country Club. So, if you have advice, please tell us if you want the sidewalk or not and, if you do, how best to build it.

In other news... we approved the contract with EPB. Several of their executives were present and everyone was very relieved and happy that we had come to an agreement that I feel is very positive for the town and which they seem content with. Hopefully we should have EPB fiber-optic cable and internet by the fall (or possibly sooner).

We also discussed some new approaches to our efforts to cut energy use and decrease our carbon "footprint" in keeping with our signing the "Mayor's Agreement on Climate Change" when I was Mayor. We talked about appointing a committee to look at these issues in a more formal and systematic way. The organization (called "ICLEI") promoting this issue have tools for measuring the town's effectiveness in this direction. We are already saving money through these efforts, so this isn't purely a pie in the sky issue. We will be looking for potential members for such a committee and possibly dedicating some staff time the next time we bring a management intern to our town as we have in the past (probably this summer).

Finally, the issue was brought up to change our charter. This was raised by Ms. Robertson. Clearly our charter, approved in 1990 has a few outdated measures (such as authority to have sewers and schools). However, it doesn't require us to have these, so these measure are merely superfluous and doesn't restrict or direct the town in any way. A major focus seems to be on the Mayor position. Clearly this has been a concern for the rest of the Council. When I was Mayor, then-Councilmember Bill Lusk (with the apparent support and encouragement of the rest of the Council) went to our state legislative delegation to change the way Planning Commission members are appointed. This was done without my knowledge. Formerly, the Mayor appointed these members. This was essentially the ONLY specific power that the Mayor had. However, I and I believe all my predecessors have done so with the advice and consent of the rest of the Council, even though that wasn't required by law (as it was with all other boards and commissions). Certainly every appointment I made was done after consulting with all the other council members and were all affirmed with a unanimous vote.

In the interest of democracy I agreed to go along once I found out about this however, if I had known that the law passed by Rep. Floyd and Senator Watson ONLY applied to Signal Mountain and not the rest of the state, I would not have done so. Clearly any changes in our charter (even removing a comma) requires a vote from and the time and attention of the state legislature and therefore I believe should only be done for significant changes. Removing irrelevant or outdated passages without any effect are probably not worth taking up their time. Generally changes in the charter should be recommended by a committee of citizens with much input from the general public and I think if we make any more changes, this is the way it should be done. Among the changes Ms. Robertson seems to want to make are removing references to "the Mayor and Council" on issues such as receiving the oath of office and replacing it with "all Councilmembers". Currently "the Mayor or a majority of the council" can call for special meetings, she wants to make this only "a majority of council" and remove the reference to the Mayor. I don't know what her issue is with the Mayor's position. The others on the council have commented about a "future mayor" (this was when I was Mayor) becoming too powerful! The Mayor of Signal Mountain is elected every two years by a majority of the council! The Mayor is a creature of the Council and obviously, as recent history has shown, would be unwise to oppose or become too independent of the majority of the council if he/she wants to remain Mayor. With all the things that this council and our state legislature has on it plate at present, making these changes does not seem like a good use of their time and I see no reason to pursue them. I did suggest that Ms. Robertson use these suggestions as part of her platform when she runs for re-election in the fall.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I would like to briefly cover the issues involved with the proposed sidewalk down James Blvd. The town received a grant some years ago for this sidewalk, portions of which have already been built from the library out towards Thrasher and from Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church to Maryland. This grant is specific for this stretch of road and cannot be applied elsewhere, so we are basically in a "use it there or lose it" situation.

The first decision for us is whether the sidewalk needs to be built or not. Not building it would mean giving up the rest of the grant, although I have no need to just spend money (even "free" money... and, yes, I know that federal tax dollars are still tax dollars) unless it is needed and wanted. Frankly, I think that the majority opinion at this point, at least from the mail I've received is in favor of building the sidewalk. This will, however involve an investment by the town of $50,000 over and above the amount of the grant, so this decision should be taken carefully.

