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.

Community Engagement – The Final Chapter

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As I go around our city meeting people, I often have the experience of encountering a Facebook friend whom I have never met face to face. It always happens the same way: she says her name; I take a moment to think through the list of profile names who have commented on my posts recently and then there is the smile of recognition, followed by a spontaneous hug. My existing, virtual connection is made more intense because I have now made real contact. Regardless of the lure of social media, with all of its safe anonymity, people desire personal interactions. As human beings, we get our context from each other. Without face-time (the real kind, not the application), our social media interactions are like talking to paper dolls.

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.

So, how can cities better provide opportunities and facilities for citizens to play and connect?

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”  Winnie-the-Pooh; A.A. Milne

CONNECT:

  • Renovate the Civic Center to provide classroom, recreational and exercise facilities at a reasonable cost to citizens.
  • Provide banquet space for special city events such as the Dogwood luncheon.
  • Update the sidewalk plan to prioritize installation of sidewalks in areas near schools, city facilities, parks and retail areas.
  • Develop more entertainment districts within our city and provide incentives to retail developers to provide more green and community gathering spaces.
  • Encourage and promote neighborhood social gatherings.
  • Maintain a list of volunteer service organizations and clubs, including city groups, for newcomers.
  • Promote generational recreation and learning programs to meet needs of underserved groups such as seniors, empty-nesters and young professionals.
  • Promote youth manners and dancing classes.
  • Provide better 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; 4) publishing a digital subscription newsletter.
  • Develop a comprehensive, interactive, subscription calendar to include all city events in all city departments;
  • Administer annual surveys to find out what services are most important to citizens.
  • Publish results of annual Parks and Recreation surveys through press releases.
  • Establish a focus group as a subsidiary of the Parks and Recreation Board to assess and improve programming.
  • Provide adequate transportation for seniors, so they can participate in city programs.
  • Attend senior events/gatherings to find out if needs of senior citizens are being met.
  • Promote through community organizations and various avenues of communication our annual, city-wide Day of Service.
  • Assess recreational sports programs to ensure they are affordable and accessible to all, regardless of athletic talent, physical ability or income level.
  • Cooperate with Parks and Recreation Foundation to develop an athletic scholarship program for indigent youth.
  • Survey to determine what services are most desired in different parts of our city and develop a Parks and Recreation master plan to address needs of various neighborhoods; budget to ensure equitable distribution of services across the city.

Community Engagement – Part II

courthouse_andy_1024I grew up in a small town, in Southwest Virginia, that only had one main street. I lived in the same house for 15 years, so that, riding my bicycle, I knew every bump and dip in the road. I knew where everyone sat in the pews on Sunday. As a first grade student, when I accidentally got off the wrong stop on the school bus, miles from my babysitter’s house, an elderly stranger took me in and fed me buttermilk and crackers until my mother could come from work to get me. (To this day, I have an acquired taste for buttermilk.) Every Friday night, I spent the night with my grandparents and every Sunday afternoon, I sipped sweet, iced tea on my grandmother’s sofa. This was life in a small town. This was my Mayberry.

After graduating from college, I desired to see the other side of the fence. I got my first job in Washington, D.C.—about the furthest place removed from Mayberry one can imagine. I learned to navigate traffic circles, drive six-lane interstates and read a subway map. I experienced coming home to an empty apartment because I knew few people in a large city. I eventually found my community and met my husband, Greg, at First Baptist of Alexandria. As a redneck, Alabama boy, he felt as much an alien as I did in D.C.

Even further removed from Mayberry was Boston. Greg and I moved there right after our marriage so he could attend law school. I worked for Electronic Data Systems at a GM plant in Framingham, MA, supporting a car manufacturing production system. I parked my shiny, red Honda Prelude in a parking lot full of GM cars every day, and not once did anyone threaten me with a baseball bat. I learned the difference between blue collar workers and management. (Management eats in a dining room and workers eat in a cafeteria.) I met people who played recreational ice hockey. I learned how to understand a Yankee accent and they learned to interpret my Southern one. My husband and I attended a Baptist church service where they served Kool-Aid and animal crackers for communion. (Yes, we drank the Kool-Aid.) We attended a Passover Seder with upstairs apartment neighbors hailing from California and New York who became close friends.

