Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Signal Mountain Town Council and the sign ordinance

Before I launch into local politics, I wanted to thank everyone who came out for the coffee house last Saturday. We had a great turnout. My group played for the first hour, then Zach Laliberte brought his unique perspective to the receptive audience. If you weren't there, you missed a great show, but can still pick-up his CD at After these two performances, we had open mike with performances by the two Sawyer brothers, Joe Laliberte, original tunes by Robert Thatcher and myself with some bass back-up by Alan Moss among others. Next coffee house will be July 31, again at Sweet Gipsy opening with John Harper and his band, Brownhaven, followed by Tarbell Patton. Jennifer at Sweet Gipsy is working on some dinner specials to compliment the evening, so stay tuned!

My group, the Orchard Band will be appearing at noon at the Lion's Club July 4th picnic at Althaus Park (on Monday July 5) and again on Friday, July 9 at 6:30 on the lawn at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church (or inside if weather threatens).

This past Monday we had our monthly council "agenda" meeting. Four council members were present as Annette Allen is spending the bulk of the summer at her place in New York where her husband works. Most of the meeting was pretty routine. We passed the budget on second reading. We were required to hold a public hearing for the budget which we had on Monday. No one from the public attended. I commented that in the future we should hold our budget public hearings at a regular Monday night meeting. While the budget was apparently non-controversial (I have had no comments from any citizens and there was no tax increase), I think it doesn't look particularly good to hold a public hearing on a Monday morning when most people are at work.

The one potentially controversial issue was a change in the sign ordinance. This was presented by Susan Robertson as a first reading. Since the agenda meetings were originally established to set the agenda for our regular Monday evening meetings and for discussion and routine business, on principal I did not think this was the proper time for this sort of issue. Susan assured us that these were minor changes and she may be right. However, I know that the sign ordinance has been a source of continuing aggravation from the local business community. I have wanted to have the DRC work with the Mountain Business Association and local businesses to revise it and make it more user friendly. While this proposal may have been a minor fix, I don't think it sends the right message of openness and cooperation to our local merchants. I recommended we table the ordinance until our regular meeting in two weeks. Ms. Robertson seemed to think this was too important to wait 2 weeks in spite of it supposedly being a minor fix. However, my motion to table was seconded by Mayor Lusk and I was gratified that the council agreed to table and therefore postpone this until it could be more adequately vetted by the business community with Ms. Robertson eventually going along. I think this was the right thing to do on principal.

Frankly, this may turn out to be a minor and non-controversial change, but since I don't run a business up here, I have never presumed to speak for the local merchants or tell them how to run their businesses, only to work hard to see that their voice is heard. I have always believed that regulations are appropriate to the degree that they protect the general public, but I feel they should be reasonable and clear. It should be easy for a business to come to this town. Our regulations should be clear enough that, if a business follows them their process should go like greased lightning. They should also be reasonable and consistent and not based on the personal whims and opinions of individual DRC and Town Council members.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

MACC Coffeehouse returns this Saturday!

The MACC Coffeehouse returns this Saturday, June 26. While the roof is still being repaired, Sweet Gipsy coffee shop ( has graciously agreed to continue to host this event. This Saturday we will open at 7pm and go until 10-ish.

At 7, we will open with my trio, The Orchard Band featuring Alice and Robert Thatcher along with myself doing an eclectic set of folk-rock standards from the 60's and 70's and beyond!

At 8, former Signal Mountain resident Zach Laliberte will be performing his songs. You can find out more about Zach at his website I have heard him and he is quite good and a pleasure to listen to.

At 9 we will open up the stage for the traditional open mike/jam featuring any musicians who want to come, bring their instrument and play either solo or with the group.

So come on out, sample some of Sweet Gipsy's coffee and treats and enjoy some local music. There is no cover charge.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Recent town council meeting and Signal Mountain business issues

Our latest Town Council meeting was this past Monday, June 14. There were several major issues on the agenda. One was an appeal of a decision by the Design Review Commission (DRC). I have long had concerns that the DRC's guidelines were too vague and that the sign ordinance was too restrictive. We have done several things over my term to try to help and support the DRC while requesting that they do a comprehensive review of these guidelines, many of which date back to the early '90's and are contradictory and unnecessarily vague leading to capricious decisions based on personal opinions of members rather than adherence to town guidelines.