The second decision involves the technical details of where to put the sidewalk. At present, we have an engineering firm looking at these details. The public meeting planned for Feb. 3 will be an opportunity for the public to review these details and give input to the engineers about what needs to be considered in placing the sidewalk. My understanding is that we have inadequate right of way to place the sidewalk across the street from the country club, but I expect this issue to be answered more formally, through a survey if necessary. There also are issues of utilities, etc.

One side issue involves the "ownership" of the Country Club land. While technically the land is owned by the town and leased to the club, my understanding of the deed is that, if the country club ceases operation the land will revert to the original owners and therefore be available for residential or maybe even commercial development. I don't think that is the best outcome for the town, so I believe it is desirable that the country club remain viable. I have no interest in harming their interests as a business.

The final issue for me involves safety. While the trees the country club planted may not be the best solution and are not a perfect solution, I believe they do a fairly good job of preventing line drive golf balls from endangering pedestrians and vehicles on James. I realize there are controversies about the original approval and planting of the trees, but frankly that is water under the bridge. We are where we are and we have to move forward from here. While I never like the idea of cutting down trees needlessly, I do not see this as an "environmental" issue per se and arguments in that direction are not particularly persuasive. However, back to the issue of safety, I will not be able to support a sidewalk along the Country Club unless the engineers can assure me that pedestrians can walk safely on it. I am sure that if it is built along the country club side, some trees will need to be removed, but I am hopefuly that some solution will be found that will allow a sidewalk to be built safely and still protect the interests of the club. This might involve a fence, a hedge, a net or some similar precaution. These are not necessarily mutually opposite outcomes. However, the devil (as always) will be in the details. I hope that our citizens will keep an open mind and that we do not get into choosing up sides on this issue. Let's try to work together for the best interests of the whole town. This will probably involve compromises by all interested parties, but I think it can be done.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A brief note in case you were planning to attend the Planning Commission meeting tonight (Thursday, Jan 21). The developers requesting rezoning of the property behind the shopping center and between Lancaster and Cauthon Way have requested a postponement, so there will be no vote tonight. It is tentatively rescheduled for Feb. 4.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The issue of animal control has obviously raised concerns. I want to address those concerns. First, I want to be clear that my intent and I believe the intent of the council is to use East Ridge as our primary animal control agency (we should get a final word on this very soon). This is a very low-kill shelter, similar to the Humane Education Society we have used in the past. Town Manager Honna Rogers negotiated an arrangement with Cleveland as a back-up, but the numbers of animals sent to shelters from Signal Mountain is so low that I hope it will not be needed. This would only be stray animals picked up whose owners can't be found and only if East Ridge is unavailable. Since we have averaged less than 10 animals a year in this category, I doubt we would need this fall-back. All stray animals delivered to either facility by the town must be held at least 72 hours before adoption or euthanasia.

As to animals surrendered by owners, you would not be required to take these to East Ridge or Cleveland. There are many shelters that will accept such animals. Signal Mountain will no longer pay for this to be done for free, however. You will need to pay a fee wherever you take them. Since animals voluntarily surrendered are not required to be held for 72 hours, I would advise animal owners to do some research before dropping them off. If you find a stray in town, you can contact police dispatch for a free pick-up, but to be honest, I'm not sure if that would fall under the 72 hour rule.

I confess that the arrangement with Cleveland was a surprise to me which I have not personally investigated, but it was always presented as a "last chance" back-up arrangement and we may make similar arrangements with other towns and under those circumstances I support them. We did visit the East Ridge facility and were very impressed with it.

Thank you for all the input and passion. Obviously, the best solution to all of this is for owners to keep their pets under control (ie, follow the leash law) and to be sure they have identification, ideally a microchip id. We have talked in the past with local vets about "volume discounts" or special arrangements for these and if there were a lot of interest in the town, I would certainly support trying to arrange something with our local veterinarians.

