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Confidential mediation is no way to govern public decisions like 35th Ave NE bike lanes – UPDATED

The plan for 35th Ave NE. Or is it? We can’t tell you because secret, ongoing meetings are confidential.

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.

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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.

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35 responses to “Confidential mediation is no way to govern public decisions like 35th Ave NE bike lanes – UPDATED”

  1. Greg Peterson

    According to SDOT’s outreach, fewer than 25% of respondents were in favor of the proposed design. You can’t stay in office very long if your projects are that unpopular. The smart thing would have been to incorporate the community’s comments into the design in the first place. Years ago, the community asked for protected bike lanes connecting to the Burke-Gillman both east-west and north-south, just not on 35th. All the CBC and SDOT had to do was say “yes.” Instead CM Johnson stood with the less than 25% and now here we are.

    1. William

      It is no wonder the city is stumped by the challenges of homelessness, the opioid epidemic, and a chronically understaffed and undertrained police force, if we have a mayor who cannot after 6 months of pondering cannot make a simple decision, yeah or neah, on bike lanes on a secondary arterial in a neighborhood that is mostly full of entitled well off white people, some of who seem to have nothing better to do that make a mountain out of a molehill.

      1. Sam

        Lol you’re funny and those same white privileged men that want to ride their bikes on 35th, though money has already been spent on the greenway on 39th which wait for it….. connects to the Burke Gilman. Don’t tell me these well off white bikers don’t want to bike a few extra blocks to a safer street?

      2. Greg Peterson

        Hi William,

        CM Johnson’s decision to reject the neighborhood’s plans for a grid of protected bike lanes in favor of mostly unprotected lanes on 35th was made long before Mayor Durkan’s election. Similar to the street car, she didn’t create the problem (same with homelessness, etc.), but as mayor she now owns it. I don’t see the problem with her taking some time to see if this is really a hill she wants to die on.

        The Save35th supporters are at every community meeting, event, hold well-attended rallies, and have signs in the windows of a surprising number of businesses (not to mention numerous residences), especially iconic NE businesses which the community loves and supports.

        There is one Safe35th sign on 35th. One. Safe35th supporters don’t go to community events or meetings, at least not in an organized way.

        Why is that? Part of the problem is the proposed design sucks for bikes and it is really hard to get excited about it. Only four blocks have protected bike lanes in both directions. For 18 blocks bikes share a lane of travel with cars. Isn’t cars and bikes sharing the same lanes exactly what we don’t want?

        And how about safety? SDOT data says that most bike accidents happen on arterials and at intersections. So from a safety standpoint, why would you bikes on unprotected lanes on an arterial–with no special protection at intersections? (other than green paint). That’s just bad bike lane design.

        There has to be better solution that the proposed plan. It is hard to imagine a worse one.

      3. Sightlines

        Sam, Greenways are terrible. The casual way you talk about them indicates to me that you have never ridden a bike on one. Tons of driveways, blind corners, cars parked on both sides of the street, limited sightlines, roundabouts and drivers who all but completely disregard the stop signs, punishment passes and drivers who simply don’t understand a cyclists need for a few feet of space, make for a disaster of a bike ride.

        Since you are pointing out the efficiencies of side streets, I’d also like to point out that side streets are great–for parking cars. There’s no reason a car can’t park on 34th or 36th when visiting businesses on 35th. I’ve been doing it for months now, even before the parking restrictions on 35th just to prepare myself for the upcoming changes. In fact, I’ve noticed that if I turn up a block off 35th, I can generally park closer to my intended destination than if I search for a spot right on 35th.

      4. 47hasbegun

        In reply to Sam: The best response to the whole “white privileged men” thing is articles like this.

      5. So you’re opposing a bike lane project related to a paving project on one road because it doesn’t create enough bike lanes on other roads? I know you’re usually supposed to take people at their word, but you’re implying all these bike-lane opponents would have supported a project that build more, bigger bike lanes over more parking spaces.

        When communities ask for better bike connections SDOT’s response is less, “No,” and more, “When we get around to it.” This is SDOT getting around to the part coinciding to this paving project.

