Monday, September 24, 2007

The 10th Street Parking 'issue': A Tempest in a Teapot

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
-Sir Edmund Burke"
When this rather routine item first began becoming an 'issue' in 2006, I was skeptical of its importance and therefore inclined to dismiss it as a few NIMBYs intent on getting their way.

Then, it became apparent that some Council members had taken up this cause 'du jour', which led to Council actually directing staff to reexamine the parking plans.
I decided to listen more closely to the history of planning the Taylor Street Dock Project, the plan that was adopted for implementation, all in the context of the rhetoric about whether the angled parking planned should be provided or a lesser number of parallel spaces.

I also visited the site -just north of the Chrysalis Hotel- on several occasions; re-read all the information provided by Parks Dept and by citizens -both pro and con-; attended the special meeting which lasted almost 3 hours and was televised; attended the 7/12 Parks Board meeting at which this topic was again discussed; and reflected on all the above proceedings while trying to keep an open mind.

My initial feeling that this was a small issue, has been magnified by the realization that any issue, no matter how small, can become bigger if a few people want it to do so.
There are always questions about 'public process' and whether neighborhoods are adversely impacted, whether viable alternatives have been considered that would work equally well, whether adequate notice was given, and whether other agendas are being furthered through exploitation of each divisive opportunity.

What I have determined in this case is that much valuable and scarce staff time has been expended for little good purpose, that the design proposed by Parks was reasonable and was itself the product of active debate and negotiation, that my patience is growing thin in listening to selfish arguments that are disguised as 'the will of the neighbors', that those who wish to influence the public and Council will stop at nothing, including deliberately shading the truth, hawking petitions based on false choices, and packing public meetings, and personally deriding those who disagree, to achieve their desires.

I hoped that the Council would have the wisdom to carefully evaluate this debate, separate the facts from the fiction, and confirm its support of both the Parks Department's professional conduct and its recommended plan for parking.
That did not happen.

But, there were a few new ideas offered in this debate that could either be used to modify the plan or to confirm it is truly needed in the interest of public safety and fairness to the community as a whole.

Here are a few points that I either heard pretty clearly, or deduced, during this 'debate':

• Arguing over 12 additional parking spaces seems trivial and a waste of time.
Although this argument was from a neighborhood supporter, it cuts both ways.

• Parallel parking could have been provided on both sides of the street, but at major additional cost and adverse impacts to neighbors' front yards.

• Safely separating pedestrians from cars and bicycles is necessary and makes good sense.
Some even seemed to believe this should be a pedestrian 'promenade' area, excluding cars.

• There is already angled parking in this area -south of the Hotel- and it works well to protect car passengers and bikers.

• Nearby Boulevard Park has inadequate parking, and is severely limited for space, but is linked to Taylor Street Dock by use. Connecting these two areas with sidewalks and maximizing available space for parking seemed wise.

• Some other neighbors -the less vocal ones- do support the Parks Dept angled parking plan, including the new condos, Rip-Tide, and some single family units. But, their voices were drowned out.

• 2-hour parking signs could be used to ensure turnover.

• Taylor Street Dock is a major attraction for the entire community as well as visitors.
This project took many years and millions of dollars to realize, and should not considered as a private amenity.

• New 15-minute bus service, one block away, helps people access to Taylor Street Dock, but doesn't solve long term problem.

• The area intended to provide parking is in an oversized 100-foot Street Right-Of-Way, not in parkland or shoreline areas.

• There is a perception by some that all of the grassed space is to be their neighborhood park, and not part of a community park area financed by 4.5 million in public funds. This included gravelled areas formerly used for parking!

• By not providing all of the parking -as proposed- here, it will force parking into adjacent areas, impacting lawns and less safe road shoulders.

• This matter was not an appropriate matter for the City Council to debate and decide.
Interposing the Council's will on routine plans that have already been thoroughly vetted, are likely to encourage more minor disagreements to balloon to similar outlandish proportions.

