Cahaba Heights Community Foundation Forum Answers

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Want to get to know candidate Kimberly Cook’s positions on issues? The following were questions posed at the CHCF Forum.

Transparency has been a frequent topic of discussion during this election. What specific strategies would you use to inform and engage residents about Council activities and upcoming decisions?

I believe informed citizens become engaged citizens. It is important to remove barriers so that citizens know about and understand city decisions before they come up for a public vote. To this end, I believe our council should:

  • Live-stream council work sessions, because it is in these meetings that much helpful information is shared with the councilors so they can make better decisions. In fact, I would say it is more helpful to attend work sessions than it is to attend council meetings because of the volume of information shared. In these meetings, the city manager and department heads share background details that are useful in understanding problems and designing solutions. Also, information is shared about projects and activities well in advance of the project parameters being set, which gives more time for citizen input and dialogue and identification of potential opportunities and challenges. Live-streaming would give access to citizens who cannot attend in person due to work, family or physical infirmity. The city can increase engagement by citizens during live-streaming by asking questions, facilitating open chat and polling throughout.
  • Ensure the minutes from these work session meetings are complete and provide as much helpful information as possible for citizens to read at their convenience. These minutes should include helpful information and announcements for citizens.
  • Make it a priority to ensure all relevant city dates (including Chamber of Commerce and other community events) appear on the city calendar and that they are kept up-to-date with links to event information. All city meetings should be posted in this one place, and not on separately-maintained websites, for ease of access and coordination.
  • Change the city council meeting times to 6pm to make it easier for families to attend.
  • Ensure all public meetings are held within the city limits and are accessible to all citizens, with appropriate overflow seating allowed for larger-than-usual meetings.
  • Fund digital imaging of records, indexing for searchability, and posting of all records online. In particular, this should be provided for city agenda packets and minutes. Old paper records should be imaged so that there is no delay or difficulty in the city providing requested information.
  • Provide complete online access to plans, financial records, documents and any other official application, ordinance or meeting records for city entities, to include foundations and other groups that utilize city resources, receive city funding or are under the supervision and control of city employees, boards or commissions.
  • Provide a notification by subscription service on the city website for council meetings and work sessions. Use of a Google calendar or similar, would allow people to subscribe to the calendar for easy importing of events.
  • Post building permits and zoning applications online for easy citizen access and reference.
  • Post bid documents and requests for proposal online in an open data platform after the bidding is closed. Bid documents for older projects should be imaged and stored off-site to decrease access time.
  • Post contracts for professional services online.
  • Appoint a chief information officer (the person responsible for managing, responding to and fulfilling requests for information) should be identified on the Action Center, and this person should take full responsibility for ensuring FOIA requests are answered fully and promptly. Citizen requests for documents, plans, drawings are sometimes put off because they are hard to access, not already posted online or city employees have other matters to which they must attend.
  • Post meeting announcements and periodic updates on city events on social media and a website “What’s Happening” page. This should be assigned to a central communications officer who is a city employee.

How would you increase community involvement from all parts of Vestavia Hills in order to bring greater unity within the city?

For communities to be strong, they must be built on a foundation of positive relationships, which lead to trust and cooperation. Neighbors who talk over the fence don’t have arguments about whether the fence is in the right place.

Our community is fun, active and wants to engage in making our local government better. We also want to know one another better. One of the greatest benefits of running for public office has been my engaging citizens one-on-one, whether through a private social media exchange or visiting with a neighbor on his doorstep. It is surprising how much you can learn about a person in just a quick, five-minute conversation. Walking the neighborhood streets of our city and meeting new friends has taught me that we are diverse, but passionate about our community. I want to engage citizens, from kids to people who have lived in our community for 50 years.

One way to create stronger relationships is to provide opportunities for neighbors to engage in service and recreation together. This can be done through local government programs, but more effectively by assisting local community groups to promote and encourage participation in their programs. There are many groups in our community who do this well, and local government should help promote and communicate with others regarding these programs.