After law school and our adventures in the frozen North, Greg and I decided to return to his roots, so we picked Birmingham as the best place to start our family. In 2002, we moved to Vestavia Hills because we found a beautiful home in Liberty Park, where our children could walk to and attend a great school. At first, we knew few people in the Vestavia Hills community, but I engaged right away in PTO and local Scout groups and soon found connections, making lifelong friends from all parts of our city. We can’t imagine a better place for our children to have grown up than Vestavia Hills.

Thank you for indulging my recitation of the places I have lived. My point is I grew up in Mayberry, where “everyone knew my name” (and my mama’s name and my granddaddy’s name); but, I have also lived in Raleigh, where I was a small Barney Fife in a big city pond. Probably all of us have had these experiences, however temporary, where we were the outsider—the alien.

In talking to all sorts of people in Vestavia—both those who grew up here and those who “are not from around here”—there is a common desire: we want our community to continue to be a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

So, what is the best way to make that happen? How do we connect pride in our city’s heritage and the desire of everyone in the community to continue moving forward? How do we engage our newcomer residents and help them form connections with their Mayberry neighbors?

Below is Part II of my COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT platform. Here are my ideas about how we can WELCOME others to our community and make it easy for newcomers to engage:

  • Organize “Welcome to the City” receptions on quarterly basis.
  • Enlist the help of realtors, apartment managers and school board to distribute “Welcome to Vestavia Hills” packets of information to new residents; include voter and school registration information; helpful information about city services (libraries, parks and recreation programs, garbage pickup, police and fire protection); helpful links (QR codes) to city website resources.
  • Organize voter registration drives before city elections and provide sample ballot/issue information.
  • Provide comprehensive publicity for community events through a variety of methods such as email (by subscription); social media; newsletters (digital and paper); community events page on website).
  • Provide a community events calendar on city website to which residents can subscribe for regular updates.
  • Establish a “Newcomers” page on the city website to include links to: Action Center, city services index, FAQs, contacts for city council and school board representatives, city volunteer opportunity index. (Link to this from Chamber and PTO websites; provide a “contact” for newcomer questions.)
  • Encourage partnerships between community business leaders and schools to provide enhanced learning opportunities through mentor relationships, work-study programs, and enrichment studies.
  • Establish city directory of opportunities for service and engagement (for example, Friends of the Library, youth athletic leagues, Sunrise Rotary Club, Toastmasters, city boards, Help for the Hills, Leadership Vestavia Hills); allow citizens to add to the directory, upon moderated approval.
  • Establish a moderated, online “suggestion box” where citizens can post recommendations for ways to improve our city.
  • Work with schools to ensure prospective students visiting our schools have a good first impression.
  • Work with schools to institute student ambassador program for new students in the first month of school.
  • Encourage the school system to allow foreign exchange students to attend city schools.

Community Engagement – Part I

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT – PART I

VH City Logo Unity Prosperity FamilyAs I sat in the city council chamber audience, waiting through numerous business items to hear the results of the February 2016 board of education appointment, my eyes were drawn to the emblem laser-etched on the back of the chair in front of me. I read the words, “Unity, Prosperity, Family.”

There are many definitions of unity. For our city, I prefer the definition of unity that is described in the Bible as it relates to the body, which has many diverse parts, but they all function towards one unified goal and purpose—to live a life of purpose and meaning. There are certainly other definitions for “unity,” such as “oneness of mind, feeling, agreement,” but we all know this doesn’t often happen for a family of four, much less a city of 35,000.

In our city emblem, the word “Family” appears as the balance to “Unity.” As I developed my COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT platform, I kept the word “Family” in mind, because this is a metaphor that works well for a city our size.

There are certainly all kinds of families. My parents divorced when I was twelve, so I have a different perspective than my husband, whose parents are still together after more than 50 years of marriage. From his parents, Greg learned three things about how to have a happy household:

Treat all your children the same. Having three sons, no doubt Greg’s parents understood the importance of this precept. In Greg’s family, this did not mean every child had the same rules to follow, demanded the same amount of parental attention or even got the same big present for Christmas. Why? Because, all three sons were different—with diverse needs, desires, and personalities. Nevertheless, Greg knew his parents loved all three sons equally because his parents went to great lengths to give equal treatment. Children are more likely to overlook a disappointment if they understand they have been treated equitably and given a fair hearing.

