Rules of the Road

The purpose of this blog is to share with you my thoughts on issues pertaining to Oil City and Venango County and to foster discussion.

However, that requires some basic rules. Personal attacks, inappropriate language and venom-filled postings will not be tolerated. Comments will be screened, and if necessary edited, before posting.

Disagreement and a variety of opinions are encouraged, but I ask that it always be in a respectful, positive manner. So fire away, but do so cleanly

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Approach & an assistant city manager's title

You probably read in Wednesday’s paper the move by some council members to eliminate the position of assistant city manager and that I voted against the motion.

First, I think the approach was deeply flawed. The issue was brought up at the last minute as addition to the published agenda; and not for general discussion, but for the purpose of voting on a motion “directing the city manager to draft a resolution eliminating the assistant manager’s position.”

I strongly believe that the appropriate way to raise such issues is to inform council and residents of the city at a public meeting that you would like discussion of a certain subject, etc. placed on the agenda for a future meeting. That way, everyone knows what will be coming up and there will be no surprises, no one will feel blindsided and the public has the opportunity to respond proactively and not after the fact.

Furthermore, I strongly believe there should be general discussion prior to development of a specific directive to the city manager, ordinance, or other item. The idea should be to allow for as broad as input as possible early rather than later.

At the council meeting I asked the maker of the motion to amend it to simply place discussion of the position on the agenda for the following meeting. I would have supported that and been willing to argue the merits for the position at the appropriate time. My request was refused.

The approach taken offends me, which I let my fellow members of council know on Monday, just as did the approach taken calling a special meeting on the Administrative Code, which came in the form of a letter rather than at a public meeting.

Frankly, doing things that way strikes me as bully tactics and it makes hard for me to trust some fellow members of council. I don’t think that is good for the city.

As for the call to eliminate the position, which is only eliminating the title, I don’t get.

The assistant city manager’s position is just one of many hats worn by Janet Gatesman, who among other things is also the director of Community Development. It costs the city nothing and is a cheap way to ensure continuity in the event of illness or any other absence of the city manager. Perhaps more importantly, I think it allows for better coordination at the highest administrative levels of the city.

Those who oppose the title claim it takes focus away from community and economic development. I don’t believe it, and I find that argument somewhat specious. I can’t help but wonder if there is not something else all together behind it.

And finally, the city faces huge issues such as the parking garage, long-overdue capital improvements and purchases, blight, declining tax base, etc. etc. Why are we creating controversies where there is no need? Sometimes, even if you don’t like something or want to change something, the best thing to do is to let it go and get on with more important things.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Frustrating absurdities and links with seeds

There is a cut-stone culvert probably better than a century old that carries a small stream and storm sewer collection beneath West First Street, a state highway. It is in danger of collapsing, a problem discovered quite by chance. The City of Oil City is responsible for its repair or replacement.

If that culvert was a mile further west where West First Street turns into Deep Hollow Road at the Cranberry Township line, the responsibility for its repair or replacement would fall on the state.

For some inexplicable reason, the state requires cities to pick up more costs for under-road infrastructure than it does of townships. That is an incredible additional burden for taxpayers in Pennsylvania’s cities, and means that in effect they are subsidizing their suburban neighbors.

I just learned of this and verified it with PennDOT officials.

The playing field needs to be leveled if our cities are going to be able to compete and thrive, but I have no expectation that the state legislature will anytime soon do anything to address such inequities.

My other big frustrating absurdity in recent weeks is best summed up by quoting Dickens – although a bit out of context: “the law is an ass.”

A couple of years ago in response to growing concerns, the city adopted an ordinance placing a number of restrictions on the operation of outdoor woodburners.

A city resident, unhappy with the restrictions, built a shed around his outdoor woodburner, claiming it was no longer an “outdoor” woodburner. District Judge Doug Dinberg ruled in favor of that interpretation.

Understand, the woodburner was installed as an outdoor woodburner, sold as an outdoor woodburner, advertised by the manufacturer as an outdoor woodburner and many outdoor woodburners now come with a metal, shed-like covering.

I’m no judge or lawyer, but ruling that by putting a shed up around an outdoor woodburner makes it something else entirely flies in the face of reason.