• Council's unwise actions on this routine matter, have served to undermine confidence in the Parks Dept's integrity and professionalism, and what is meant by 'public process' in general.
Plus it has been a terrific waste of time and community good will!

• The role of the Neighborhood Association interjecting itself into this 'issue' is also questionable, suggesting a test of wills on a small, divisive issue.
At times it seemed as if the parking wasn't the 'issue' at all; that other agendas were at work to decide who could pander better to those who professed that angled parking harmed them.
Almost 'Alice in Wonderland-like'!

• Can you imagine a time when a friend or relative from across town, or out of town, arrives and visits Taylor Street Dock? Are they likely to walk, bike or take a bus there?
The lack of parking is already a problem at certain times and this problem will only grow in the future.
Why not put 12 more parking spaces there to efficiently -and more safely- use the space available?

• Downtown's Railroad Avenue has four rows of angled parking in front of popular eating establishments that have high rates of turnover.
These are empty during most hours, but more than full at others.
They operate safely and efficiently and provide on street parking that is easily accessed, while separating people from cars and bikes.
It is ludicrous to call these dangerous, unsightly or unneeded.

• The use of personal, ad hominem attacks on those who supported angled parking speaks volumes for the mind-set of those campaigning so hard to get their wish, against it.
They don't seem to care about others needs, or the fact this is a community wide amenity that has required years of planning, enormous funding and effort to make it happen.
The utter dismissal of the process that got us to where we are now, really comes across as selfish and arbitrary.

• Some opponents of angled parking actually thought of the green R-O-W strip as theirs!
They are right, but so are many others who don't live across the street.
The R-O-W's are owned by the residents, but with the proviso they are to be used by the City in the best interests of community wide health, safety and welfare!
Residents could buy this property for their private use, but only if is determined to be superfluous to City needs, and formally vacated by the City Council.

• This immediate area has been improved greatly over what it was in the past.
Blackberries, weeds and debris have been cleared, the property purchased with public funds and amenities built and mainatained.
Most people would be very pleased to have the additional parking, instead of people blocking their driveways and side streets.

• The conduct of those so strongly opposed to angled parking was abysmal at times.
Aside from outright misinformation, loudly insisting on spurious arguments, and acting discourteously [applause, personal attacks, discrediting staff] to City staff and others who attended the 7/12/06 meeting, in particular.
Despite presentations from knowledgeable professionals, these people would not acknowledge any benefit of the angled parking plan, which was carefully explained on several occasions.
This type of conduct illustrates closed thinking based upon personal wants and wishes, not facts or community good.
It is incredible that a majority of Council would accede to this type of pressure, and over such a 'trivial' matter!

• Rewarding such conduct would encourage more of the same.

• The Coast Millenium Trail uses this trail segment, either via the dock or 10th street, and requires continuity as it passes through the city.

• Such a decision should not be made solely on the basis of popular, vocal support.
Even if only one person spoke who had a truly convincing argument, that would be sufficient for a responsibly made decision.
Curiously, it was during this particular 'issue' that I began to broaden my friendship with Joan Beardsley, who had just entered office in January of 2006.
I came to greatly admire and respect her for her good heart and clear perspective, although I had not known her well, or for long.
We shared many of the same values and motivations for public service, and I miss her ready smile, capacity for work and caring personality.
Her premature passing was a sadness, brightened only by her good memory.
Joan was having something of a difficult time understanding this 'issue' and deciding upon it fairly.
As was her fashion, she listened to everyone, spent hours asking questions, seeking answers and constantly sought solutions that were satisfactory for all. In this case, the latter proved simply impossible!
But, still she tried.

Here's an excerpt of an e-mail I sent her, which seemed to help.
She later told me that she had placed this in a 'refer to frequently' file.
I felt truly honored that these thoughts helped her.

Thanks for your e-mail note on this debate, which has recently been allowed to take on dimensions of such importance.
I am copying all Council members because the information provided here may be of general interest as well.