Here are some ways local government can assist in promoting greater engagement:

  • Maintain a list of volunteer organizations and their contact information on the city website so newcomers and those wishing to be involved can engage.
  • Provide publicity for city recreational programs and events by 1) issuing press releases before and after city events; 2) ensuring city events are on various community calendars; 3) promoting events on social media; and 4) publishing a digital subscription newsletter.
  • Make a concerted effort to reach out to senior citizens to provide access to facilities and services, including enrichment and recreational opportunities.
  • Encourage and promote local neighborhood gatherings.
  • Provide resources to and encourage community focus groups that strive to solve problems or gather information.

How long do you believe annexing should continue? Are there limits to annexing?

The city should conduct an annexation study, similar to the 2006 Annexation Study, which identified approximately 900 properties for possible annexation. This new study should include an analysis of our current school, facility and city services capacities to ensure that adequate funding and planning is conducted to accommodate new annexations. New annexations should not be allowed to fall under the median house value for our community to ensure that we are collecting adequate ad valorem taxes to pay for city services, including education.

Any future dense housing developments should undergo close scrutiny to ensure that the schools will have adequate capacity. Our schools are overcrowded and the board of education needs time to adapt and accommodate. The school board representative to the Annexation Review Committee should be a voting member of the committee and should have to sign on the application (on behalf of the superintendent) before an annexation goes before the council.

Every city has a limited budget and a seemingly unlimited supply of community needs and interests. What would be your top 3 priorities in making appropriations?

Much as I would like to play Santa Claus and just hand out new facilities, parks and sidewalks, I believe there are some significant maintenance and city services issues that should be addressed first:

  • Repair, paving and improvement of roads and streets, to promote safe passage and better traffic flow—also ensuring a proper maintenance schedule is created and followed.
  • Additional funding for fire and police protection to ensure that growth in those department budgets is adequate to accommodate city growth.
  • Redevelopment of Cahaba Heights fields and Wald Park, including the civic center.

What do you see as the benefits and/or disadvantages of the current structure of the city government? Are there any changes you would like to make in the future to our structure?

I believe the city-manager form of government has increased our efficiency and effectiveness in providing services to citizens. I would not advocate for a change to this structure, as I think it has served our city well. It is important for the council to perform its important function of setting priorities and giving direction to the city manager, since that is our role as the citizens’ representatives. We are accountable for the direction the city takes.

I have heard residents pose the question why we elect our councilors by place and at-large, instead of by district. Because of our city’s size, I believe at-large election works best. It is difficult enough to find qualified candidates to run city-wide, and if we changed it to be election by district, this would be an even greater challenge. Providing a larger pool of candidates city-wide gives us more options and also encourages councilors to consider the needs of all citizens in our city when making decisions. 

Vestavia Hills continues to experience explosive growth, but many citizens have expressed concerns about the strain of this growth on our schools. How would you as a council member/mayor collaborate with the Board of Education to ensure that all children in our city receive a high-quality education?

The city should conduct an annexation study, similar to the 2006 Annexation Study, which identified approximately 900 properties for possible annexation. This new study should include an analysis of our current school, facility and city services capacities to ensure that adequate funding and planning is conducted to accommodate new annexations. New annexations should not be allowed to fall under the median house value for our community to ensure that we are collecting adequate ad valorem taxes to pay for city services, including education.

Any future dense housing developments should undergo close scrutiny to ensure that the schools will have adequate capacity. Our schools are overcrowded and the board of education needs time to adapt and accommodate. The school board representative to the Annexation Review Committee should be a voting member of the committee and should have to sign on the application (on behalf of the superintendent) before an annexation goes before the council.

We should not annex or develop more housing until our schools have addressed current capacity issues. 

If you were given excess resources in the budget, where would you apply those resources? What projects, plans, or community needs would receive your attention first?

If we have done proper planning to establish priorities, then excess resources should be applied in the order of priorities already established by citizens. As a practice, we should ensure that existing facilities are cared for and adequately meeting the needs of our community before building adding new services and facilities.

We should build into the budget for new facilities the additional cost of maintaining those facilities. For example, if we are building a new park, the city must consider not only the cost of development, but the cost of maintaining, securing and operating that new park.

