September 20, 2018

A Game Plan for Sidewalk Decision Making

It seems the perpetually intractable issue of sidewalks has surfaced yet again, igniting an intense but respectful debate among neighbors equally passionate for and against.  Monday night I addressed City Council and the public, not for the purpose of taking sides, but to openly acknowledge that our decision making process is not working for us as a community and to urge that we take a step back and reboot.

For as long as the answers have eluded us, in my observation we’ve not actually been asking the right—and hardest—questions.  Our decision making should start with those, and lead to the development of a plan that’s deliberately inclusive of a variety of viewpoints.  We’ll never get anywhere if we don’t attempt to find common ground and build consensus, and yes, that will take time.  Moreover, many people, on both sides, feel it’s not our highest priority right now and that our time and current resources are better spent on other, more pressing matters.

I invite you to view the video and accompanying presentation slides, and as always welcome your input.  Following is the full text of my address:

Tonight I’m going to do things a bit differently and speak to you, in my role as Mayor, on the subject of sidewalks.  I’ll begin by emphasizing a couple of key points.

First, it’s not my intent in this address to really get into the merits and speak pro or con on the subject of sidewalks generally.  I’ll have my opportunity to do that from the dais when we get into debate on the individual agenda items.  I recognize, and I think we all do, that there are a variety of opinions out there.  In fact, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Council is a bit all over the place, given the diversity of opinion throughout the community we represent.  So my intent, again, in this address is to talk more about the process than to take sides pro or con.

Second, I want to emphasize that I’m speaking in my role as Mayor.  I’m just one guy with one vote, and Council is certainly free to ignore what I have to say.  But I feel it is my responsibility, as presiding officer, to speak up and offer guidance to help get things back on track when we may veer off course.  Again, not really speaking pro or con, but rather on the process, on how we’re functioning as a Council and in particular in relation to our constituents.  So while I’m just one guy speaking on my own behalf, and Council is free to ignore me, as Mayor I get to do that.  In fact, it’s my responsibility to do that.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone what has prompted me to address the subject of sidewalks tonight.  I can assure you Council’s inboxes are full of reasons.  I’m going to borrow a phrase from one of my colleagues on Council, who recently referred to all of this as “sidewalk silliness.”  Regardless which side you’re on, there’s no denying that we are spending an inordinate amount of time on sidewalks lately, and that it’s stirring up unnecessary discontent and resentment in the community.  It’s not healthy and it’s not productive.

I submit to you what’s missing here is that we’re attempting to call individual plays without first having any real game plan.  We haven’t answered the big-picture policy questions that are necessary to address before considering specific projects.  Like how new sidewalk locations should be selected, or deselected.  Why some streets would be prioritized over others, and perhaps identifying which streets should simply be left alone, because they aren’t good candidates for the introduction of new sidewalks to begin with, for any variety of reasons.  Like how we respond to resident objections to, or alternatively, requests for sidewalks.  Here’s another one.  Our policy, in putting in new sidewalks, is always to protect trees, and we have a demonstrated track record of doing that successfully.  But not all trees are created equal.  Did you know that Section 9-350 of our Code of Ordinances actually contains a list of “undesirable trees?”  Where is that taken into account as we incur additional costs in routing sidewalks around such trees?  And what about other plantings and homeowner improvements in the right-of-way?  We have no adopted policy on how to handle that, either.

Those are but a few examples of the big-picture considerations that we haven’t resolved, but should, before embarking on an ambitious sidewalk program.  Instead, the approach to date has really been quite piecemeal and haphazard.

It’s not fair to our residents, who lately feel they must monitor and dissect with a fine-tooth comb every Council agenda, for fear something will sneak by them.  It’s not fair to our staff, who have better things to be working on than an ever-changing Council direction on sidewalks.  And it’s not fair to ourselves on Council, either.  Frankly, this is not a shining example of good government.

Residents are looking to us for leadership.  Residents are looking to me for leadership.  Council, we’re at a critical juncture here.  Honest self-assessment from time to time is a good thing, and we shouldn’t be afraid to recognize what’s not working and to alter course when necessary.

We’ve heard from a number of residents, on both sides of the issue—or really, I should say, all sides of the issue—asking why we’re spending so much time lately on sidewalks; whether and why it’s such a priority, particularly after Harvey; and what’s the process we’re following.  These are all fair questions.  I would thus like to (1) provide an overview of how we got to this point, (2) the process that has resulted from that, and then (3) I’ll conclude by offering my own recommendations as to where we should go from here.