There is a new business trying to open on Signal Mountain at the location of the old CVS. It is a restaurant called "Guthrie's Chicken" which is a franchise owned by local Signal Mountain residents. They have run into several regulatory hurdles from the town and WWTA and I have tried to help them through these issues. Their portion of their meeting with the DRC lasted over 2 hours and led to several decisions that they needed to appeal, one involving a logo required by their corporate office and one involving an admittedly awkward location for their drive-through. To make a long story short, I was highly gratified that the council decided to overrule the DRC and approve the items as appealed. This was after some discussion back and forth between Guthrie's and town staff and included give and take on both sides. It involved a drive-through setup with no perfect solution and I appreciate the council deciding to err on the side of supporting local business. While the process was unnecessarily long and tedious, I was glad it led to a positive outcome.

I should emphasize that I do not have a problem with reasonable regulations (reasonable being an admittedly loaded word). However, I feel that such regulations should be clear and precise and easy to interpret so that a building can follow them. If a business then follows the guidelines, their process of starting a business up here should be smooth and easy. I realize that no regulations can be perfect and account for every condition. That is where the DRC can be helpful and I have seen them work with a business to advise them on their signs or design in a cooperative fashion. They should also advise the council when they think their guidelines (which are town ordinances) need revision. However, no commission or councilmember should insert their personal opinions for or against business decisions that they just don't like or agree with.

Finally, there was an announcement from Hershel Dick that he would not run for re-election and from Susan Robertson that she would run to stay on the council. So the town council election, to be held Tuesday, Nov. 2, will have three seats up for election. So far, Susan Robertson is the only candidate who has announced. I have heard from one or two folks thinking of running, but noone else has announced yet. Decisions need to be made soon. The deadline for submitting your application to run (you have to get a small number of voters to sign a petition) is August 19. If anyone has any questions about the process of running or what's involved in serving, I would be happy to talk with them.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and some random political thoughts...

The League of Signal Mountain Voters met on Saturday, June 12. Dr. Clif Cleaveland led a discussion of the recent health care reform bill with 14 interested citizens. It was an informative presentation with questions and discussion which was polite and respectful showing Signal Mountain's citizens at their best.

Dr. Cleaveland gave some perspective and background, pointed out facts about health care delivery in the United States, based both on his research and extensive experience as a long-practicing physician. He pointed out the need for more coverage, more coordination of care, better cost-containment and the need for people to live healthier lives. We discussed issues of malpractice and defensive medicine, compared America's system with several other countries. He layed out the timeline for implementation of the various aspects of the Act over the next 4 years. He recommended a website for further research:

I hope to have our next meeting in July or August. I had originally hoped to have a candidate forum with the candidates for the District 2 County Commission race, but as you know I have been essentially stonewalled by the two candidates. I hope that some sort of forum will occur. I find that many people are still not even aware that there is a race (they thought Fields won the race by winning the primary and don't even know there is an independent candidate) and certainly seem unaware of the candidates' positions. While I encourage people to go to the candidates websites, I also strongly urge people to ask some hard questions of the candidates. They have encourage you call them and both have phone numbers and email addresses on their websites and in the Signal Mountain Guild phonebook. Both candidates have a site on Facebook.

Jim Fields' website is: . Mr. Fields also highlights his involvement in this organization:

Mr. Fields makes no mention of education on his website that I can find, even though this has been an important issue on Signal Mountain and figured prominently in our forum with him and Dr. Casavant in May. He made a mention of the importance of paying attention to private schools and home-schooling, but didn't elaborate on how that relates to the County Commission position. He also looks to balance the budget with budget cuts, but is unable to provide specifics. He supports term limits, but doesn't specify how many terms he would serve. I would encourage voters to press him on these points.

David Cantrell's website is: . Mr. Cantrell is running as an independent, though I understand he voted in the Democratic Primary in 2006 and 2008. He moved here in 2005, so I don't know if he had any political involvement prior to that. He does have a statement on his website in support of public education, though I have a hard time squaring this with his active support of Joe Dumas in the School Board race 2 years ago (his wife was Joe's campaign treasurer). Since he wasn't here for the various votes that allowed the high school to be built here, I think it is important to ask for more specifics about just how he would support public education and whether he would have supported building the high school up here or whether he agreed with Joe Dumas' active and vocal opposition to the high school. Interestingly, Joe Dumas endorsed Jim Fields in the Republican Primary.

I do want to remind everyone to vote on August 5 or during early voting (July 16 - July 31). I also want to remind everyone that the Signal Mountain Town Council elections will be November 2. As you know, I am not running for re-election and at this point, Hershel Dick has not decided if he is running or not. Susan Robertson apparently is running for re-election. Anyone interested in running needs to file their petition by Thursday, August 19 at 12noon. So, if anyone has thought about serving their community, this would be a good year with at least one open seat on the council. Feel free to contact me for information or go to: The last council election was uncontested which is never a good thing in a democracy.