If excess funds are applied in haphazard fashion, the tendency would be to hand out gifts like Santa Claus, without taking into consideration the additional maintenance costs associated with those “gifts.” New projects, whether they are funded completely out of city funds or through public-private partnerships should reflect the desires and priorities of citizens, first and foremost.

As part of the yearly budget process, departments should establish priorities for applying excess funds, apart from approved budgeted amounts, in a thoughtful way.

Some current needs I am aware of are paving and improvement of streets, installation of sidewalks, facility improvements for our schools, increased police staffing, increased maintenance staff for Public Works and renovation or building of new recreational facilities, particularly Cahaba Heights fields and Wald Park. All athletic fields and facilities should be properly maintained and brought up to a standard that makes our citizens proud.

We should ensure that existing projects, such as Meadowlawn Park, are completed before starting new initiatives.

Once immediate needs are satisfied, then we should prioritize new facilities and improvements, such as Cahaba Heights fields, Wald Park and a new civic center.

What do you believe are the key infrastructure needs facing our city? Do you believe these needs should be addressed prior to starting new developments? Why or why not?

Our key infrastructure needs are roads, sidewalks and drainage systems. Creating an environment where businesses and citizens alike can flourish will draw more business to our area and ensure citizens’ enjoy the “life above” they have been promised. The city must invest in our neighborhoods if it wishes to continue drawing revenue.

Another aspect of infrastructure that is often overlooked is provision of city services—fire/police protection, public services, schools, and enough staff to effectively manage all these new services for more citizens.

We should not annex or develop more housing until our schools have addressed current capacity issues. 

How would you facilitate communication among the City Council, City Employees, and the City Manager?

As a professional and volunteer, I have worked to improve communications in every organization of which I have been a part, including my work as a computer systems designer, church student ministry, Boy Scouts and PTO. Whether gathering information from clients about how they do their work, writing emails, maintaining distribution lists, posting helpful information on social media or editing newsletters for these organizations, my role has been a helpful and critical one to provide clarity and engage people. Communications are a challenge for every organization, but they are, more importantly, an opportunity for engagement and problem-solving.

For our city, here are some first thoughts for improving communication:

1) Post memorandums or bulletins that establish policies and procedures or contain helpful organizational information in a central folder, accessible to all employees. Group these communications by topic or department.

2) Document and post minutes from staff meetings to help non-attendees be informed and provide a resource to answer future questions. This could take the form of an internal newsletter to engage and inform all employees.

3) Coach staff and councilors to engage in effective communications with each other and with citizens, establishing expectations for response times to emails, requests for information and action center requests. Regularly monitor response time to action requests to ensure citizens are receiving effective, timely responses to problems. Establish a high expectation of customer service within the organization to ensure all communications with citizens are positive, cordial and responsive. Provide training in how to draft effective business communications. Plan and implement meetings that are necessary, effective and stay on task.

4) Promote the Action Center Request system as a “first line of defense” for citizen concerns. Inform citizens how this can be effectively used to get a response for problems. Regularly monitor this system to ensure city staff are responding appropriately to problem calls and questions.

5) Develop a strategy for effectively using social media as a tool for improvement and citizen engagement. Ensure consultants or staff assigned in this area are communicating in a positive, informative way with citizens. Coach councilors in the best way to engage citizens on social media to promote a positive image of our city and its representatives.

6) Develop a strategy for more effectively communicating with citizens about programs and opportunities for engagement. One specific area that needs improvement is communication with seniors about services and programs. Develop specific strategies to meet the needs of this group that would tend to be less involved in social media or digital communications.

7) Make content-creation for social media and broadcast communications the responsibility of a communications or public-relations representative. Enlist the help of local media to assist with this task and ensure regular press releases inform media of special events or topics of conversation. Communications from the city should be regular, frequent and broadcast in several media forums.

I am sure there are many other ways communications can be improved in our city, as this is a challenge and opportunity for most organizations. Once I am a city councilor, I would like to examine our current methods and help develop new strategies to engage the community. I believe councilors should not only be representatives to our community, but they should also serve as ambassadors to the community, advocating for more effective communications.

Cahaba Heights borders Mountain Brook, City of Birmingham, and Unincorporated Jefferson County. How would you create effective partnerships with other municipalities on issues related to infrastructure, traffic patterns, and shared natural resources? 