      6. Im guessing the Save35th camp is mostly comprised of well to do housewives and senior citizens. The Safe35th camp, which I would probably include myself in, are too busy working for a living to attend the meetings. Sorry. Look, I know the plans for 35th are not perfect for either side. But what we have here is a pseudo 4 lane street. These are horribly unsafe for cyclists and no good for drivers either. Every time a street is redesigned to eliminate that stupid ass pseudo 4 lane road, it saves lives and does not worsen vehicle traffic. EVERY TIME. Does anyone really think people wont patronize the businesses on 35th because of a lack of street parking? I never park on 35th right now because trying to park on 35th already sucks. Another important thing to remember, too, is that the Save 35th folks are fighting this battle because of the lack of convenience of parking on 35th. Well cry me a fucking river, I’m trying to ride to the grocery store, library, coffee shop, and post office with my kids without getting run over. Believe me, its not easy what with all the entitled soccer Moms in their SUVs that have absolutely no respect for human life besides the kids in their own car. Which brings us to the main point of the post here, which is that entitled white people have the ear of the mayor regarding the proposed street changes, and nobody else does, and that is wrong. And just to be clear, I am white and married to a soccer Mom, I own two cars but would rather use a bike in town, thank you very much. I’m just not going to pretend that northeast is not an overwhelmingly white and wealthy place.

  2. Rebecca B.

    35th Ave NE does NOT pass through “a very wealthy and white neighborhood.” I grew up on NE 77th & 34th NE, one block off 35th and we were not wealthy and the neighborhood was not “white,” and that was in 1966. Please get your facts straight and stop steering people in the wrong direction. This area always has been and currently is made up of hard working middle-class families, of all colors. Please do your research before making blanket statements. Come over and take a look around our neighborhood.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I wrote, “35th Ave NE passes though a very wealthy and white neighborhood compared to the rest of the city.” This is just a fact, not an opinion I invented or an attack on you or the people who live there. You can look up the Census data yourself.

      Of course a high median income does not mean everyone who lives there is rich. Nor does a high percentage of white residents mean everyone who lives there is white. But on average, the neighborhood is very wealthy and white compared to the rest of the city.

      1. Hi Tom,

        I agree Wedgwood/Bryant is whiter and wealthier than Seattle on average. Here’s CM Johnson’s comments defending the proposed 35th Ave NE plan:

        “Low-income people and people of color are less likely to own a vehicle, making them more dependent on transit, walking and biking and disproportionately likely to be killed in a collision.”

        Journalists like Eric Scigliano, Erica C Barnett, and even Tom Fucoloro have pointed out that the city has emphasized building bike lanes in white, wealthy neighborhoods over poorer, more diverse neighborhoods.

        Based on that rationale, why are bike lanes *still* being prioritized in (comparatively) white, wealthy neighborhoods over the poorer, more diverse neighborhoods Johnson claims to support?

        It is a fair question, and it doesn’t take much soul searching to know what the answer is.

      2. Tom Fucoloro

        There are basically two ways the city builds new bike lanes. One: Top priority projects from the 20-year Bike Master Plan are chosen and funded all or mostly through the SDOT bike budget. Two: An investment to repave a street provides an opportunity to build a planned bike lane (typically also with some bike budget funding). 35th Ave NE was not chosen as a bike project, it was chosen as a paving project. And the city’s policy is to build planned bike facilities during paving because that is the easiest and lowest cost opportunity to do so. The only way we will build out the citywide bike network is by including bike lanes in paving projects as designated in the master plan. The city needs to better prioritize equitable access to safe and comfortable bike transportation, but that’s no reason to skip NE Sesttle bike lanes when repaving. Now, if you want to talk about how paving projects are prioritized and chosen, that’s a whole other topic.

      3. Greg Peterson

        Hi Tom,

        Thanks for your response. Your answer is perfectly reasonable and logical. And of course, much different than the answer CM Johnson gave. According to Glen Balk’s column in today’s (Sept 26) Seattle Times:

        78% of bike commuters are male;

        The top five professions of bike commuters are:

        1. College professors
        2. Software Developers
        3. Managers
        4. Physicians/Surgeons
        5. Designers (graphic, industrial, etc.)