Monday, June 07, 2010

MACC Roof and public input

On June 4 we had our monthly "agenda meeting". Most of this was routine. An engineer (James Cawthorne) presented details on planned improvements in water supply to our water customers down near the "space house" and Loretta Hopper reported on research on traffic calming devices like rumble strips. We also discussed an exciting proposal from a private company to do curbside recycling for a monthly fee but with "rebates" in the form of reward points based on amount recycled. We are researching this further, also.

Another issue which came up was one I thought of as minor though it created quite a stir from the rest of the council. However, it does bring up the broader issue of the role of our various town commissions and boards. We have many such boards and this council has expanded the numbers of boards over the last 3 1/2 years. It is my opinion that these boards are a valuable way to get citizens involved directly in town activities and provide valuable public input on specific issues as representatives of the town. While the town council obviously has final authority and responsibility to decide, I have always felt that input from citizen boards on issues pertinent to their area of interest should be strongly considered. Sometimes, it is valuable to try to hold large public hearings for citizen input, but doing this on too many issues can lead to paralysis.

The specific issue being considered was the project to replace the roof on the Mountain Arts Community Center. This roof was originally slate, but over time has been mostly replaced with shingles. The architect planning this project presented the idea of using a dark, brick red color which he felt would compliment the mountain stone facade. He presented this to town staff who liked the idea. Frankly, I was initially dubious, but after seeing a picture of the what the MACC would look like I was intrigued. I then was up in Nashville visiting the Hermitage and saw several old service building from the 20's and 30's with similar roofs and realized how attractive they were and that this would be an historic look and I became supportive. The staff then took it to the appropriate town committees. This was approved unanimously by the MACC Board. The MACC Foundation, formerly known as Friends of MACC, is not an official "town" board, but they reviewed the idea and approved it (I think there was one dissenting vote). Finally, the project went before the town Design Review Committee where it was also approved unanimously and, as I understand it with minimal controversy or discussion. My understanding was that the council liaison, Susan Robertson even raised no objections at that time. Nonetheless, with the shingles on order for this past Tuesday, Annette Allen went to the town manager over the Memorial Day holiday to ask for a public hearing process to approve this change and sent an email to the council. Bill Lusk emailed that the town should go ahead and replace the roof with his own personal choice of color for the roof based on the previous color instead of the one approved by the multiple committees. We delayed the process until the end of the week when our meeting was scheduled. This meeting was well-attended by members of the MACC Board, MACC Foundation and DRC and MACC Board chairman Bill Wallace made a presentation on the process of making this decision and asking why the council disagreed. The other members of the council stated that they thought it wouldn't be accepted by the public. When I pointed out that nearly 100% of the "public" on these three committees had supported it, I was told that they (the committees) were not representative of the "public" because they were "artsy" people and better educated than the general citizenry of Signal Mountain. I obviously objected strenuously and made a motion to accept the recommendation of the architect, staff, MACC Board, MACC Foundation and DRC. This motion was rejected 1-4. So, the MACC will have a grey roof (decided on by the council majority without any further public input). Since the price of shingles was supposed to go up 5-7% the next week, the various committees present asked the council to move forward rather than drag this out any longer with further public hearings.

Obviously, this view of "citizen input" disagrees with my view. In our last meeting, we were presented with a budget item to replace the floor in the gym. This was a high priority from the Recreation Committee and was recommended by our staff (including the Recreation Director and Town Manager). The Council decided to take this item out of the budget. I recommended we meet with the Rec Board to better understand the need, but was overrulled with Hershel Dick in particular being very adamant that we should not have the board talking to us about budget items and that only staff should have input. Bill Lusk stated at our next meeting that he had "shot a few hoops" in the gym that morning and decided the floor did not need replacement. Again, I would have preferred a more open process with input from the citizen committee which has responsibility and particular interest in this area. A final example involves the MACC Board once again when they recently had some questions about the salary and employment agreement of the MACC Director and Mr. Dick asked Honna Rogers to inform the MACC Board that the director "works for the town, not for them". I pointed out that, frankly I considered the citizens to be the town and that we, the Council and all the staff work for "them".  This is my opinion.

I would urge citizens to give thought to our various committees and their responsibilities (and the amount of time that citizens volunteer for these committees) and let the council know if they are comfortable with these boards representing them.