August 8, 2018

At the End of the Path(ways)

After several months of patiently waiting for the proposed Community Pathways Plan to work its way through the public process, in which there was no shortage of input from all sides even before the Plan was actually presented, the City Council has finally had its opportunity to weigh in.  But not until after one last round of input, and it was a marathon session indeed.  Council heard four hours of public comment plus nearly 140 written comments, not even counting all that had previously been submitted to the planners in the course of the project and to the Parks Board and Planning and Zoning Commission, in addition to numerous individual e-mails to Council and postings on social media.

By the time Council got its turn to speak, after all that, it turned out that the views of the overwhelming majority of those we heard from were already shared by Council.  While it was not agendaed for formal action, Council’s clear consensus was that the Plan not be brought back for a vote, thus concluding the matter.

Respecting the Process

The importance of the process featured as prominently as the outcome.  At a minimum Pathways has demonstrated the value of adhering to our established process, which includes multiple opportunities for public input, at each stage of the project’s development.  Prior consideration by our citizen advisory boards, again with public input, not only aids Council’s decision making but also helps in drawing out more residents.  We respect the process and allow it to play out, reserving our opinions until the final product is formally presented, and with the benefit of all the vetting that it went through.

Understandably, particularly for those not in regular attendance and less familiar with our process, there was some confusion giving rise to procedural questions from the audience during the Council meeting.  Fair questions, like why not go ahead and just vote the whole thing down and be done with it?  For starters, as noted above the Plan wasn’t agendaed for an up-or-down vote, and as such we were prohibited by the Texas Open Meetings Act from taking such action.  Of course, that then invites the question, why wasn’t it agendaed for a vote?  That’s where I think it gets interesting, again emphasizing the importance of the process.

Among the objectives of parliamentary procedure and the manner in which we conduct our business is to protect the rights of the minority (or potential minority), including by not presupposing outcomes.  In the context of a conceptual plan developed over an extended period of time, with a variety of inputs and potentially complex considerations, it’s the ordinary course for Council to receive a presentation and provide feedback, without being asked to make an immediate decision that same night.

Hypothetically, had Council been interested in pursuing the Community Pathways Plan further, it surely would not have been appropriate to vote on it summarily at the first presentation.  After the fact, we now know that Council would have voted it down, but we could not have known that, with absolute certainty, prior to hearing each individual member’s opinions (see Open Meetings Act).  Which is also true, by the way, of public comment; while in this instance the overwhelming sentiment was clearly predictable, we shouldn’t get into the habit of assuming in advance what people are going to say.  Having maintained that basic fairness and respect for all viewpoints, Council was still able to express by consensus that it didn’t want to see the Plan again, without a formal vote but effecting the same result.

Another question posed by some is why we were even talking about it at all.  Had Council not gotten the message from the extensive public comment at the Planning and Zoning Commission, and P&Z’s negative recommendation?  (Quick aside, my thanks to those who helped promote the Two-Step.)  Why wasn’t that the end of it?  Well, to abandon the project prior to delivery would have required an agenda item (see Open Meetings Act), so we’d have been in the same place anyway.

A final, perhaps delicate point about the process.  I recognize it has become somewhat fashionable to criticize the City Manager, staff and consultant, and to question their motives in advancing any project that ultimately proves unpopular.  The problem with that argument is that it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of, or glosses over, the way our local government works.  The City Council adopts priorities and sets the high-level policy direction, and the City Manager’s job is to implement the objectives and vision expressed by Council through strategic planning and projects.  Council is certainly the gatekeeper and is always free to reject any proposal, just as we did here.  It’s not personal.  The City Manager cheerfully accepts redirection whenever a proposed project misses the mark, or even if Council, whether or not influenced by public opinion, simply changes its mind.

So, I respectfully suggest, we’re all better served by focusing on the issues rather than vilifying individuals for simply doing their jobs.  And as the community’s reaction to the Plan so well illustrates, the arguments against it are strong enough to stand on their own.  Unwarranted personal attacks, potshots and unfounded conspiracy theories aren’t particularly helpful and only distract from the strength of those arguments on the merits.  The buck stops with Council, and we take ownership of and responsibility for the priorities and policy direction we establish, pursuant to which individual projects are developed.  We’re accountable directly to the people, and encourage you to bring your policy concerns directly to us.

Council Consensus on the Plan

Having adopted as a priority (albeit, prior to Harvey) the policy objectives underlying the proposal, the idea was to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety and mobility, and to connect points of interest throughout the City, parks especially, to enhance our overall quality of life.  Upon receiving the Plan, Council observed that it feels too much like a one-size-fits-all approach:  Because the Newcastle Trail is so successful let’s just replicate that all over town, without stopping to really consider whether the identified locations are anything like Newcastle.  Council thus expressed its disappointment in a Plan that, because it’s so ambitious, doesn’t seem to give due regard to the actual situation on the ground.

In fairness, the Plan doesn’t necessarily prescribe precise pathway widths or other detailed specifications, leaving all that to be worked out in the future implementation.  But the vociferous rejection of that defense goes to show how hard it is to sell high-level conceptual plans, when we know the devil is in the details.  Recognize there’s a tension here, in that even a high-level conceptual plan that doesn’t commit to particular design details still has to give some idea of what’s intended, lest it later be criticized for having not been transparent.  Yet it’s not unfair to seize on and object to a conceptual idea as described, even with the disclaimer that it’s not set in stone.

We heard loud and clear that concerned residents don’t want to wait until the time of implementation to find out how they’ll be protected.  In forming their opinions of the Plan they found few assurances, and have only the stated intent to go on, which they didn’t like.  This is highly reminiscent of the Comprehensive Plan update we adopted last April, in which we knowingly incorporated zoning language into what was really a planning document, to provide some assurances up front rather than leaving the neighbors hanging.  High-level conceptual plans can be a tough sell.

It’s also just not the right time to embark on this, or any other pathways plan.  I mention above that Council initiated this project prior to Harvey, and I’ll go out on a limb and say we wouldn’t have done so after.  The storm has most definitely reoriented our priorities as a community, and this is nowhere near the top of the list right now.  Even though the City is very capable of working on more than one thing at a time, to continue talking about the Plan at this point would suggest it’s a higher priority than it is.  Moreover, as several speakers appropriately noted, with many residents still dealing with the effects of the flood their public participation may be limited, and they could do without the extra hassle.

For all of these reasons, the Community Pathways Plan has been permanently shelved.  Though it proved to be the wrong plan, the underlying objectives—such as helping families get across busy intersections to neighborhood schools and parks—are still valid even if lower in priority, and perhaps one day some of the thinking that went into it might serve as useful reference material (including what didn’t work).  That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a worthwhile exercise at the time or that no value at all can be gleaned from it, but the clear consensus is that we don’t want this Plan, and that’s the end of it.