I do appreciate your struggles in attempting to come to a right decision, because that demonstrates you are trying to examine all aspects of this discussion, which has now become an issue.
How refreshing!
That is also what elected officials are supposed to do and no one can ask for more.
So, no 'apologies' are needed, least of all to me.

There is no set protocol or rule book with rigid criteria to guide us, and if there were it would be impossible to enforce.

Some of the general principles I have decided to follow -regardless of issue- are these:

• whether decisions are legal

• whether they are fair and consistent with policy and past precedents

• whether they reasonably comport with the process that developed them

• whether the decision is really my [Council's] responsibility

• whether arguments to overturn or change are factual or political

• whether new precedents will be set that will be difficult to sustain

• whether our professional staff supports specific options, and why

• whether the greatest possible community wide benefit is assured

• whether I have done sufficient homework to understand the rationale and reasonable options

• whether my decision honors the recommendations of the volunteer boards and commissions responsible for reviews and recommendations

• whether any adverse unintended consequences may result

• whether decisions are made in sunshine, with reasonable public involvement

• whether public funds are wisely used and benefits outweigh the costs

• whether conflict of interest or appearance of fairness violations may result, or perceptions of same

Note that none of these allow me much room for subjective whim or opinion, autocratic authority, or populism.
None of these are things are sustainable, because voters and taxpayers rightfully expect consistently better justifications."
At the meeting in which this 'issue' was finally decided -[4 to 3 against angled parking]- Joan was part of the minority.
She had decided in favor of the original idea proposed by the Parks Dept for angled parking.

But, that was not the biggest decision that Joan Beardsley made that night.

Earlier, she had announced her mistake in believing that four Council votes had been committed to spending all available Greenways 3 money to purchase Chuckanut Ridge property.
That took courage, of which she had plenty!

Here's a brief excerpt of the e-mail I sent her later that night:


Thank you for your courage in making your statement this afternoon and again tonight.
I know it was not an easy thing to do to admit a mistake and try to correct it.
But, you did exactly the right thing and I support you fully.

Regarding tonight's discussion on 10th Street, you again showed the sort of reasoned thinking and backbone that I most admire.
I believe this one little episode served as a real learning experience on how genuine concerns can be elevated and expanded to outlandish, entrenched positions, and the power of pressure exerted in just the right ways to influence what should have been a rather routine decision.
It would be an overstatement to call this a clear case of micro-management, because some legitimate issues were thoroughly discussed and a number of good ideas presented that would have otherwise gone unheard.

In the end, I have to ask myself was this effort worth it?
For the 'winners' perhaps it was, but what about the entire community and the message -intended or unintended- that was communicated?
It was a microcosm of larger issues with which I believe we could have better spent our time, but time management is not a strength of legislative bodies!
In the long term, it will not attract mention in any history books, but I still believe it is the principle that counts, not the petty politics.
This, despite the current awful regime in that other Washington - DC. Guess that comes from being a Tarheel from NC.
We have the reputation for being slow to anger, but once aroused, not retreating from a fight.

The troubling part to me has been the lengths that people will go to get their way, no matter how important.
That has always been my Achilles Heel.
I truly need to trust the people I associate with, as I also need to earn their trust.
Unfortunately, I have lost that feeling with some of the current Council members, but not you.

Joan, you have the greatest potential for the kind of caring and reasoned leadership this city really needs.
You are universally well liked and respected and were elected with 70% of the voters on issues that really count, not the promise of pandering to every special interest group that whines.
You have tremendous political capital to spend wisely, as I am sure you plan to do.
Do not become distracted or discouraged in this noble endeavor!
And take care of yourself by setting realistic limits on what you can do without harming your own well being.
And, above all, do not let this feed your ego!

Thank you again for being there for the fine citizens of Bellingham.
And thanks for just naturally sharing much of my own philosophy of best efforts, every time.
That is obvious and greatly encourages me.

God bless you Joan Beardsley. Your spirit lives!
"The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number of people within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of those unborn generations"
--Theodore Roosevelt