        In other words, the typical Seattle bike commuter is a high education/high income male. Had CM Johnson said something like what you did (“we were paving anyway, so now is the logical time”) that would have been the end of it. Instead, he is bizarrely arguing that bike lanes in a white wealthy neighborhood which will be used mostly by high income/high education males is a tool to provide social justice to the under privileged. Really?

        CM Johnson and his staff have made a number of statements like this one that can be politely termed “whoppers.” Internal emails show that he and his staff don’t even believe some of their own whoppers. Perhaps some of the reason why this topic has become so divisive is CM Johnson’s use of whoppers when the truth will do.

    2. Fish

      1966? This comment is a joke right? I’ve heard Seattle’s changed a bit…

  3. Law Abider

    The Missing Link “compromise” was a confidential mediation between the Obstructionists and Seattle. Although the Obstructionists very quickly went back on their compromise and the Missing Link is still missing. Although it was Murray that began that train wreck, Durkin has done nothing to fix it.

    When Durkin inevitably runs for governor, she knows the bike crowd won’t vote for whatever terrible candidate the GOP runs against her. Her whole mayoral career is going to be spent trying to win over potential swing voters and the 35th debacle is a prime example of that.

  4. Bob

    So $14k is a fair chunk of change and over the city’s $8k limit for procurement without a purchasing process. I wonder what a public disclosure request for the vendor selection process would find?

    To answer my own question, I’d guess no competition and some excuse that it’s multiple sessions each below the procurement threshold. But it might be worth a try.

  5. Kurt

    It seems funny to complain about “confidential meetings” going on when it’s been disclosed that Rob Johnson has and his staff has had meetings/communications with the Cascade Bike Club and lied about it.
    At least they are meeting with both sides.
    Everyone should work together to make the streets safer. All re-striping 35th will do is drive cars to the side streets. I know, because I do it on the occasions that I need to drive to work down the 75th street corridor. Why? because of the road diet, I mean, bike lanes on 75th.
    What should happen is that the city should survey the 3% (?) of the people who commute on bikes and ask them what streets they ride to work on then put the bike routes on those streets.

    1. Thank you for illustrating why we need diverters.

    2. Andres Salomon

      “What should happen is that the city should survey the 3% (?) of the people who commute on bikes and ask them what streets they ride to work on then put the bike routes on those streets.”

      That’s… what the city did. That’s how the 2014 Bike Master Plan was created. Guess what? People use 35th, which is why it ended up in the BMP. Strava heat maps show this as well: https://twitter.com/tpfliss/status/957485387638751233

  6. kommish

    Wait. The group that has vociferously insisted that there was inadequate public input in justification for the insistence on delaying/changing the project, now gets a confidential mediation?

    This is a street project. Neither of the two groups involved in this confidential mediation own this neighborhood or are the only ones impacted by any decision, they’re just the ones with the means to be vocal in decisionmaking. No one involved, including the City, can have it both ways – public input on one day, and confidential agreement-making on the other.

  7. Pablo96

    SDOT is a unionized mafia….the Seattle City Council are MIA (Morons In Action) and I feel sorry for anyone that voted “Yes” for Move Seattle. I’m a bus commuter and I voted “no”…no precedent SDOT knows how to deliver projects (negotiate labor contract first…whatever is left is, well….what’s left!), why would they magically start with Move Seattle? Pragmatism exit stage left: no round of applause, only higher taxes and more traffic and cushy retirement plans for a very, very small number of people.

  8. eddiew

    I hope the mediation cools the discussion and considers several modes simultaneously, not just cars and bikes. Transit uses 35th Avenue NE; Route 65 connects the UW Link station with Lake City; it is through routed with Route 67 so reliability is important. Pedestrians use the sidewalks and crossings of 35th Avenue NE. Today, there are two lanes in the peak direction, as parallel parking is restricted. The arterial is pretty narrow, especially south of NE 65th Street. Can both bikes and transit have priority? I doubt it. I lived just off 35th Avenue twice for a few years and was regular bike commuter. both 35th and 40th avenues NE have excellent connections with the Burke Gilman Trail. Car storage (parking) has to be the lowest priority for curb space.

