Sometimes public officials manage to hit the Outrage Sweet Spot, doing something so ethically, politically, and financially dubious that everybody -- conservatives, moderates, liberals; Republicans, independents, Democrats -- has good reason to scream What the #$%! is going on here!?
Congratulations, Salem City Council, Mayor, City Manager, and Public Works Director: if you go ahead with a plan to approve a new $400 million Third Bridge design without holding a single public hearing on it, that places you squarely in the Outrage Sweet Spot.
Which, of course, is pretty damn bitter to the citizens who are getting screwed over.
But before I get to that, let's review the drama of an unneeded, unwanted, and unpaid-for $400-700 million Third Bridge across the Willamette River. Here's the basic plot points:
In Act 1, a citizen advisory panel studies a bunch of options for a new bridge, including not building one. They can't reach agreement on what to do. So the first input from the community at large is who knows?
But in Act 2, the bridge Oversight Team says what the hell!, let's go for it and build a giant, expensive, freeway'ish monstrosity of a bridge that will zip people from I-5, across the river, and onto Highway 22 as quickly as possible -- ignoring the fact that this would do next to nothing to reduce brief rush hour traffic congestion on the current two bridges, which supposedly is a main reason the $700 million "4-D" design is needed.
In Act 3, the absurdity of the 4-D bridge leads to a lot of opposition. When asked, most neighborhood associations reject it. At several Salem City Council public hearings, vociferous testimony against a Third Bridge is presented.
So the City of Salem comes up with the so-called Salem Alternative. I say "so-called," because this wasn't an alternative suggested by citizens. It was cooked up by City staff and bridge consultants as a way to defuse opposition to the 4-D design.
Ah, the Salem Alternative, a kinder and gentler bridge.
No elevated on- and off-ramps; street level entry and exit; a graceful arch to sooth the eye; minimal supporting piers for a cleaner look and less environmental impact; no homes or businesses to be displaced, as the Big Bad 4-D design would have.
The City Council voted 9-0 in favor of the Salem Alternative. There was much self-congratulatory talk of how these public officials had listened to citizens and shifted to the oh-so-local and not-freeway'ish at all, no, not at all, Salem Alternative.
This was just a sweet little bridge that would allow residents of northeast Salem and west Salem to finally get to know each other. Images of crosstown block parties with picnic tables set up in the middle of the Salem Alternative blossomed as I watched the 9-0 vote proceedings on CCTV.
But political skeptics like me (it's always wise to be skeptical about politicians) could see Act 4 looming around the bend. And now the curtain has risen on an outrageous turn of events.
Kinder and gentler bridge is no more. It's hard to tell who made it disappear. Earlier this month I asked, "Dude, where's the Salem Alternative bridge?" All we know is that the bridge Oversight Team directed their highly paid consultants to drastically alter the design approved by the Salem City Council.
As the Salem Breakfast on Bikes blog said (great resource for people interested in land use/transportation goings-on):
The "Salem Alternative" analysis that the Oversight Team saw on October 31st doesn't much look like a "local" bridge! It seems to have grown and looks more like the giant bridge and highway of 4D again.
I noted in my "Dude..." post:
No more "signature" arch design. Lots of piers have reappeared in the water. Lanes have multiplied. Overpasses will whisk trucks and other I-5 traffic to the coast (maybe a few will even think "This is Salem, isn't it?" as they zoom through the half-billion dollar concrete monument).
Which gets me to my Can you believe this? I've heard from the No 3rd Bridge folks that there won't be any public hearings on the new bridge design. None. Zilch. Nada.
The City Council does not plan to hold a public hearing before voting on their "preferred alternative" for the 3rd Bridge. They plan to rush to judgement on a plan presented at the Oversight Team meeting on October 31st that is NOT the Salem Alternative, even though it is misleadingly labeled as such.
If they do the public will be completely blindsided.
The City Council will then be on record as approving a $400 million bridge plan that 99.9% of Salem citizens have never seen. We are talking about the largest public works project ever contemplated in our city. And our City Council is about to advance it without a public hearing.