I will be reviewing all these arrangements with the town manager try to keep everyone updated on these arrangements. My goal all along has been to provide quality and humane animal control at a reasonable cost to the town. Our current contract with the Humane Education Society, I believe is excessively expensive. If anyone wishes to raise voluntary funds for better arrangements, I will be happy to personally contribute. If anyone has ideas of other facilities we could use, please let us know (we did have talks with McKamey, but they couldn't help us). Thanks again for all the feedback, it helps me do a better job.

Friday, January 08, 2010

I have spent a bit of time on this blog expressing my frustrations with the direction and governing style of the majority on the Town Council. However, in spite of this there are still many wonderful things happening in this town. I recently attended a meeting of the MACC Board. As you know, we have major structural problems with the roof of the MACC and the building is closed for safety issues until these problems can be fixed. I was very pleased that the Council unanimously voiced its support for repairing the building. Our new MACC Director, Barb Storm is working with other town staff to put together the specifications needed to bid out this project. While no decision on funding has been reached, the general discussion has been around using a bond issue. Among the advantages of this approach is that interest rates remain low. Also, I remain hopeful that much of this can be paid for through voluntary contributions rather than a need for any extra tax revenue. A yearly payment on a bond issue would provide a great focus for such contributions and the Friends of MACC are currently stepping up to the plate with great plans for increased fundraising. The enthusiasm of this board is infectious and sure to raise anyone's spirits. Laurie Buchanan has applied for an open position on the board and I expect her to be enthusiastically supported by the Council on Monday. This remains a major bright spot in our town, among many. Our town is a much better place to live because of the enthusiastic volunteerism of its citizens.

In addition, I realize that I go on about our town staff, but with good reason. With the current "snow situation", our staff has again risen to the occasion with employees actually spending the night at the transfer station to be sure that the roads were open for the early morning commute. A recent water pipe break near Alexian brought out our excellent water department working late in the freezing cold to repair this problem. So, next time you see a town employee, give them a hug (or at least a wave!).

From time to time I try to go back to my original "campaign" website to refocus on why I ran for this position. I became a physician because I enjoy helping people and I became a town councilmember for the same reason. I was warned when I ran that I would be deluged with calls demanding various things. I can say that I have never been "deluged" with calls, that nearly all my contacts with our town's citizens (my friends and neighbors) have been respectful and civil and that nothing gives me greater pleasure as a councilmember than to help a fellow citizen steer their way through the bureaucracy. Certainly sometimes the answer I have to bring back is "no", but at least if I can get them an answer I feel I have done a service. Like medicine, government is a service industry and, while we can't be all things to all people, if we lose sight of that fact then we don't deserve to be here. So, in my last year on the council I pledge to refocus on service, continue to do all I can to improve this town, keep our citizens informed about what's going on and hopefully to leave an easier job to whoever may succeed me on the council. Even with the current frustrations and disappointments, it is still a great honor to serve and I will never regret asking for and receiving the trust placed on me by the people of this town.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


CORRECTION! I mentioned our contract with the "Humane Society" in my last blog and referred to them as "HSUS". That acronym is for the Humane Society of the United States. The local organization is called the Humane Education Society. I don't know if they are affiliated in anyway, but I should clarify that our contract is with this local group. Their website is:

I should also state that I have no problems with this organization, wish them well and encourage anyone who so desires to donate to them. However, as a public official with responsibility for your tax dollars it is my responsibility to get the best "bang for the buck" I can and I believe our new arrangements will be much more cost-effective. I appreciate the reader who brought this to my attention so I could clarify and correct it.

