Apr 27 2012

During the ten years or so we have lived in the City of Alcoa, we have found city government to be open and responsive. From building a home here to dealing with routine issues that arise from time to time, we have dealt with just about every city department (except, thankfully, the fire department), and have always found the city's employees and department heads to be qualified, highly professional and forthright.

Recently, though, we have experienced some frustration with the city administration regarding large scale projects with wide-reaching impacts on the community.

Starting with the Alcoa Highway bypass project and now with the West Plant Town Center impact on the Springbrook community, the city seems to be taking an "our way or the highway" approach (or, more accurately, "our way IS the highway.")

(See here for an overview of the bypass project issues, and here for an overview of issues with the Town Center project.)

The city administration is making plans based on short-sighted decisions with long-term negative impacts to the community, and they are reluctant to consider citizen input that might be contrary to the predetermined outcome.

In fact, they have become openly hostile. One city official accused Springbrook community organizers of being "unethical" and trying to "rig the vote" on a preferred access route for the Town Center development. When asked for copies of public comments about the proposals, a city official refused, accusing organizers of wanting to carry out "vendettas" against those who agreed with the city's preference. Another city official told a resident she was "out of line" when she tried to clarify his remarks at a public meeting about the project.

This is not the hallmark of good local government.

To their credit, the city is seeking public input on the projects (as required by state and federal law on the bypass project, and presumably in the public interest on the Town Center project). They're just not listening when they don't like what they hear.

There are also concerns about the apparent lack of any detailed planning or organization, particularly with the Town Center project. And the bypass project keeps changing, even after "final" approval by state and federal officials. Questions are met with misleading and inconsistent public information, which does not inspire confidence.

Part of the reason for this may be complacency. Alcoa has had basically the same Board of Commissioners and Mayor for decades. The long-time City Manager, who has virtually unlimited powers, serves at the pleasure of the Board of Commissioners and is answerable only to them, not voters.

The elected, part-time Commissioners are ultimately responsible for approval and oversight, but are not generally involved in the city's day to day planning and operations, which are the responsibility of the unelected City Manager who is generally well-regarded in the community. They routinely "rubber stamp" city business with little or no deliberation.

Commissioners rarely draw opposition at election time, and city voter turnout is historically low, suggesting general satisfaction with the way things are being run.

It's possible that city officials are surprised that citizens are organizing, speaking up and questioning their decisions. Maybe they're not quite sure what to do.

This is an opportunity for the Mayor and Board of Commissioners to lead. It's an opportunity for them to speak up and communicate their vision for the community beyond just chamber of commerce approved soundbites in the local paper.

Moreover, it's an opportunity for Commissioners to represent the community that elected them instead of developers in Chattanooga, asphalt suppliers in Knoxville and road builder lobbyists in Nashville.

Failing that, perhaps it's time for a change in leadership.

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