Families need to hang tight and be ready to welcome new friends. Greg’s Air Force family moved frequently. He described his childhood as a series of starting new public schools, packing and unpacking, living in temporary transitional quarters, and getting accustomed to new climates. To me, a girl who grew up in the same small town and attended the same church until I went off to college, this sounded terrible. Greg explained that the frequent moving was a good thing because it made his family close, because family was the only thing that didn’t change. Frequent moving also meant you either had to make friends quickly or be isolated.

Don’t go to bed angry. Even if your family is tight, there will be disagreements. As parents, Greg and I have learned when there is an impasse—a decision that must be made and there are two directly opposing views—one person has to “give.” Often, the outcome is more important to one parent than another, so it is best to allow the parent with the stronger interest to get his or her way. In all negotiations, communication should be open and civil. Once the decision is made, put any unhappy feelings about what happened behind you. u.Make the decision and then put it to rest, realizing, at the end of the day, what you have in common is more important than what divides yo

So how can we make our Vestavia Hills family stronger? Over the next several weeks, I will publish my ideas in sections. This week, I would like to focus on OPEN DOORS. At my house, we fight a continuing battle to get our youngest son to leave his door open when he is upstairs and we are downstairs. We desire this because having open doors facilitates conversation and interaction. This makes families stronger.

OPEN DOORS

  • Schedule weekly “office” hours at various neighborhood locations; invite the community to drop in and talk about any subject.
  • Recruit community members to serve on boards to ensure diverse representation (geographic; socio-economic; long-timers; newcomers); publicize board and commission openings through multiple media outlets.
  • Organize topical town hall meetings in various parts of the city, as needed.
  • Once every two months, rotate the location of a work session to an off-site location, choosing venues in various parts of the city.
  • Allow public comment and questions at the end of work sessions.
  • Assign communication tasks to city employees to ensure effective, regular communication.
  • Monitor social media forums for issues and respond to questions and concerns.
  • Publish “Tales from the Meeting” – a bi-monthly councilor blog regarding old and new business.
  • Publish monthly work session reports regarding requests and response rates for our Action Center.
  • Issue press releases to alert media regarding important topics to be addressed at council meetings.
  • Publish calendar of board and commission meetings on website.
  • Facilitate subscriptions to a city calendar so citizens can receive notifications regarding city board, commission and council meetings.
  • Publish minutes and agenda packets for all city boards and commissions on website.
  • Video-record work sessions and board/commission meetings and post on website.
  • Support and encourage development of community groups to address specific neighborhood issues and facilitate special projects; put community groups in touch with city resources to assist their processes.
  • Provide an online “community engagement” portal, to provide information about ways citizens can become involved and volunteer in our city government.
  • Schedule council meetings at a time that is convenient for citizens.

Community Engagement


“Strengthen your VOICE…Great by Choice.”

What happens when people are not happy with the way things are?  They want change. They want a VOICE and they want their CHOICES to matter.

Over the past two years, beginning with Dr. Blair’s early paid retirement, our community has experienced squalls that have threatened our unity and identity. John Oliver’s satirical commentary, broadcast to a national audience, was the icing and sprinkles on the donut. The formation of the Cahaba Heights Community Foundation and the “Not in My Schoolyard” campaign was a reaction to a perception that one segment of our community lacked consideration and representation. (One councilor’s statement, “They don’t matter; they don’t vote,” really summed it up.)

In my “Coffee & Conversation” meetings with friends and neighbors, I ask the question, “What would you like to see change in our city?” One common theme is the desire for our community to come together as one community, and not just individual parts of a whole. One trusted friend said she would support my candidacy, but only if I would run as a representative for the entire community.

In our community, we are geographically fragmented. In 1950, the city of Vestavia Hills was incorporated and eventually included most of the current area shown on the map to the east of Highway 280. Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 11.13.45 AMVestavians have an ongoing, friendly debate about the proper term to use for this original part of Vestavia Hills. Some call it “Vestavia Proper,” which doesn’t work very well as a descriptor because it implies the rest of Vestavia is somewhat “improper.” Others call it “Old Vestavia,” which also offends because it implies an elderly aristocracy. I still don’t know what to call the original part of Vestavia without offending someone, so I have decided to go with “Pre-1995 Vestavia.”