There are eight "build" alternatives detailed in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement that received a great deal of scrutiny over about five years. Then the Salem City Council developed a ninth alternative and held two public hearings before voting to advance it last June on a 9-0 vote.
Now there is a tenth alternative that the Oversight Team hopes will be approved in less than three months with no public information effort and no public hearings.
Sure is. Freaking amazing.
I hope the City Council changes its mind. I hope Mayor Anna Peterson, City Manager Linda Norris, and Public Works Director Peter Fernandez realize that pulling a bait-and-switch on Salem area citizens is morally and ethically outrageous.
They need to do some walking in the shoes of the people who live in the 35-45 homes and work in the 15-25 businesses that would be displaced by the bigger-and-badder new bridge design.
Hey, public officials: if your home or business was going to be condemned for a bridge, wouldn't you want to be able to testify about this? Wouldn't you want to able to look your city councillors and mayor in the eye and say, "You're going to ruin my life. And for no good reason, because we don't need this bridge."
The City of Salem has made it a habit to act imperiously, ignoring community input, conducting the public's business in as secret a manner as it can get away with.
But this new ploy, markedly changing the design of the Salem Alternative and then voting on it without a public hearing -- now we're in Truly Outrageous Territory. Sadly, people have come to expect so little of politicians, it is difficult to be surprised by the crap officials do anymore.
However...a City Council voting on a $400 million bridge design that taxpayers would be expected to pay for without a single public hearing being held -- that surprises even politically cynical me.
[Update: as a continuation to this post I'll share a message that Jim Scheppke of No 3rd Bridge has sent to Councillor Laura Tesler. Jim reports how Peter Fernandez misled councillors and the public in his comments at tonight's City Council meeting.]
Dear Councilor Tesler:I want to follow up my testimony to the City Council tonight with a request, as your constituent, that the Council schedule a public hearing and deliberation on the City of Salem's preferred alternative for the 3rd bridge. Selection of a preferred alternative before February is indicated by the SRC plan distributed on October 31st.
This is from slide 31 and 32 in the presentation on October 31st:
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I believe the advice you received tonight from Mr. Fernandez to do nothing between now and February is not in accordance with this plan that calls for "local agency discussions" and selection of a "preferred alternative." He is also profoundly wrong in asserting that the new alternative misleadingly unveiled as the Salem Alternative on October 31st has only minor changes from the Salem Alternative adopted by the Council in June. It is a total redesign of the Salem Alternative to bring it back much closer to Alternative 4D. Here are the major differences:
• Closes the Rosemont exit instead of moving the Rosemont exit to Eola.
• Eliminates the "signature bridge" and returns to the 4D bridge with two spans and many piers in the river and floodplain.
• Displaces up to 45 residences and 25 businesses (the Salem Alternative was said to displace no residences).
• Moves part of eastbound Hwy 22 to the Willamette riverbank with piers in the riverbank.
• In general, features wider streets and bigger intersections to move more traffic faster through West and North Salem.
The vote that the Council took in June on the Salem Alternative has been rendered moot by the actions of the Oversight Team in placing this new alternative on the table. It is the 10th "build" alternative in this process. The first eight were analyzed in great detail in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and received a lot of attention from the public. The 9th, the Salem Alternative, was developed over four public work sessions and two public hearings. The 10th has seen only cursory analysis, and little or no public scrutiny, and no public hearings.
If the Salem City Council does nothing about it, as Mr. Fernandez seems to be suggesting, it would be a grave dereliction of your responsibility to adequately represent the interests of Salem citizens in this process.
Between now and February the Council must inform the public about this new alternative, you must schedule a public hearing on it, and you must deliberate on your "preferred alternative" in accordance with the SRC process presented on October 31st.
I have attached a copy of the October 31st presentation from the Oversight Team in case you have not seen it yet.
Thanks for your service,
-- Jim Scheppke