I suspect council will quickly amend the ordinance to prevent such sidestepping of its intent.

A person who commented on my previous blog post put up a link to an interesting article I thought worth sharing, along with a couple of others I’ve come across in recent weeks.

I think all three might contain at least seeds for thought that can be helpful to Oil City.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Zoning Discussions

Council has blocked off a half-hour at tonight’s meeting (7-26) to begin some serious discussion on a totally revamped zoning ordinance for the city.

This is a critical issue and of great importance to all residents, whether they know it or not. I personally believe zoning can be a tool to help prevent deterioration of neighborhoods, spur development and ensure the best and highest use of available land and in general create a more viable and pleasant community.

I know not everyone thinks like that.

The re-do of the zoning ordinance has been planned and is being done in conjunction with the multiple-municipal comprehensive plan, although it is a separate project. As such, there has already been some limited public discussion about changes, notably to “up-zoning” several residential areas.

Currently we only have two residential categories: R-1 and R-2.

The R-1 district represents generally the area with the largest lots and newest developments. It is limited to single-family homes. The R-2 district is generally areas with smaller lots and allows for multi-family units.

I for one favor and I think there is consensus to creating additional R-1 districts (A-B etc. based on lot size) to bring several of the current R-2 neighborhoods into the single-family residence category. I believe this will tend to preserve several neighborhoods by making fewer rental units available and in a round-about way support home ownership. It is important to remember that the exhaustive study of county housing said strongly that additional lower-cost rental units are not needed in Oil City and in fact can be detrimental to the overall market.

Furthermore, it makes no sense to me why under our existing zoning categories we encourage transformation of single-family homes into two or more family rental units where the lots are the smallest and the parking issues often the greatest.

Currently we only have one industrial category and do not differentiate between heavy and light industry. The Industrial zones are located in a wide sweep along the river on the West End, East End, Siverly and downstream from Relief Street along Route 8. There is also an industrial zone along Oil Creek and extending along parts of Seneca Street and “inland” to Duncomb.

Much of what is zoned industrial on the southside has great potential for other uses and little industrial development potential. That needs to be changed. Furthermore, I think it would make sense to make the industrial zone in the West End light industrial to better reflect the adjoining property uses and what is actually there now.

I would like to see creation of a special “Waterfront” zoning category that would encourage residential development and recreational businesses, such as restaurants, etc. to best make use of the waterfronts. There needs to be a lot of thought given to what would be appropriate and how to use zoning to preserve viewscapes, etc.

The areas I would place in that “waterfront” zoning category include:
1) Between Route 62 and the river from Pumphouse Road to Veteran’s Bridge.
2) Everything on the river side of Front Street (perhaps North Street) from Petroleum Street to at least Blair Street and then extending on the river side of the old railroad right-of-way to the city line.
3. Colbert Avenue to the river out to the Industrial Park and then upstream of the Industrial Park to the end of Colbert and then all the remaining upstream property within the city.

Perhaps a “waterfront” area overlay for our downtown commercial districts would also be beneficial.

Obviously we need to take a look at the former hospital property, now zoned as residential office to see if the uses prescribed in that zoning category still fit.

Oil City does not have a lot of remaining undeveloped land, but for what we do have I think it would behoove us to explore zoning rules that provide for single-residence and townhouse condominium developments that are of growing popularity.

Council will have a lot to think about and the staff a lot of work as we develop a comprehensive zoning ordinance update. Our residents need to speak up and express their desires and concerns as well, and sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The State and Oil City

Make no mistake about it, the budget crisis facing the state is going to have a direct impact on Oil City and the region, and it is not likely to be good.

The question is how bad will it get?

We need to be prepared and we need to fight for those programs we think critical to our future.

Among the state programs high on my priority list are the Main Street Program and Weed and Seed.

In the budget proposals now floating around Harrisburg both are slated for significant cuts, in some proposals to virtual elimination. Both programs have had real success in local communities, revitalizing many of the state’s older cities. Oil City is poised to be a beneficiary, but will largely lose that opportunity if deep cuts are made to those programs, flushing countless hours of local work down the tubes.

The Oil City Weed and Seed program was just approved and funded by the state after months of local efforts to make it a reality. It makes no sense to me for the state to initiate the program and then cut it just as it begins to make a difference.