In 1995, the legislature passed an amendment to the state constitution (because that is how we roll in Alabama) to allow the annexation of Liberty Park. At the time, the City of Vestavia Hills and Liberty Park did not share any borders and such an annexation violated the state constitution. The annexation of Liberty Park added Liberty Park Elementary and now Liberty Park Middle to our school system.

A short time later, in 2002, Cahaba Heights was also annexed, which connected Liberty Park and Pre-1995 Vestavia like a jewel pendant strung between two large beads. The annexation of Cahaba Heights added Cahaba Heights Elementary to our school system.

In all, our city covers about 19 square miles, although there is nothing “square” about the configuration. What I do know is that it takes me 25 minutes and one cup of coffee to drive from Liberty Park, through Cahaba Heights, to the high school. We have 34,000 residents and 15,000 households. Our median house value is $318,000. We are 90% white (Caucasian), 4% black (African-American) and 6% other races. Our median household income is $87,000. We have 4% of our population below the poverty line. We are the third largest city in Jefferson County.

As we reflect on our history and recent events, it becomes clear that for Vestavia Hills to move forward, we need positive and inclusive leadership. We all want to have a seat at the table. After the Memorial Day holiday, I will publish the second part of my platform: COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT. I will share my vision for how we can make our community ONE.

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Cpl. William F. “Sonny” Silver

Over the weekend, I will be visiting my oldest son and daughter–both VHHS graduates–in D.C. My daughter is a summer intern on Capitol Hill and my son is working as a software developer in Herndon, Virginia. On Monday, I will visit the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial because my uncle’s name is on that wall. My youngest son proudly shares his name—William Franklin “Sonny” Silver. Uncle Sonny was killed by a grenade on Hamburger Hill, May 13, 1969. He was 21 years old and unmarried. He did not even complete a full year of service, but he was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a “V” for Valor. As I remember my uncle’s faithful service, I hope you will take the time to honor our veterans who have served us so well. Have a happy and safe weekend.

Transparency

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Transparency. We all want it in our government, but how does transparency “look” in real life and what are its effects?

A – ACCESS

  • Plan meetings at a time and place so that people can reasonably attend.
  • Discuss issues in open meetings, where citizens are invited and encouraged to hear all that is being said.
  • Provide public information to citizens in a convenient, accessible format through an open data platform.
  • Record and post public meetings.

C – COMMUNICATE

  • Post meeting agendas for work sessions and regular meetings in a timely fashion on the city website.
  • Provide meeting materials (agendas and agenda packets) to citizens who subscribe.
  • Post meeting notices on city social media pages.
  • Record and post minutes for all city council meetings–work sessions and regular meetings–where business is transacted.
  • Record and post minutes for all of our city’s subsidiary foundations, boards, commissions and committees.

E – ETHICS

  • Post all city contracts, competitive bids and relevant conflict of interest statements before contracts are awarded.
  • Post publicly all service agreements and conflict of interest statements in advance of the agreement signing.
  • Regularly review and evaluate professional service contracts that are not bid to ensure an optimum level of service and cost-effectiveness.
  • Select professional service vendors, whenever possible, who are not impeded by a conflict of interest.
  • Rotate the selection of auditors to ensure independence, objectivity and fiscal responsibility.
  • Advertise vacancies on all city boards and commissions; use an application process to identify potential conflicts of interest and ensure the best selection is made.
  • Provide mandatory ethics training for new city council, board and commission members.
  • Require appointees to adhere to this transparency platform.

When we ACE transparency, we achieve:

  • Development that is responsive to the desires of the community
  • Stronger ethics in government
  • Efficient, responsible use of taxpayer dollars
  • Decisions that put citizens first and other concerns second
  • City services that best meet the needs of citizens
  • Community image and reputation that makes us all proud
  • TRUST
  • ACCOUNTABILITY

If you elect me to the Vestavia Hills City Council, you will have a pair of watchful eyes and an advocate for the examples of transparency provided above.

“If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” [Justice Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court]