Monday, January 04, 2010

I just finished one of our Agenda meetings today. Some good news and some unfortunate news. At our last meeting, we had informally agreed to reappoint 2 members to the Design Review Commission, Chair Greg Goodgame and architect Jay Caughman. Then, at our regular meeting in December, Mayor Lusk stated that since that previous meeting, several more applications had come in and moved to table the resolutions to reappoint them. I protested since there was at least one other opening and another likely opening (which has since occurred due to resignation). I stated that with 3 and probably 4 positions to fill, it made sense to retain our current experienced members (including the chair) and then fill the other two openings with new members. However, the motion to table passed. At today's meeting, it was clear that the decision was already made. Mr. Lusk wasn't present (he is apparently at his beach house in Florida for the holidays), but had sent recommendations for three new members (he wasn't aware the fourth opening had occurred). I again suggested that we retain our two experienced members and appoint two new people. However, my motion to reappoint Greg was defeated for lack of a second (ie, noone else supported it). Jay Caughman was recommended for reappointment along with three others (this will be formalized at our meeting on Monday). I abstained on several of these votes out of protest and not out of any opposition to any specific individual. This is a continuation of the moves by this council to eliminate anyone who has not been in lockstep with them. Most of you will recall that Greg ran for the Council in 2006, coming in 5th. After the 4th place finisher, Lolly Durant removed her name from consideration, Greg offered himself to replace Bob Linehart who had been recalled. Bill Lusk had also applied along with several others. I initially supported Greg for several reasons. He had been attending nearly every council meeting for several years and was very knowledgeable about the issues before the town. (Greg had actually been the person who had suggested to the council that the slow down the SROZ issue, about to be passed in the spring of that year, so that more citizens could become knowledgeable since he know it would be controversial. This allowed the whole "recall" movement to get going). In addition, I had many emails suggesting we should just appoint the next person "in line" from the election, which was Greg after Lolly dropped out. However, after two tied votes between Mr. Lusk and Mr. Goodgame, I decided to change my vote to prevent a divisive and expensive "special election". Greg did remain on the DRC for the next three years, indicating his continued commitment to the town which I appreciated. Nonetheless, he has now been removed in spite of his active participation and interest in continuing on the DRC. I find this continued move to remove anyone who is not a partisan of the council majority (along with Wells Blake just last month) to be highly regrettable and contrary to my own approach to town representation which is to have a diversity of views. Therefore I resigned as the Council liaison to the DRC. I certainly wish them well as we plan to put a lot of work on them in the next few months, but my influence is continuing to be minimized by this council so I can no longer be of any service in that capacity.

In other business, we approved a new cable contract with Comcast which should benefit the town. Hopefully, EPB will now agree to the same terms so that competition can finally come to Signal Mountain. We also agreed to pay Ann Coulter's firm just over $25,000 to conduct a review of our commercial design regulations and the current environment, including conducting a public meeting for input, then work with the DRC to develop new guidelines for future commercial development. While the cost is unpleasant in this fiscal environment, the need is there and the timing is forced on us by the pressure for more commercial development between the proposed Signal Plaza expansion, SMMS and other potential commercial proposals, so I supported it reluctantly. We also approved $727 to fix some playground equipment at Norris Field (on Signal Road).

One very positive element is our animal control situation. As Mayor and a new councilmember, I was astounded to find that we were paying over $36,000 a year to the Humane Society (HSUS) for animal control which has consisted of picking up less than 10 animals per year which had usually already been caught by our police. I pushed hard to develop a new arrangement. We had cancelled our contract with HSUS once, but an agreement we had tentatively worked out with East Ridge fell through, so we went back to HSUS. However now, through the hard work of our Town Manager, Honna Rogers and our Police Chief, Boyd Veal, we should have a new agreement soon using private contractors and the animal shelters of two other towns. This will save the town a LOT of money. The one downside for citizens is that, if you need to "drop off" an unwanted animal at a shelter, you will probably need to pay a fee now, however I do not feel it is the responsibility of the tax payers to pay for this service for individuals.

Well, that's the latest. Please feel free to post comments and your own thoughts. I would love for this to be a multi-way dialogue rather than just a one-way lecture! I hope to hear from you all, soon.