Identity or Ideas: What Will We Defend?

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 11.48.22 PM.pngOn the long drive to and from Nashville to deliver my daughter and all of her belongings to her dorm room at Vanderbilt University, I listened ad nauseum to news reports about what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. Commentators said the police were not vigilant in stopping the violence and police responded that protestors refused to comply with instructions to ensure their safety; they talked about the clubs people were carrying and how protestors deployed balloons filled with urine to spray reporters and opposing protestors; they discussed how the original intent of the rally was only to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Sadly, for seven hours, the talking heads and their paid experts went round and round the boxing ring, jabbing at paper-tigers and looking for someone to blame, but they never really got to the heart of the problem: The riot in Charlottesville was not prompted by the removal of a statue, but was the culmination of a political philosophy that has been fermenting for some time now in America–a phenomenon known as identitarian politics.

An identitarian’s ultimate political purpose is to promote his or her own culture, race or social ideology and is “founded in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups.” [] The identitarian cares more about bolstering his or her own image than in affecting positive social or political change. The movement, which first emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century, has experienced a recent, strong revival in Europe and is often associated with fascism. In America, this resurgent ideology has been translated to the epithet “white supremacy,” from which it is a short hop, by the liberal media, to conservatism. Surprisingly, both right and left apologists acknowledge this tactic is a blight to rational and productive debate and that both sides are guilty of its use.

From the right:

“Which is why identity politics — after decades of polluting our minds — now feels so wrong. We finally wised up. Identity politics preaches a splintering of one large collaborative group into competing vindictive ones — resulting in new angry tribes whose central thesis is to NOT cooperate. Because cooperation is a sign that you are violating their religion of separateness. In the American “melting pot,” identity politics wants to smash that pot — to bring us back to the Dark Ages, when collaboration was sparse.” [Identity politics: the biological fraud; by Greg Gutfeld]

And, from the left:

“Identity politics of this sort leads us, when confronted with a social conflict, to ask a familiar question: ‘What’s the politically progressive position on this?’ This approach to social issues betrays a troubling narcissistic displacement: rather than analyze the social issue on its own merits, the political identitarian uses the issue as a way to assert his own persona. At worst, the social stakes of the issue are just a means to the end of his self image—what matters is what his position on the issue says about him.” [Political Identity as Identity Politics; Richard Thompson Ford]

When taken to the extreme for any group, identitarian politics results in monolithic positions that are unproductive and degenerate into verbal rock-throwing. Speakers on both ends of the political spectrum do a lot of speaking but not a lot of listening–because listening might require a change of position that would threaten the group’s identity.

What if politics became less about people (one’s idols, statues or favorite team) and more about ideas? What if we had monuments to ideas–the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the Federalist Papers–instead of people: Would we be tearing those down too?

Until political discourse becomes more about ideas and less about your ancestors, where you grew up or what news station you watch, we will remain stuck in the political quagmire that we see displayed in Congress. Some say the ultra-left are responsible for the emergence of the ultra-right (and visa versa). Is this stark division reversible or have we returned forever to the time of skins and clubs, where the strongest and meanest survive? We need to return to the foundational principle that we are a people who use productive, civil speech to build a better republic. If not, we create our own destiny, which is the kind of violence we saw in Charlottesville last weekend.


Social Graces

tin-can-11I am at a wedding reception, enjoying the company. I see a friend dancing with her son, the groom. A guest, one of my long-time friends, tells me about her son making the dean’s list at Auburn. An acquaintance approaches and tells me about a great charity that will help her son obtain an experimental medical treatment–I gladly make a donation. I walk over to join a small group laughing over their goofy mistakes navigating the new online school registration system. A friend and I begin a conversation about a concern she had about sharing some sensitive information in the registration process.

Then, suddenly, a woman I have never seen before approaches the group. She slaps my face, calls me a fool and a liar and then waits for my reaction. I blink, stunned.

I spend a minute or two crafting my scathing and clever response, but then one by one backspace over each letter. I delete her comment and take a deep breath. There are some advantages of social media over real life interactions.

LPM Curriculum Meeting Minutes


Notes from Liberty Park Middle Curriculum Information Meeting

  • 2017 May 18, 8:30am
  • Prepared by: Kimberly Cook

[These notes are my personal notes and paraphrase of comments made at the meeting. I also recorded the meeting, so if anyone has particular questions about the discussion, you can inquire.]