 As the third largest city in Jefferson County, our city’s resources and influence can make it a powerful agent for positive change. It is important for our city to collaborate with other entities and maintain positive relationships that can lead to better services for all.

I believe the greatest challenge is identifying the highest priorities and practicing continued advocacy to move multi-jurisdictional projects forward. The re-paving of Sicard Hollow Road had been an ongoing issue and received insufficient attention until a couple of citizens, including myself, brought weekly attention to the matter. This resulted in a multi-jurisdictional agreement to fund the repaving and possible re-engineering of this treacherous road. While the project is as yet incomplete, positive steps are being taken and it will take continued diligence to ensure this project is completed in a timely manner.

Another example of where collaboration can bring solutions to multi-jurisdictional problems is traffic management on East Street, a problem caused by development of Mountain Brook City’s high-traffic Rathmell Park and installation of their fleet maintenance facility off a road that services a previously quiet, residential, Vestavia Hills neighborhood. Solving this problem permanently will require cooperation between Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills, but it also involves creation of a temporary solution to alleviate traffic and speeding problems. Inattention to this problem has created a safety hazard to Vestavia Hills residents and has been ongoing for far too long. Because this road is a Mountain Brook City road, but it directly and mostly affects Vestavia Hills residents, this has created an impasse. It has been my experience as a Boy Scout Commissioner that problems like this can usually be resolved when you bring all the necessary players to the table so that all issues are identified, possible solutions proposed and action taken.

Projects like this take continued attention until a positive resolution is attained. Councilors should play a key role to ensure problems like this receive attention, even when they involve multi-jurisdictions.

Zoning laws have been the subject of discussion within the community. Are there any zoning laws you would like to change? Why or why not?

As a candidate, I have spent time talking to developers, city planners and zoning experts to understand our city zoning ordinances and procedures. It is important for councilors to be informed on these matters to protect the rights of property owners, whether they are commercial developers or homeowners. In the same way that I gathered information from clients in my role as a computer systems designer, I have worked to understand zoning and how it affects our community.

I do understand there were concerns about the B.1.2 Mixed Use zoning ordinance that emerged during the Cahaba Heights apartment project consideration. If I don’t know the answer to a question, I go ask someone who knows more than I do. In this case, I went to my friend, Deloye Burrell, who knows the city zoning ordinances and their history inside and out. I credit him for the following insight about some changes that would bring greater clarity to this zoning ordinance:

  • The ordinance notes a limit of three stories, but the drawing in the ordinance shows four stories. This invites an unwanted ambiguity and the drawing should be adjusted to match the wording.
  • The ordinance should be modified to include the rationale, developed during the 2008 Cahaba Heights Community Plan, for the minimum setbacks. When the ordinance was written, a pedestrian-friendly, walking community was envisioned, where shoppers could stroll and window-shop. Incuding language to explain this vision would help planners interpreting the ordinance for approval of projects.
  • Specifically list apartments as conditional use, requiring a more stringent standard for review and approval of variances.

I think it is important to understand the importance of zoning ordinances to protect both the property owner and nearby homeowners or commercial property owners. As a councilor, I would make myself familiar with zoning ordinances and their requirements.

As an article in al.com recently described, voter interest in this election is surprisingly strong. If elected to serve on the Council, how would you engage with invested, active community members?

 I have found going door to door to visit with neighbors to be very helpful in understanding what issues are important to folks. I would seek opportunities to engage with citizens from all demographics—from young families with children to senior citizens. As a candidate, I have visited the New Merkel Senior Center and other places to engage citizens. As a councilor, I would like to continue this visitation, on a monthly basis, spending an hour or two knocking on doors to introduce myself and ask for input.

I would make an effort to attend community meetings to meet folks and find out how our community members are engaged in making our city better. When I visited New Merkel, I discovered that one of the barriers to citizen participation is not knowing about city programs and meetings. An active and updated city calendar would help citizens to discover ways to be involved and active. The city must be proactive in reaching out to citizens to inform them about community programs and events.

