There I was, fresh coffee in hand, reading through my morning news when I saw my own site mentioned in a story by Ryan Packer at The Urbanist regarding an ethics complaint against the City of Bellevue’s friendly and hard-working Mobility Planning and Solutions Manager Franz Loewenherz. Surely this must be some kind of mistake, I thought, because this is the first I’ve heard of this. As a supposed party to this alleged unethical behavior, you’d think I would know about it.
I have requests out to the City of Bellevue to get a copy of the complaint and any other relevant documents about their ongoing investigation (UPDATE: I have the complaint. See the UPDATE section below). But I suppose I’m in the privileged position here of being able to search my own email for the evidence. So that’s what I did, turning up a grand total of one email thread from Loewenherz since 2021. It was a September 7 email to me, Vicky Clarke from Cascade Bicycle Club, Katherine Hollis of Eastside Trail Partners and Chris Randels of Complete Streets Bellevue telling us that the Bellevue Transportation Commission would be holding a meeting in a week about Bike Bellevue. Transportation Commission agendas and presentation materials are posted publicly online in advance of every meeting, so this wasn’t secret information.
Loewenherz then sent a follow-up email September 15 after the public meeting saying that the meeting happened, and then another on September 18 with a copy of a mass email Bellevue had sent out about the online feedback portal along with a link to a media story about it. And that’s it. That is every piece of communication Seattle Bike Blog has had with Loewenherz in recent years. We ended up posting our story September 20.
I have no idea what the complaint is here. It’s pretty common for officials to give relevant stakeholders and media a heads up about scheduled public proceedings regarding a project they have been following. Seattle Bike Blog has “Seattle” in the name, but we cover the whole region including Bellevue. We have many readers who live, work and travel through Bellevue, and we’ve covered essentially all the city’s major bicycling planning efforts in the past 14 years or so. At times we were the only ones covering this stuff. If you’re trying to reach people who ride bikes in Bellevue, it makes sense to contact Seattle Bike Blog. The other people copied on the email were members of organizations working on biking issues in Bellevue, also groups you’d want to contact if you were collecting feedback on a bike plan. It would be negligent NOT to contact local bike groups when collecting feedback on a bike plan.
It’s especially surprising to see an ethics complaint against Loewenherz because at least in all of my contacts with him since 2013, he’s always been such a cautious and by-the-books kind of city staffer. The Bike Bellevue plan is ambitious, but it’s been developed through a very drawn-out and careful process. It’s a follow-up to the city’s 2017 “Bicycle Rapid Implementation Plan” and 2018 downtown protected bike lane pilot project. Those launched six years ago and were themselves follow-up efforts to the Vision Zero plan Bellevue started in 2015 in part to address shortcomings in Bellevue’s 2009 Pedestrian and Bicycle Plan. Loewenherz is typically very careful not to skip steps in the public process, which can be frustrating to safe streets advocates who want to see a lot of changes as quickly as possible. Loewenherz has a lot of patience, and that patience has paid off in the form of some significant bike projects even in difficult locations within Bellevue’s downtown. Someone trying to move faster may have hit a brick wall of opposition long ago.
I have no inside information about the ethics complaint or the investigation. Maybe there’s some other damning piece of evidence that doesn’t involve Seattle Bike Blog, but I’m not aware of anything at this time. I’ll follow-up when I learn more. As for now, the Bike Bellevue effort seems to be on pause, according to Packer at The Urbanist. Hopefully this pause does not last long because Bellevue has a lot of work to do to make all these streets safer.
The complaint was also submitted as part of the 250-page public feedback summary (thanks Hanoch and Ryan for pointing me to it). The complaint (PDF), filed by Bellevue resident Phyllis White, requests that the city remove Loewenherz from the Bike Bellevue project and restart the entire outreach process. The specific code the complaint accuses Loewenherz of breaking was BCC 3.90.040, which states, “No city employee shall engage in any act which is in conflict with, or creates an appearance of conflict with, the performance of official duties.”
The complaint includes screenshots of the email thread I described above as well as two emails that did not include Seattle Bike Blog. It specifically cites 5 alleged unethical acts, though they do not actually seem to be entirely distinct from each other. I am not a lawyer, though, so take my word with a grain of salt here. But one detail that really stands out is that the complaint latches onto the fact that Loewenherz opened one of the emails with the phrase “Hi Team.” The complaint then erroneously refers to any of the advocates he is communicating with as “his team.” This was just a casual, informal greeting, like saying, “Hi guys,” or “Hey y’all.” Everyone on that email already knew Loewenherz from his many years of work for Bellevue, so the casual tone did not seem out of place or inappropriate to me. As one of the people on the email, I can assure you we were not a team beyond the fact that we all work on safe streets issues. This complaint is reading way too much into that one word.
The only real new (to me) information in the complaint are two emails in which Loewenherz shared some public comments with a couple people including Complete Streets Bellevue and Eastside Urbanism. There is also an email in which he tells some advocates that they have revised the way they talk about parking impacts in response to feedback. Loewenherz includes the phrase “sharing in confidence” when sharing the public comments, which complaint alleges as evidence of “acknowledged impropriety.” But these were public comments, key word: “public.” I don’t think it’s unethical for a public official to share a public comment. There’s also no further context around these emails, so it’s impossible to come to a conclusion based solely on them. Perhaps he was asked about them? Of course it does look shady when someone says, “sharing in confidence,” and I have no insight into why he used that phrase. Again, this is just the complaint, and I have no access to his defense or the other elements of the investigation. But based on my previous experience with Loewenherz, I know he’s someone who is very hesitant to go around putting people on blast, so that’s what I assumed he was trying to avoid when I first read the emails. But again, I have no inside information about this.
As for the final email, he is informing some people who are doing outreach to building managers that Bellevue has updated one of its infographics related to impacts to parking in response to feedback. The complaint alleges that in the email he was trying to “avoid having to disclose such impacts by using Eastside Urbanism as a communications proxy,” but it seems to me that he was instead informing them of the updated graphic. Of course Eastside Urbanism doesn’t have to follow the city’s official language because they are an independent group, but I don’t see how updating the info and then sending that updated info to people is a problem. And it is quite a stretch to claim that Eastside Urbanism could possibly be considered a “communications proxy” to the City of Bellevue. They have 195 followers on Twitter, a Meetup page and a Discord server (and sound like a great group to join if you’re into urbanist issues on the Eastside). They are the kind of people who probably ask Loewenherz a lot of questions because this is the stuff they’re into. These are urbanism geeks (again, no offense intended, I use that phrase as a compliment). I mean, who else could possibly care about Bellevue updating the language around parking impacts on page 5 of the Bike Bellevue Draft Concepts Guide?
So the allegations here are that Loewenherz, the city staffer tasked with developing and carrying out the Bike Bellevue, sent notices of public proceedings to bike media and advocates, used the word “team” in a casual manner once, shared public comments, and shared updated language about parking impacts. We’ll see if the ethics investigation thinks these are violations, but I sure don’t see it.
But in the spirit of throwing around wild accusations, this all sounds to me like bike lane opponents trying to disparage a public servant’s reputation and honor in a desperate effort to subvert the official process because they know they are losing. Loewenherz runs such a tight ship that the only thing they can hope to do is to take him down personally because his work is too careful to attack on its merits.