Elective Courses Overview:

  • 2008-2009: offered Art, Band, Choir, Spanish
  • 2016-2017: added Family and Consumer Science

Note: Career Prep A / Digital Photography were offered in 2016-2017, but they did not have success in getting enough students enrolled–2 or 3 at most—so the class did not “make.”

  • 2017-2018: French, German and Coding were added to course offerings.
  • LPM will continue to offer these courses each year; at some point, we hope they will have enough numbers to “make” the course.

Roger Dobnikar, LPM Asst. Principal: LPM contacted Central Office with the numbers that signed up for French and German and they were instructed to let those parents know that, due to the number who signed up, these courses will only be offered online with a person in the room with them (facilitator), but not with an actual teacher of the language. Parents were offered the option to drop back to their child’s second option. That is why those parents received a letter.

For Coding, there was not a second option, so parents did not receive a letter; the school automatically went to the second option on the student’s course card.

Dobnikar reviewed the process used for choosing electives:

  • Current 6th and 7th grade students went over course cards in a meeting on May 1 and Mr. Dobnikar explained options for electives.
  • Parent and student signatures are required on the card.
  • For 7th and 8th grade, course descriptions sent home and posted on website so conversation could continue at home.
  • Courses were explained in a video and in meetings with students.

Q: Many students chose Robotics as their first choice for Lancer Period; how many slots will be made available for the club?

A: Everyone should be able to get their first choice; the school will expand the opportunity to meet the need

Q:[Jennifer Weaver] Could you address the advantages of taking some of the electives?

A: Discussion ensued regarding foreign languages:

  • The middle school foreign language program takes one year (Level I) and divides it into a two-year program
  • Taking the Level I course in middle school allows students to start Level II foreign language in 9th grade; it also opens another slot in grades 9-12 to take another elective course
  • Students do not receive a Carnegie unit for the middle school Level I course, but it prepares them for Level II in grades 9-12 and gives them a headstart in that foreign language

Q: [Stacy Hurst] How will scheduling be handled when 8th and 9th grade are together, with the 8th grade 7-period schedule and the 9th grade 8-period schedule?

A: [Jane-Marie Marlin, Asst. Superintendent] These are long-term decisions we are not prepared to make right now.

Q: What will the schedule be like for 9th grade in Fall 2019?

A: [Marlin] Students would have the same schedule as what is in other high school grades; can’t answer about how 7th-8th grade schedules will change at this time.

Q: Why can’t students be allowed two electives, instead of just one?

A: [Marlin] This option was carefully considered (“explored deeply”) in the task force that studied middle school scheduling earlier this year. The group concluded this would create a more stressful environment for students, having an additional graded course.

Q: [Sarah Brown] What are the advantages of taking Career Prep A in middle school?

A: [Marlin] Career Prep A is required by the state for graduation; A is computer skills-based and B centers on financial literacy. There is some discussion that, with offering Career Prep A in middle school, Career Prep B may be embedded in another subject in 9th-12th.

Career Prep A and B are offered in summer school also, but there is a fee. Rising 9th grade students are eligible to take summer school courses this summer.

A parent pointed out that if someone starts a foreign language in 7th grade, they can’t take Career Prep A in 8th grade.

Q: Why is Career Prep A paired with Digital Photography?

A: [Dobnikar] Digital Photography was the only semester course that was an option to pair with Career Prep A.

Q: What if a student wants Career Prep A and 3D Art?

A: [Dobnikar] We would not have the teacher availability to do both.

Mr. Munger discussed how the goal of the VHHS 8-period day change was to eliminate the need to take summer courses and provide more flexibility and opportunity for elective courses.

A parent suggested it would be helpful to invite parents of students in lower grades to participate in curriculum nights at VHHS so parents and students can have a better understanding of how early curriculum choices in middle school can affect their path in high school.

A parent encouraged people to sign up for daily email blasts from VHHS to start receiving important information about summer school, etc.

Q: [Weaver] Would offering foreign language (first year) to 8th grade help LPM achieve the numbers needed to “make” a course? Jennifer encouraged the central office to look at numbers from a different perspective and provide opportunities for students, even though the numbers are lower at LPM.