Main Street is much the same story. The community really came together to develop a Main Street Program application, including detailed five-year plans and raising more than $100,000 in local money to match and leverage state funding. We – the community – did our part in good faith. The state legislature needs to follow through.

I recognize the financial problems facing the state and nation. We are in an era of tough choices and we must get our fiscal house in order. But if we don’t save our communities what do we have?

I also recognize that I am like most and somewhat hypocritical when it comes to state and federal government programs. What benefits me and my community I view as essential, what benefits someone else’s community (especially if it is Philadelphia or Pittsburgh) is pork and waste.

We are all going to have to make compromises and that means a willingness to look at the needs of others.

And that comes back to prioritizing based on real needs and real value.

I wonder if our legislature is up to that or if this year will be like past years; simply Pennsylvania politics as usual – posturing for political gain, acting on personal animosities and a concern for “what can I get” rather than what will benefit the Commonwealth.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On Being Back and On Not being Snide

It’s been way too long since I’ve blogged – 11 weeks to be exact since I put up a new blog and seven since the last post on the subject.

A regular reader/commenter made that clear with the following note:

“John,Time for a new blog buddy.”

He’s absolutely right. And I need to make a commitment to blog more regularly. To do so you might see a slight change in format on occasion where I will put up more of random thoughts on a variety of topics, rather than focus on one basic subject. I might even veer off of government and local issues on occasion. But more than anything, I hope that all of you will participate, but remember the basic ground rules and understand that when the end of a subject is reached I reserve the right to call a halt so that we don’t simply continue going round and round.

So to get back in the saddle I thought I would write a bit about the writing exercise that runs in the Derrick on Fridays called the Spray.

Simply put, I don’t like it. I’m not sure what it is supposed to be or what purpose it is supposed to serve, but so often I find its comments snide.

Among the primary definitions of snide are: derogatory in a malicious, superior way; contemptuous; disdainful; supercilious. The secondary definitions include: counterfeit; sham.

(I might add that if I spoke or acted in any of those ways growing up it would have resulted in pretty serious lecture from my mum, if not also a crack on the rear. They are not admirable traits.)

I think both the primary and secondary definitions pretty much describe what is too often found in the Spray. Certainly, at least from my point of view, that was the case last Friday with a remark regarding the Main Street Program.

Main Street volunteers interviewed in a recent article said one way to brighten up the downtown would be to put up window displays in vacant buildings. They were not suggesting that as the ultimate idea or a long-term solution to our downtown’s ills, but simply a quick stop-gap measure that could clean things up a bit. It makes sense to me, both as a resident and a member of the Main Street Steering Committee.

But apparently the anonymous staff writer at the Derrick who commented in the Spray, which is always anonymous, did not think much of it, and did not put it in context. If you read the comment, you understand. I’m not going to bother repeating it because it isn’t worthy of repeating. I will say it was derogatory in a malicious, superior way contemptuous, disdainful, supercilious and counterfeit and sham -- in a word, SNIDE.

Positive and effective criticism is not snide. It is important and beneficial. It is how ideas and concepts are fully vetted and lead to the best outcome possible. I strongly wish the Derrick/News would do more of that with real editorials, a willingness to take a stand, more local columnists with signed commentary and by supporting in-depth reporting.

I’m not bashing the Derrick/News Herald. There is a strong tendency to do that, and it’s unfair. Actually, there is a long tradition in this country of loving to hate your local paper wherever you happen to be.

We are blessed to have a local daily newspaper. It is important to the community. It remains the best way to stay informed on local issues and its reporting is pretty good.

It would be a better paper if it dropped the snide comments in the Spray and stepped up to the plate and put some thought and effort into developing real editorials and adding some thoughtful local commentary and we would be a better community for it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The ORA, the County and Just What Do We Expect

This morning (Feb. 25) I attended the annual meeting of the Oil Region Alliance as a representative of the city.

(I think I was the only Democrat there, which is not unusual for Venango County.)

Of course, the ORA was also in this morning’s paper with the announcement that the county intended to close this morning on the purchase of the West Unit from the Alliance. The deal has come under a great deal of criticism, as does the ORA on a somewhat regular basis.

