SDOT and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Office (UPDATE 9/20: and Councilmember Rob Johnson’s Office) has convened a confidential mediation session between a handful of people who support and oppose bike lanes at part of the city’s under-construction 35th Ave NE repaving project.
Seattle Bike Blog has been working for a while to learn details about these mediation sessions — which are paid for by public funds and could influence public investments on a public street — but has been unable to receive times and locations for the meetings so I can report about them for you.
UPDATE 9/19: Since publication, Twitter user @bruteforceblog noted that the city’s chosen moderator John A Howell of Cedar River Group donated not only to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s campaign ($200) (UPDATE 9/20: and $100 to Councilmember Johnson’s 2015 campaign) but also to the failed 2009 City Council campaign of Jordan Royer, according to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission. Royer is an organizer of the bike lane opposition, a committee officer of the group’s new political action committee and a party to the mediation. Royer, seen here embracing Mayor Durkan during a campaign event, also donated $500 to Durkan’s campaign. In 2009, Howell donated to Royer’s campaign on two occasions totaling $250. Another Cedar River Group employee, Tom Byers, donated another $400 to Royer bringing the firm’s reported total to $650.
Howell previously worked for Jordan’s father Charles Royer when he was Mayor of Seattle in the 1980s. So his history with the Royer family goes way back.
I have an email out to both the Mayor’s Office and Howell asking how he was chosen for this role, whether this connection to a member of the opposition was disclosed and whether they see this as a conflict of interest. I will update this when/if I hear back. UPDATE: Howell emailed to say he did disclose his ties to Royer and does not think it is a conflict of interest:
I worked for Jordan Royer’s father in the 1970’s and 80’s. As a result, I have known Jordan for 40 years. I disclosed this to city officials. I have friends and colleagues on both sides of the debate about 35th Ave. I personally have not sided with either perspective, and will not do so. To answer your question about a 9 year old contribution to a city council race, I do not see that as a conflict.
UDPATE 9/20: Councilmember Johnson called to defend the talks, saying he reached out to Howell because he thought his relationship with Royer would be helpful.
“[Howell] is one of if not the most accomplished mediator and facilitator I’ve ever worked with,” Johnson said. “Between the unlit fireworks and gas cans, the death threats, the threat of real protest in front of people’s houses, and the real impact it is having on neighborly relations in the neighborhood, I had hoped that hiring John would allow people to come together and really take the temperature down.
“This isn’t a conspiracy by the Mayor’s Office.”
Erica Barnett at the C Is For Crank reported Tuesday that the mediation is costing taxpayers $14,000, and Seattle Bike Blog has learned that this money is coming from SDOT (UPDATE: An SDOT spokesperson confirmed that the funds are coming from the Bicycle Program). Barnett also reports that the completion of the project, which is already under construction, may be delayed because “SDOT is having an ongoing dialogue with the communities impacted by these projects,” according to a presentation to the City Council Transportation Committee (PDF).
There is no doubt that the opposition to 35th Ave NE bike lanes has been very organized. Several people behind the Save 35th Ave NE group have even formed a political action committee called Neighborhoods For Smart Streets PAC. Because saying people are not smart if they don’t agree car parking is more important than safety, that’s a great way to engage with your neighbors.
But regardless of the outcome, confidential mediation is an inappropriate way to make decisions about public investments, especially when we already have official policies and plans to guide such decisions. How are the participants for the mediation chosen? How do we know every Seattle resident is appropriately represented in these talks? Several of the anti-bike lane organizers happen to be lawyers. Do all parties have equal access to lawyers?
35th Ave NE passes though a very wealthy and white neighborhood compared to the rest of the city, but the investment to spend millions to repave that street is being made by all of us no matter where we live. Every street is of citywide importance. That’s why we make plans like the Bicycle Master Plan or policies like the Complete Streets Ordinance and the elected City Council passes them in the full light of day.
Maybe there is a place for confidential mediation in conducting city business, though my preference for open government makes me skeptical. But a project like 35th Ave NE that follows officially and publicly approved plans is not one of them. Just because a group gets organized or has the money to start a PAC doesn’t mean they should be able to get a separate mediation process from the city. What precedent does this set? Does every neighborhood group now get to demand confidential mediation for every city project they don’t like? Or just the wealthy ones?
If the goal of the mediation is to significantly change the design of a public investment project that has already gone through public meetings and a public contracting process, that is worrying. But if the goal is to see if bike lane supporters and opponents can come together and sing Kumbaya, that’s maybe less worrying but still a questionable use of SDOT funding. But I would definitely be there to cover their first concert together as newfound besties.
Part of the mediation rules requires both parties to refrain from making statements to their respective members or to the press. This is troubling to me as a believer in open meetings and public access, though Seattle Bike Blog doesn’t have a legal team or budget to look into the legality of such a restriction. But even if it is perfectly legal to do this, it feels wrong.
The official, public page for the project makes no mention of the mediation. Below is all the information I was able to get from SDOT and the Mayor’s Office. When I asked follow-up questions, the response was, “I’m sorry, but the department can’t comment on the mediation process beyond what was shared yesterday.”
In partnership with the Mayor’s Office, Councilmember Johnson, and SDOT, John Howell (from the consulting firm Cedar River Group) is mediating conversations regarding the 35th Ave NE Project with neighborhood and community members, including bike advocates, attempting to find common ground and project improvements to address the needs of the community.
While this effort is underway, contractor crews continue to repair street panels, replace curb ramps, repair sidewalks, and pave the road in the project corridor. The temporary striping that is on the road now will remain in place. We’ll provide an update on final striping to the community when we have more details on timing. You can sign up to receive our weekly email updates via our web page if you are interested.