Q: [Stacy Hurst] It was stated a student cannot change languages in middle school or take a first-year middle school foreign language course in 8th grade; why?

A: [Brooke Izurieta, LPM Spanish teacher] explained you need both years to qualify for the next language level in high school. She explained that first-year language in middle school is an introduction, whereas the second year is more reading and writing.

Discussion ensued about the value of taking a language course to “try it out” before committing to a long-term course of study in that language.

Q:  LPM has less than half the number of students compared to Pizitz Middle. If 15 is the number required to “make” a course, shouldn’t the board consider offering the class to LPM students at a lower threshold, to compensate for the lower student enrollment at LPM?

A: [Marlin] The online foreign language delivery method was never was just going to be about sitting in front of a screen. She discussed a “blended” experience, perhaps with some high school students coming in to assist.

A parent commented that online vs. live teacher is obviously a very different experience.

Q: Can we offer a unified arts approach for language? [rotating through various languages]

A: [Kacy Pierce, LPM Principal] We currently don’t have the teachers for that.

Q: [Joanna Rumbley] What is it going to take to get French/German off the ground? Students are staying away from foreign language because they heard it was going to be a video. In order to achieve equity, both schools need to be treated as one student body, both in Fall 2019 and now. The LPM community pays the same tax dollars as everyone else, but we are not being provided the courses. [applause]

Marlin said it is the intent, when 9th grade is added, that courses will be held to the same standards. If it is a Carnegie Unit course, we absolutely will offer it.

Q: Then, why is there currently a different analysis for LPM compared to PM [in regard to numbers in a class]?

A: [Marlin] Whatever we currently have at the high school we will have in Fall 2019.

Kimberly Cook made the statement that obviously students/parents do not consider an online course to be equivalent or of the same value as a foreign language taught with a teacher in classroom. You can see that from the way the enrollment numbers dropped from 6 to 2 and from 5 to 1 in French and German when parents were notified the class would be online.

A: [Marlin] Once we have all the changes in, the board will revisit the decision.

Q: What about the rotating schedule?

A: It is the desire of the faculty to continue the practice because it is best for students. This creates potential problems with teacher-sharing. [My observation: It will be difficult to teacher-share unless the schedules are identical.]

Marlin said they would have to be creative in designing the 9th grade schedules.

Q: Is there a plan in place to choose the people who will administrate the change?

Q: What will happen with the handful of students who take French/German using the online program in the first year if we add a teacher for second year?

A: They will transfer to the live teacher.

Kimberly Cook encouraged parents and students to make their elective choice, before the change deadline, with the assumption that the foreign language class would be offered by a teacher in the classroom. This is the only way to ensure that the board can properly assess the level of interest. She asked that this be communicated to parents and students by the school. Mr. Dobnikar indicated it would be shared.





Curriculum Alignment Report


Community Meeting, May 16, 2017, at Liberty Park Baptist Church

Thank you for attending our community curriculum alignment meeting last night. It was nice to get to discuss this important topic on our turf, without someone timing us. I want to thank Liberty Park Baptist and Pastor Scott Guffin for providing the space so we could meet as a community. They provided the chair setup and signage to direct us to the meeting room. This was so much appreciated.

There are several important meetings coming up of which you will want to be aware:

  • Wednesday (tonight), May 17, 6pm, Board of Education – Anna Velasco asked the superintendent to be placed on the agenda as a delegation representative; the superintendent will allow Anna 5 minutes to lobby the board for complete curriculum alignment for Liberty Park Middle School. If you are able, please come out as a show of support for this concern.
  • Thursday, May 18, 8:30am and 6pm, Liberty Park Middle School – The Board of Education and school administration will present information regarding new course offerings. This will be an opportunity to ask questions and get more information about the courses and scheduling process.

Helpful Links:

Meeting Report:

We had approximately 30 people attend last night, which was good for a busy school night at the end of the term. The discussion centered on our community’s desire to have a curriculum that is completely aligned with Pizitz Middle School. This concern grows from a desire to provide Liberty Park Middle-zoned students with the same academic opportunities as those provided to other student in our community and to protect our neighborhood property values. With the advent of 9th grade moving to Liberty Park Junior High in Fall 2019, the issue is time-sensitive and critical.