Frankly, most of the criticism is not constructive and much of it unwarranted if not simply specious. My personal opinion is that more of the non-constructive criticism has to do with personalities and politics than the work of the economic development agency and that is not good for the county and our future.

I was not privy to the details when ORA purchased the West Unit and in turn leased it to the county, nor am I privy to all the background and details of the current deal selling the West Unit to the county.

My understanding is that the previous board of commissioners asked the ORA to structure a package to obtain the West Unit so that the county could centralize all its human service agencies. The county thought it would be able to cover the lease costs through state reimbursements, avoid the burden of owning the building and in turn the ORA would have an income stream.

However, circumstances changed with the decrease in state reimbursements and the county found the state funds would no longer cover the lease costs. It then determined it would be better to own the building. The ORA struck a deal to sell the West Unit to the county. The deal gives the ORA $1 million for the buy out of the county’s lease. A lot is being made of that, claiming it is a bad deal for county taxpayers.

But is it? As I understand it, the county still saves money in the long term, and just as importantly the ORA is left with some money to undertake economic development.

How exactly are we to do economic development if we are unwilling to pay for it? To me, the county deals, both the original one and this one, sound like a win-win – maybe not perfect, but better than anything else I’ve heard.

I understand there can be differing views of the deal between the county and the ORA, and of the agency itself.

Still, I’ve not heard the critics suggest a better way of funding economic development or any specifics of how to do a better job. I have heard a lot of potshots claiming the ORA is a failure. That’s not constructive criticism, but rather meaningless chatter.

The absolute most BS criticism I’ve heard was from a local businessman who said – and I paraphrase – “our unemployment has gone up under the ORA’s watch.” We are in the midst of the worst economic times since the Great Depression; just what would one expect?

ORA officials can point and did this morning to a number of very specific successes over the past year. Among them: Conair and WS Packaging (formerly Seneca Printing). Both companies could have been lost, but were kept here and are growing. They need to be given some credit for what they have done and continue to do.

I’m not beyond criticizing the ORA. I believe the leadership has too often been tone deaf and unable to grasp how some things they do individually or as an agency will be perceived and what the implications of that will be. High on my list of examples is ORA executives making personal political contributions to local candidates. That is bound to create political enemies. More importantly, the agency must strive to be absolutely politically neutral and perceptions play a huge role in that.

I have a real fear that the critics of the ORA/County deal will never let it go, that they won’t be able to say we lost, but let’s move on. That does not seem to be the way things are done in Venango County and we pay a price for that. (Think of the never ending threats of lawsuits whenever a decision is reached that some people don’t like)

The ORA is not perfect, but it is the economic development agency we have. Let’s work to strengthen it, not destroy it. If we criticize, let’s have workable suggestions for improvement in hand. We need everyone’s help.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Two Down

Well, here we are in 2010. I have completed my first two years on council.

I think everyone would agree that 2009 was a daunting year. We dealt with the retirement of long-time city manager Tom Rockovich and found Ryan Egleston to replace him. I think we did well.

Council faced a huge budget deficit largely as a result of a 30 percent increase in health insurance costs as it began development of the 2010 budget, and Ryan was thrown into it on his first day on the job. Cuts were made – some only delaying the inevitable such as paving – and taxes were raised to balance the budget. It was something no one wanted to do, but it was what had to be done – at least that’s my take.

Obviously the state of the economy impacts our community just as it does elsewhere. That no doubt will make 2010 equally as troubling from an economic perspective.

We must try to find additional operating efficiencies and perhaps all new ways of delivering services and doing business. Success in that endeavor is not guaranteed. There are no magic wands or pixie dust, nor a pot of gold to be found. I’ve said only half in jest that perhaps the best thing would be to put a line item in the budget of $104 dedicated to the purchase of a Powerball tickets every Wednesday and Saturday.

Still, I firmly believe the city is moving forward. The Main Street Program is advancing rapidly. The Waterways study will be wrapping up. The Arts Revitalization has succeeded in bringing people to Oil City and promises to have much more success. There are many other examples.

It will be an interesting, difficult and exciting time for our two new councilmen, Bill Moon and Venice Lewis, as it will for all of us on council.