Overview

From time immemorial Bellaire has argued about sidewalks.  I think it’s fair to say that had sidewalks been put in way back when, in the early development of the City, we wouldn’t give them a second thought today.  But the fact is they weren’t, so the only way to add them now is to retrofit them into our existing streetscape.  And every time it comes up it’s a fight.  It’s easily the most divisive, polarizing issue we face, and always has been.  Anyone who’s followed Bellaire politics over the years and respects our history knows it’s the third rail, and what happens when you touch it.

Through our successive bond programs we’ve made some incremental progress.  In the Bellaire Millennium Renewal bond program, from 2000-2005, by my count 76 block-lengths of sidewalks were constructed.  (A few quick explanatory notes are in order.  When I refer to “block-lengths,” that’s on one side of the street.  So a street with sidewalks on both sides would represent two block-lengths.  Also note that throughout the City, some blocks are shorter and some are longer.  And finally, I’m not counting here sidewalks that were already existing prior to these bond programs.)

Starting with the Rebuild Bellaire Bond Program, 2005-2016, we arrived at what I consider to be a compromise policy, that as blocks are reconstructed with new street and drainage infrastructure, sidewalks are included on at least one side.  Individual blocks of residents can petition to opt out of sidewalks, though that procedure is one of precedent and has never been formally adopted.  Petitions are considered on a case-by-case basis; some have been granted, others denied.  Relying on the engineers’ figures, I counted 83 block-lengths of sidewalks constructed under Rebuild Bellaire.

In our current Bonds for Better Bellaire 2016 bond program, that compromise policy continues—sidewalks on at least one side of each reconstructed street, with petitions considered on an individual basis.  But what’s new in the 2016 bond program, is that for the first time we’ve got what I’m calling “standalone” sidewalks.  That is, sidewalks that are not coupled with new street and drainage infrastructure.

Now, before I continue with this historical overview, I’ll go back to what I said at the outset:  That my focus in this address is more about the process than it is the merits of individual decisions.  So please understand and keep in mind my intent here.

I say that because I know Council is tired of hearing me harp on about this, but it’s such a critical turning point in the story.  Standalone sidewalks were originally going to be a separate bond proposition (Prop 4).  But by a 4-3 vote, Council instead combined it with streets and drainage (with sidewalks on at least one side) (Prop 1).  I submit to you that this decision more than anything else directly led to the situation in which we find ourselves today.

The result for Bellaire voters was that voting for streets and drainage meant they were voting for standalone sidewalks, too.  Yes, it passed overwhelmingly, but of course, such was the point of that strategy.  As was stated quite transparently at that time, I might add.  You can see why I attach so much importance to that 2016 decision, why I said a moment ago that it, more than anything else, directly led us to where we are today.  Even with an 84% passage rate, you can’t discern from that vote, or gauge the level of support for standalone sidewalks.  Now that these projects are becoming a reality two years later, we’re hearing about it from residents.  You’ve seen the comments from people on both sides, pro and con, opining that we’ll ultimately need a referendum to resolve the issue.  ...  Well, yeah.

Process

Having walked you through that historical overview, I’ll now turn to the process that has resulted from those prior decisions.  Group D are the standalone sidewalk projects, and it’s divided into three phases.  Phase 1, which is intended to be streets around schools and parks, and Phase 2, which are in the UV-D and Town Square areas, those two phases are designed and ready to go.  Phase 1 is on tonight’s agenda, and Phase 2 will be on next Monday’s.  Phase 3, however, hasn’t even been designed yet, and back in July, upon receiving a great deal of public input, Council deferred that phase indefinitely.  So that’s where things presently stand on standalone sidewalks.

Switching subjects somewhat, another sidewalk-related item you’ve been hearing about is our 2016 ordinance requiring the installation—by homeowners and builders—of sidewalks with new home construction.  Speaking very candidly and directly, the reason this has now come up again is that one of the original proponents of the measure recently brought it up, as he’s changed his mind and now wants to repeal it.  And that’s okay, he has the right to do that. On October 1 he’ll have the opportunity.