Anna presented information regarding her experience with Liberty Park Middle 2017-2018 course scheduling.

Anna received a letter from the school stating there had not been enough students to register for French and so the class would be provided as an online course with a proctor supervisor. The letter advised if her student wanted to change course selections, in light of this information, the school could make a course change. Anna felt the implication was that the school expected the delivery method would make their family desire a course change, since someone checked with her student to say, as a paraphrase, “We haven’t heard back from you; do you still intend to take French?” and also because the procedure for switching classes was outlined in the letter. (If the course was equivalent to what was promised initially, there would have been no need to outline the delivery method in a letter to the parent.) After further investigation, Anna discovered 6 students enrolled for French and 5 for German. Since the parent notification regarding the delivery system, the numbers have dropped for 2 for French and 1 for German.

In addition, Anna was told that the following elective classes would also not be offered due to low enrollment: Career Prep A and Coding. The school indicated Coding would be offered as Lancer Period club. (Lancer Period is a non-academic, 30-minute class offered at the end of each day for club and athletic activities.)

Anna pressed Asst. Superintendent Jane-Marie Marlin to provide more information to parents about the new course selections to boost enrollment. Parents shared there was no curriculum night or notification to parents/students regarding the new course offerings. One parent said she was not even aware her daughter had signed up for courses—there was no communication from the school to let parents know courses were being scheduled or to inform parents about the new aligned course offerings. She was unaware of the courses for which her student had applied.

In response to Anna’s concerns, the school produced a video, published on social media and sent out as a link in an email. She was told course cards would be sent home for review and possible revision, but this has not yet happened. Only a course change card has been posted.

A discussion ensued about the differences between courses offered at Pizitz Middle and Liberty Park Middle. The following are the published course guides for the two middle schools:

Notable differences are that the new courses added at Liberty Park Middle (French, German, Coding and Career Prep A) to achieve alignment had insufficient enrollment. Parents agreed that an online language course with a proctor is not at all the same as a language course with a qualified teacher in the classroom–the two experiences are not at all equivalent.

In the recently released curriculum video, VHHS World Language Department Chair Lisa Garrison explained world languages were “a vital tool all of our students need.” She said it was best to “begin this journey at an earlier age–not waiting until they are at the high school” because “starting a language early is always a benefit because their minds are set up [such that] the earlier they start learning a language, the easier the acquisition….” (At this point, the video abruptly trails off so that we cannot hear the rest of what she said.) Pizitz has offered all three world languages (French, Spanish and German) since before the beginning of Liberty Park Middle school. In its nine years of existence, Liberty Park Middle has never before offered French or German, although parents have clamored for it.

Also in the video, Brooke Brown, VHCS Director of Curriculum and Instruction, said, this year, LPM French and German would be offered through the Middlebury online interactive program, as well as through making use of “resources and experts from our community who can also enrich that experience for our students.” Liberty Park Middle will use this delivery system, but Pizitz Middle will not. One parent shared her child had been part of a pilot “French Fridays” offering this year, using the Middlebury delivery system, and that it had been a useless course. She said her child had gained nothing from the experience and the child said she did not understand why she had bothered to participate. Unless something changes, Although this will be the tenth year of LPM’s existence, unless something changes, it appears French and German will still not be offered as full electives with a teacher in the classroom.

After further discussion, parents concluded the following:

  • Course alignment must be complete: the same courses delivered as electives in both schools to all students who enroll and the courses must be delivered in an equivalent manner. (An online delivery system is not equivalent to having a teacher in the classroom; a 30-minute club period is not equivalent to an elective, academic class offering.)
  • Alignment cannot be a numbers game, because this is what has been used as an excuse for nine years, during which Liberty Park Middle students have suffered due to lack of opportunity and delivery of an inequitable learning experience.
  • Parents suggest a paid advocate (such as a junior-high administrator or ombudsman for Liberty Park Junior High) to ensure that parity is achieved, not only now, but as plans are made for the addition of 9th grade in Liberty Park.

Parents were encouraged to contact the Board of Education by email to share concerns and also attend the board meeting, May 17, 6pm, at which Anna Velasco will speak as our delegate.

Action Items:

  • Attend the BOE meeting on 5/17/17 to show support for Anna’s message regarding parity.
  • Write (email) board members and the superintendent to express the need for parity to be a priority. Please provide reasons for your concern.