On a weekly basis, I plan to hold “office” hours, which might be at a local coffee house or favorite breakfast location. In this way, I can make myself accessible to residents without the intimidation of people having to ask for meetings or request information by email.

On a rotating basis, I would sponsor town-hall meetings where citizens can openly ask questions and receive answers from councilors and department heads.

I have been delighted to hear residents offer their service and involvement after my election. It is encouraging to know there are many citizens with available time and interest who desire to engage in making our city better. Not only does this benefit the city (free labor), but it creates an atmosphere of teamwork and belonging that contribute to an overall sense of well-being and positive neighborhood feeling.

I would like to see the creation of new community task forces to address problems and develop opportunities such as community park development, senior citizen program development, community service and others. It is unlikely you will have an argument with a neighbor when you are busy serving together.

All these things will contribute to community unity and a sense of fulfillment, because an actively engaged community will know they are noticed, heard and given opportunities to be involved.

Do you believe there is a conflict of interest with a single attorney representing the City of Vestavia Hills and the VH Board of Education at the same time? If so, how would you rectify that conflict of interest?

I believe that our city would be best served by having a separate attorney for the city and the board of education. In order to bolster trust in our community and faith in our local government, I think an important step to take is to employ two different attorneys for these positions. In past matters that have involved both the city and board of education and where a conflict of interest exists, Mr. Boone has recused himself and the city has employed other legal help to assist. I believe it would be best if we never have to do that. It is apparent a conflict of interest exists, with Mr. Boone serving both the board of education and city as chief legal counsel.

As a business owner and a parent in the community, I would like to know how each of you plan on attracting desirable and sustainable economic development in Vestavia, specifically Cahaba Heights.  How will it be supported, encouraged, incentivized, and executed in a way that benefits not only developers and business owners, but also the interests of the taxpayers of Vestavia Hills?

Economic development is vital to a community and necessary for our city to provide the services our citizens expect. Our goal as a city should be to build and maintain a strong, vibrant local economy.

Our city has other goals as well. Our citizens want to preserve the character and beauty of the communities we love and create rich environments where our children, working adults, parents and seniors can thrive.

So, what is the best way to achieve a balance where we support business and not only preserve, but improve the neighborhoods we love?

After knocking on more than 2000 doors and holding meetings with a good number of people, including developers, retail business owners and citizens, I have a few observations:

  • Our city councilors need to be in touch with the desires of the communities they serve. This involves respectful listening to people from multiple perspectives and weighing all options. Effective dialogue involves not just listening to community concerns, but responding to them as well. It is the responsibility of the councilors to communicate these desires to the city manager and other key staff to ensure the plans made fit with community priorities.
  • Our city should develop a specific plan for development that incorporates existing master plans, such as the 2008 Cahaba Heights Community Plan, and identifies steps required to meet the chief objectives of those plans. Plans must be revisited periodically to ensure progress is being made and goals met. Plans should include infrastructure, staffing and facility improvements to accommodate projected growth, especially as it impacts schools and roads.
  • Our city should invest in proper infrastructure, such as sidewalks, safe streets and adequate drainage systems, such as in the Dolly Ridge Rd. area of Cahaba Heights and the lower part of Hwy. 31. The 2008 Cahaba Heights plan noted these public improvements as a priority, but few of the goals of this plan have been met in 8 years. These improvements not only benefit citizens, but they benefit developers as well. These type improvements make our city more desirable to new development, increase commercial land values and ensure the highest, best use of the land. Infrastructure also includes provision of adequate city services—fire/police protection, schools, and public works.
  • Our city must ensure zoning ordinances are appropriate and are followed by our boards and commissions. This protects the rights of property owners and citizens as well—everyone wins.
  • Our city councilors must maintain an appropriate relationship between city and developers, ensuring that conflicts of interest do not impede objectivity. While I am in full support of smart economic growth, I wonder about the motives of big money development PACs.

We often hear the words “smart development” passed around like mints at a dinner party. What do we mean by smart development? I think this means city planning that is responsive to citizen desires and, at the same time, encouraging to new business and development. We will best achieve this with a plan that incorporates long-range planning, investment in community infrastructure and open dialogue about development plans.

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