A majority of the Oak Ridge City Council candidates said they would consider running for mayor or vice mayor if elected on Tuesday, and almost all supported the incentives recommended for the proposed redevelopers of the former Oak Ridge Mall.
The candidates were mixed on whether to bring back red-light cameras, and most seemed to think the city’s property tax rate is about right, in light of current budget needs.
Asked to grade the current Council as leaders, the candidates handed out grades ranging from “A” to “F.”
In a series of recent forums, the candidates generally advocated for better communication between the City Council and Oak Ridge Board of Education and, for the most part, seemed to be in favor of taking over Clark Center Park in south Oak Ridge, although their approvals would hinge on factors such as cost and property restrictions.
There are 10 candidates running for four seats on the seven-member Council in Tuesday’s election. Two of the incumbents—Anne Garcia Garland and David Mosby—are seeking re-election—and two others—Mayor Tom Beehan and Mayor Pro Tem Jane Miller—are not.
Many consider it a critical election, with a business boom under way and major projects on the horizon, including the proposed redevelopment of the mall and the planned $6.5 billion Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 National Security Complex.
The new Council is expected to elect a new mayor and mayor pro tem (like a vice mayor) during its next meeting after Tuesday’s election.
Here is a look at some of what the candidates said during the recent forums.
Asked about the city’s greatest challenge, candidates cited issues ranging from aging infrastructure and housing to a relative lack of middle-class families and a need to attract more potential residents, including a larger percentage of employees who work at U.S. Department of Energy sites in Oak Ridge but don’t live here.
Candidate Rick Chinn, who said he entered the race after witnessing a lack of decorum and leadership at a City Council meeting a few months ago, said only 17 percent of DOE employees live in Oak Ridge.
“That’s just unbelievable,” Chinn said. “We’ll have to fix that.”
He cited the city’s positive attributes, including parks, the Oak Ridge Playhouse, and the Children’s Museum.
“What we need to do is make this a great place to live,” Chinn said. “We should be proud of this town.”
The city needs more than just great schools, candidate Eric Tobler said, and officials have to “pull together.”
“We need a clear goal, an attainable goal,” Tobler said. “That pride in ownership can start right here, right now.”
Former Council member and current candidate Ellen Smith said the city may need a marketing study to determine why people who work here don’t live here.
Smith also suggested the marketing study could be used to understand the demographics and concerns of young adults in their 20s and 30s who might not find Oak Ridge homes to be attractive.
“We’re losing a lot of people,” Smith said, although she added that it’s not clear how the study would be funded.
Candidate Warren Gooch said city officials need to promote Oak Ridge every day.
Mosby said Oak Ridge has wonderful opportunities, including the planned UPF, and a big challenge will be how to manage the expected growth and ensure it is positive.
Candidate Kelly Callison said there is a deficit of residents between 24 and 35 years old, and he proposed villages in areas such as Grove Center, Jackson Square, and the former Oak Ridge Mall area.
“That would be an attraction to people,” said Callison, who, like Tobler, has advocated for a city vision.
“I truly believe that Oak Ridge is on the cusp of a renaissance,” said Callison, who has emphasized schools, housing, and retail and commercial development.
The candidates were asked how they would increase sales tax revenues. Garcia Garland said the city has been doing what it can, encouraging retail development and approving tax increment financing, known as a TIF, for the redevelopment of the former Oak Ridge Mall.
“There are limited things we can do except encourage,” she said.
Gooch said the Oak Ridge Recreation and Parks Department and Oak Ridge Convention and Visitors Bureau should work together to attract athletic and recreational events and festivals. The city needs sporting events throughout the year, Gooch said. The baseball complex has been closed six months, and that’s bad business and bad policy, he said.
Candidate Gary Love proposed pods—places where residents could go to pick up supplies like milk, for example—in areas across town from the west end to Grove Center to Jackson Square to the former Food Lion shopping center.
“We have to sell ourselves,” Love said.
Chinn advocated for recruiting young families, and Smith suggested building demand for retail, among other things.
A few candidates were asked if they would consider providing new tax revenues to the Oak Ridge Schools.
Gooch said every budget year stands on its own, and economic conditions at the time, including those that affect the city’s residents, need to be considered.
“Certainly, we need to be competitive,” Gooch said. “But you can’t automatically say you will raise taxes. You can’t automatically say you won’t.”
“I struggle with this question a lot,” said Mosby, who said he would need to understand all the conditions. “The schools are very important.”
Candidate Pedro Otaduy, who clashed with former colleagues on the Oak Ridge Beer Permit Board before the City Council removed him last year, may have drawn the clearest line on taxes.
“We cannot raise those taxes more,” said Otaduy, who also raised concerns about the Council’s recent 6-1 decision to extend the mall TIF from 20 years to 30. “We need to be frugal.”
Candidate Aditya “Doc” Savara, who has advocated for bringing back a putt-putt golf course and adding recycling at apartments, questioned library spending.
“There is a ton of money going to waste,” Savara said.
Several candidates described the city as being at a crossroads.
“I am confident that our best days are ahead of us,” Gooch said. “If we work together, our future can be bright.”
Look at the changes in downtown Knoxville in the past five years, Chinn said. All it takes is vision and bringing people together, he said.
For more information on the candidates in Tuesday’s election, please visit our 2014 Election section.