There are some things you should not task engineers with, and it turns out, running a public meeting is one of them.
Last night was the informational meeting to share “big plans!” with the residents of the Palisades subdivision, and let’s be charitable and say it didn’t go as well as anyone might have hoped. Or let’s be less charitable and say it could have been a textbook example of how not to conduct a public meeting.
The other day we got an illegal (unstamped, unmailed) flyer in our mailbox touting a summer project in which all the streets in the Palisades will be ripped up and replaced, along with installation of new gutters and curbs. Come to an informational meeting to get your questions answered, the flyer invited. But there turned out to be a massive disconnect between what the city’s public works department figured would be useful information and what the city’s public really wanted to know.
Our public works director, David Gardner, and Cody Tusing, the city engineer, offered a power point presentation that consisted — as so many unfortunately do — of reading off the slides shown on the screen. They also had several pictures to illustrate their points: the streets of the Palisades, which they mistakenly believe have not been paved since the 1960s, are failing, and the drainage system is inadequate.
The city has saved for two years, they said, to commit $900,000 to this repair-and-replace. They are throwing in with the county’s other municipalities to time all the projects at once, and coordinate the same road base, to increase the scope and hopefully attract more, and more competitive, bids.
Everyone understood that, but that’s where we and these engineers parted ways. The bulk of their presentation consisted of the depth of the asphalt (only an inch), the collapse of the crown, various systems for grading (as in a scale, not a big machine) road quality (we’re in the 40s, a failing grade in any system), schematics for repair schedules (do little repairs more often or big repairs less often at greater cost), a technical discussion of the roto-milling of the asphalt that gets ripped up and deposited right behind the machine for use as base, where drain pans will go and how four of them will be additions to the system, a website to read about asphalt . . .
Still with us?
Here are questions NOT anticipated in their power point: A timeline. How the project will proceed (all the streets at once, or one at a time). What happens to people’s yards in this process. Where mailboxes will end up. Where people might park during destruction/ construction. The definition of a curb. How new concrete will connect with existing concrete which might be of a different slope. What, exactly, are they going to do?
What was stunning was how very unanticipated these fairly basic questions were, and how unanswered they went. City manager Russ Forrest ended up providing translation several times, but as the meeting progressed past its first hour and questions were met with diffusion and dissembling, more and more people abandoned the meeting, mostly still uninformed.
I doubt very much the non-answers were intentional. I think these two men really thought they were explaining themselves clearly. But they also never grasped that they weren’t answering people’s questions or addressing their concerns, and it became clear that they have given very little thought to the mechanics beyond their exciting world of asphalt and concrete.
They got defensive early on, when their audience was only trying to determine the scope and impact of the project. Mr. Tusing in particular stuck stubbornly to his talking points when it was beyond obvious to everyone else that he was not speaking the same language. He was insistent — beyond reason, really — that there are currently no sidewalks in the Palisades. This is a curb, and by no definition can it be considered a legal sidewalk.
Everyone in the room understood that quickly enough, but at no time did he grasp what they were reflecting back to him: what happens to this “illegal sidewalk”? Where are people supposed to walk to be safe from traffic? It took the better part of an hour, some assistance from Mr. Forrest, and self-deduction for those of in the audience to realize: our sidewalk, small as it is, is going away, with no provision for replacement.
Mr. Tusing, who seemed incapable of answering any question posed to him, never realized the impact this is going to have on Palisades residents. In his probably very logical mind, it already isn’t a sidewalk, it’s a curb, so what does it matter if it changes shape to conform to codes?
Mr. Gardner just kept getting defensive about his budget: he has saved for two years — two years! — to be able to afford this $900,000 street repair, which is necessary. Sidewalks (apparently not necessary in a city that stresses walkability) would cost another $800,000. Maybe they can happen in five years. I don’t really see how: he was quite explicit in how the city does smaller slurry and crack-sealing projects in off years to be able to afford major road overhauls — and their carefully color-coded map that was very hard to distinguish shows plenty of other streets in the city receiving failing grades. We should appreciate that we are being placed ahead of South 10th, Wisconsin and all the other streets in need.
The audience respondents struggled, also without success, to get these two men to understand that we aren’t — at this point — complaining about the project, just trying to understand exactly what it does.
Here, after an hour and a half of spinning in two distinct circles, is what I think is happening: Somewhere, perhaps the midpoint of the current non-sidewalk, a new, vertical curb will be placed, attached to a gutter. This will allow the roads to widen slightly, which will improve sightlines (and allow people to drive faster, but they weren’t grasping that concern, either). The sidewalks are going away. In the unlikely event there ever are new ones, they’re going to encroach five feet into what people now consider to be their yards. The little bit of non-sidewalk not part of the new, improved street will be converted to landscaping. (Also unanticipated: the postmaster assured them they will need to pull the mailboxes forward, to be reached from the new curb.)
Lost in this discussion was how many trees are going to be lost in this project, including, perhaps, our big evergreen and every other tree like it on our block. Our neighbors Dave and LeighAnn were not at the meeting, but I know they’re going to be devastated to learn that their willow, used as the photo illustration for how trees are disrupting the roadway, is on the literal chopping block.
Mr. Forrest suggested another meeting, once a bid has been awarded, to address the project mechanics, the whens and hows, and I think they were given some food for thought, like places residents can park on days their street is closed. I suggested to their GIS technician that taking a photo of a current Palisades street and drawing lines to illustrate the project would be a more helpful than their engineering diagram. She said she tried to dissuade them from using it, but they weren’t listening to her. Probably they should have just put her in charge of the entire presentation.
I certainly hope someone among city staff recognizes how dysfunctional this meeting was, and makes attempts to remedy future outreach, or public works is going to be surprised find itself, with its exciting project they are blessing the Palisades with, on the receiving end of a very angry roar.