  • Encourage your students (and get them to talk to their friends) to reconsider elective choices—choosing electives they think would best serve their interests without regard to fears it might not be delivered in an equitable manner. We need students to sign up to display the true level of interest in these classes before we can advocate for parity.

Report submitted by: Kimberly Cook (


Screen Shot 2017-04-22 at 10.42.23 AMori·en·teer·ing |ˌȯr-ē-ən-ˈtir-iŋ | noun:  a competitive or noncompetitive recreational activity in which participants use a map and compass to navigate between checkpoints along an unfamiliar course

“Busyness is often our temporary escape, and so we run, and we run until we have nothing left to guide us.” [D’Anna Lundstrom]

A friend, Paul Hughes, once likened our life journey to an orienteering race. Paul noted that a proficient orienteer will set her compass coordinates and run, keeping compass in one hand, map in the other, alternately raising the compass or map every few steps to avoid getting off the unmarked trail. The motion of raising the compass is an important part of the technique, because straying from the path costs more time and creates more risk than averting one’s eyes from the trail to check the compass.

Continually, repetitively, regularly, the orienteer raises her compass to check her course.

“Watch the path of your feet And all your ways will be established. Do not turn to the right nor to the left; Turn your foot from evil.” [Proverbs 4:26-27]

The orienteer sets her compass to reach the mark and she follows the path.

“…let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” [Hebrews 12:1-2]

The orienteer calculates her course correctly and checks her progress continually, reaping the reward of His steadfast love and faithfulness.

“All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.”

“Show me your ways, Lord,
teach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long.” [Psalm 25:4-5]

Cahaba Heights Community Foundation Forum Answers


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 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.

Getting What You Want

dissatisfaction-michellegathrenwordpressEver had a bad experience at a restaurant–a waiter who was rude, food that arrived late, fire alarms that went off through the night in a hotel or an expensive steak that was not cooked as requested? I am that person who always lets the manager know if there is a problem with any product or service, and I almost always get satisfaction.

First, remain calm. Getting agitated, using abusive language or waving your arms around in front of other patrons will not get you far. It might make you feel good to see someone else acting that way, but it will rarely achieve the result you desired.

I observed this once in the Addis Ababa airport, 3am, when people were shouting in at least five different languages and gesturing angrily at the person behind the ticket window who was calmly shuffling papers and doing absolutely nothing to rebook tickets from our canceled flight. I remained calm, thinking others were getting plenty upset on my behalf. The only flight to Europe that was leaving any time within the next 12 hours was departing in 15 minutes. In this particular case, a couple of French nationals managed, by some miracle, to get to the ticket window. (Three people had been helped in three hours.) The couple and I had been chatting in line about how we both hoped to make the last flight to Paris. After getting their seats on the near-empty jumbo-jet, they pointed at me, six places back in the line and yelled, “She needs that flight too.” The counter person yelled for me to throw our passports to the front of the line. She quickly stamped our tickets and we ran through the airport, luggage in tow. We were the last persons on the plane before the door closed. This didn’t happen because I yelled, but because I made friends in the line.

Second, remain firm. Keep asking until you get what you think is an appropriate remedy for your problem. If they offer free dessert, but you don’t want dessert because you are on a diet or are full, ask for a complimentary entree or gift certificate for a return visit. If they offer you $50 off your hotel room, but you got no sleep because the fire alarms went off every hour, keep asking for them to take the night off your bill. If the counter person says they are not authorized to help in that way, tell them you will wait while they find a manager. Even in snooty Boston hotels, this will work.

Third, if all else fails, be prepared to leave the restaurant or hotel. Even if I am at the number-three stage, I am persistent. I follow up, after an uncorrected bad experience, with a note to the corporate office or owner. Except when dealing with bad airlines, this has always gotten a response.

I have a great track record of getting free meals, free nights in hotels and other complimentary items because I complain when things are not to my satisfaction or expectation. The business wins because, rather than becoming the victim of an internet troll or losing a customer irretrievably, they redeem the opportunity to win me back. If I get a satisfactory customer experience, I tell lots of other people about it.

My family knows this is my specialty. When the food doesn’t come within 30 minutes, they look my way. I always win.