  9. thebeavs

    Hey, I’ve got an idea. How about fuck bike lanes???

    1. Law Abider

      Good point! It should instead be a two way, protected cycle track.

      1. Ragged Robin

        I agree with thebeavs–let’s just ban private vehicles altogether. No need for protected bike lanes when there’s no privileged and irresponsible drivers in two tons of steel and plastic out to kill people

      2. Kurt

        That of course, would include bicycles as well, they are private vehicles. :)
        Careful what you wish for.


    Howell: “I disclosed this [40 year friendship to Jordan Royer] to city officials.”

    Phenomenal. Did he disclose this to the groups he is mediating? Sure doesn’t sound like it

  11. ronp

    Damn, I wish these bike lane opponents would just hop on a lime bike (even an electric one) and enjoy the hell out of biking around Seattle. It is fantastic.

    You get healthy, you smile, you notice others biking and walking. You see the fantastic houses and parks and shops!

    Car parking is terrible! Car driving is even worse! You are polluting the planet, you are warming the globe, flooding the cities!

    So I say to you to anti bike lane folks – “Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough.”
    ― Emily Dickinson

  12. Bradley Hawkins

    So fun hearing all the haters. I’ll remember to just ride down the middle of the lane on 35th like I always have done and just slow the traffic down for my own safety. What a funny group of people; hating bike riders because they are so rich. If they are so rich, any business would love to have them transiting in front of their business.

  13. […] WTH Seattle?: The public disagreements and lack of political will in Seattle has gotten so bad the city has hired a mediator to help move a project forward. […]

  14. Bill

    Just shows how out of touch with reality you are if you think a few hundred dollars donated to a campaign nine years ago is swaying someone decision making, grow up.

  15. Erik

    Whether one is for or against these bike lanes, we are all Americans and believe, or should, in open democratic processes and this privately mediated discussion is not in that spirit. If anyone read the article last week exposing the texts between and among Durking, city council members, and wealthy players like Nick Hanauer I am not surprised to seeing this continue. All the while to our faces our local politicians claim to be here for us but I’m seeing they are here for special interests.

  16. RossB

    >> 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.

    Really? That seems like a wonderful use of SDOT funding. Keep in mind, this is peanuts. I mean that sincerely — 14 grand is nothing. What exactly will $14,000 buy you in bike infrastructure? Nothing, really.

    Meanwhile, some of these opponents are wackos. These are the type of people who throw tacks on the ground. I’m not saying any of these folks will do that, but would it shock anyone if they did? Just back up here, and consider how such behavior manifests itself. Typically, it occurs not as rouge agitators, but folks acting in their own angry, but not tiny bubble. The McVeigh brother acted “alone”, but you can be sure that when they were venting — when it came to angry rhetoric — they had plenty of company. Few, if any, of the people who agreed with them wanted them to murder a few hundred children (in the second worst act of terrorism in America) but they sure agreed with them when they were ranting. My guess is the same was true for the jerk (or jerks) who through the tacks down on Westlake. They were upset that the project would somehow would ruin their business, and dagnabbit, if no one else will take action, they will. Again, everyone else would likely think that was going to far, but that doesn’t mean that the echoing within the chamber didn’t play a part in their extremism.

    If this little hand-holding exercise manages to cool tempers a bit, then 14 grand is a tiny amount to spend. If folks actually have a little bit of empathy when it comes to the trade-off between safety and parking then this is well worth the money.

    If, on the other hand, things change, and the city decides to do something different there, then that is a different story. If the city backtracks, and works out some sort of “compromise” that makes biking much worse, then this will be a tremendous waste of both money and time. But at this point, I can only assume that the city will go ahead and build the bike lanes while trying to please the businesses with soothing words (or perhaps something more tangible but not related to biking).

  17. […] Durkan has hired a mediator (John Howell from Cedar River Group) at a cost of $14,000 (despite an apparent conflict of interest due to ties with a Save 35th leader) to give them even more of a chance to air their opinions. […]

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