Continuing with the subject of process, there’s one last item I must address, and that’s the 5-foot standard width for residential sidewalks.  As you know, it was adopted by Council at our last meeting, on August 20, by a vote of 4-2.  Full disclosure I was in the minority on that vote, and let me emphasize I’m not here to improperly relitigate it tonight.  Instead, I’m talking only about the process, about the manner in which that decision was made.  So focusing on the process, let’s take a look at the actual agenda language for that night, because this has most certainly generated much criticism from the community:  “Council discussion on sidewalk program implementation and possible action to provide direction to the city manager as appropriate.”  Granted, down at page 118, which happened to be the very last page of the packet for that evening, sidewalk width is mentioned.

But I will readily accept the criticism as well taken.  Mea culpa.  If I might explain, again speaking very candidly and directly, I did not argue the process more forcefully that night because frankly, I didn’t anticipate the motion would pass.  You might have even heard a comment I made to that effect during the discussion.  And why did I not anticipate it passing, you ask?  Because only a mere eight months earlier we’d previously voted on it, with the opposite result; back in December Council voted 4-3 the other way.

Was Council’s decision on August 20 illegal?  No.  Was the motion out of order?  No.  But could it have been handled better?  Absolutely.  And for that I personally apologize to the community.  Regardless which side of the issue you’re on, it would be hard to defend the agenda language as giving the type of notice that could be expected to generate much public input before this decision would be made, and that’s compounded, by the way, by its very poor timing so soon after the whole Pathways issue.  So, I submit, to the public and Council, and focusing on the process, the criticism is well taken.  Which leads me to the final part of my presentation this evening, my recommendations for where we go from here.

Recommendations

Since we’re already on the subject, I’ll start with my recommendation concerning the 5-foot standard.  And don’t worry, I’m not going to violate my own rule that I’m constantly preaching, that after voting in the minority one must still accept the outcome as the expressed will of the Council as a whole and move on.  While respectful of the outcome, my recommendation to Council is that the newly-adopted 5-foot standard be applied prospectively only.  That is, don’t require 5 feet for projects that were designed and presented to the public prior to adoption of the new standard.  Make it applicable only going forward from that point.  By the way, as it turns out the vast majority of these locations would get only 4-foot sidewalks anyway, given existing conditions such as 4-foot orphan sidewalks, the width of which would be matched.

Back to sidewalks generally, I recommend that we finish working through what we’ve started, the items that are scheduled over our next three agendas.  And that would include consideration of block-specific petitions to be removed from the sidewalk program.  Then I’d simply pause for a while.

I’d continue with our compromise policy of sidewalks on at least one side of each block that gets new street and drainage infrastructure, again with the petition option.  But before considering more standalone sidewalks, we should first take a step back and answer those big-picture policy questions I alluded to in my introductory comments.  Let’s come up with the game plan that’s been missing.  Get the public involved in developing that plan, get broader input and with it, hopefully get broader buy-in.  Having a game plan would promote consistency and overall direction in sidewalk decision making, and avoid all these problems created by our piecemeal, haphazard approach.

But before we do all that, I’d consider the timing of it.  Let’s pause awhile and give it a rest.  Confirm that our priorities are in fact in line with the community’s.  We’ve heard from so many residents—who are both for and against sidewalks—that this just isn’t their highest priority right now.  As with so many other difficult issues we’ve faced over the past year, these were all things we started before Harvey but that no longer command quite the same priority that they may have previously.  That’s what people are telling us.  Certainly not all people, but by and large the perceived urgency over sidewalks is of Council’s own making.

Again, I’ll have my own opportunity to speak in debate on the individual items, but respectfully, I do want to challenge Council to consider that it is possible to be pro-sidewalk, while at the same time recognizing that now may not be the right time.  That building them now makes it too late to go back in the future and un-build them, but to instead take our time, conduct a more thorough, deliberative and inclusive process, in hopes of arriving at a broader community consensus with greater buy-in, would not prevent us in the future from moving forward should that consensus so dictate.  In the meantime, we’ve not yet given that a chance.

In conclusion, I don’t doubt the sincerity or intentions of those on either side of the issue, and I respect all viewpoints.  For some, sidewalks are a higher priority than for others, even those generally in support, and that’s okay.

I would suggest to Council that while there's a time for leading from out front, there's also a time to look back and make sure the people are still following.  All these sidewalk issues have become an unnecessary distraction.  It’s disruptive to our everyday business.  I call upon Council to bring it to an orderly resolution as soon as possible, so that we, staff and the public can all get back to the other things we need to be doing right now.

I thank each of you for your attention and consideration of my recommendations.

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