On CRC, Metro is willing to listen … to themselves

by Eric Shierman

Last week, on September 8th the Metro Council held a regular meeting, but this particular gathering was more monumental than the usually mundane affair. They approved Resolution 11-4288 “For the purpose of authorizing the Council President to sign the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Columbia River Crossing Project.” I made it out to the meeting. What I saw confirmed a lot about what I have always heard about Metro’s listening skills.

The night before, I heard a presentation by the Willamette Week’s famed Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist, Nigel Jaquiss, talk about conflicts of interest and deception in the Columbia River Crossing’s (CRC) planning process. This was followed by Tiffany Couch, a forensic accountant, who is auditing the CRC’s books. She has uncovered gross financial mismanagement that has contributed to the CRC’s blowing $150 million dollars without having turned a shovel of dirt. Having taken all this in that night, I have a confession to make. I was not convinced that the CRC project is a bad idea. While I am convinced it has been badly managed, the need for increased freeway capacity up and down the I-5 still seems to me to be a worthy public good, core to the legitimate role of government. At the Metro Council meeting the next day, I brought with me an open mind.

I was eager to hear their side of the story. What I saw was central planning arrogance on stilts. Indeed Metro hardly even addressed the public’s concerns, merely restating their conclusions and basking in the glory of their wisdom. Perhaps you have to see one of these meeting to really know what I am talking about.

The audience was packed with citizen activists from the full spectrum of Pacific Northwest politics. There were limited government people outraged at the project’s price tag. There were environmentalists outraged at flaws in the environmental impact study. There were also all manner of retired civil engineers with brilliant ideas to solve traffic problems which I had never heard before. This was Metro’s moment to engage them and they did not show even an inclination to care.

The Metro Councilors present were Shirley Craddick of District 1, Carlotta Collette of District 2, Rex Burkholder of District 5, and Barbara Roberts of District 6 – yes that Barbara Roberts. She was recently appointed to fill a vacancy. No need for special elections, just fill the position with Oregon’s most unpopular former governor, or make that second most popular governor. If Neil Goldschmidt did not have a taste for young flesh, they would have appointed him I suppose.

I had heard this would be a public hearing over the CRC. There were lots of people there to testify against it or cheer on those who would. They all thought it was a public hearing as well. Funny thing was, in a two hour meeting, only a short fraction of that time was devoted to a handful of people given three minutes to testify, and several more that would only be given one minute. One minute!?! Metro listens to the public: the lightning round! After compacting the attending public, who were universally opposed to the CRC, into as little time as possible, the rest of the meeting was stretched out into a “I love Metro” party, where Councilors and CRC staff competed with each other to see who could sing Metro’s praises the loudest.

In the beginning of the meeting, much time was bought going into a lengthy discussion about their hiring of a chief operating officer. Back and forth they went on and on about the selection process. There were oh so many qualified candidates. Then they had to choose a couple of oh so qualified finalists. After an oh so rigorous series of interviews, Metro has decided to hire Martha Bennett. On and on they went in a hurray for Martha marathon.

One of the hand-outs available at the door was her employment contract, which I read as Martha was given more praise than a Rose Festival Queen. She will make $175k a year, 520 hours of paid vacation, 40 hours of paid administrative leave, and how about this one “metro will also credit ten (10) days of vacation to Bennett’s account upon employment, which shall be in addition to the vacation time that Bennett would otherwise accrue.” The fine working folks of this city generally have to work a year on a new job before they get any vacation of any kind. During that year they get stuck in the gridlocked traffic caused by the fine folks at Metro who are given an extra 10 days of vacation right off the bat.

As they continued to go on and on, telling us things about Martha and her position that could have been posted in a press release on their website, I noticed who wasn’t saying much: Metro Council President Tom Hughes. If Martha is the COO, what does Tom do? I suppose he engages in grand strategic foresight while Martha will manage the day to day aspects of the quality of our lives. The person who did most of the talking during the entire meeting was Councilor Carlotta Collette. Indeed, if you did not know Hughes was the president, you would think Collette was.

When it finally came time for the public hearing, which I and everyone in the packed audience thought this meeting was about, Councilor Collette began laying down the house rules. One of those rules tells more about the Metro Council than any other anecdote. “This is not a public hearing but we will hear comments.”

The first guy to speak was an environmentalist who had that look. His dress and grooming were intended to say “I am not a corporate sell-out!” He had to speak so fast to get everything into his three minutes, that I did not catch which organization he was with. I did catch his threat: “We are going to fight to kill this.”

The next three minute speaker was a very sharp woman named Debbie Peterson. She made herself an expert in all things CRC during her candidacy for the Washington State Legislature. She lost her election, but acquired a vastly detailed knowledge of local transportation policy. She brought with her a white paper that she wanted the counselors to follow along as she spoke. As she confidently walked across the room to hand each councilor a copy, there was a look of horror on their faces. Councilor Collette motioned for her to give a copy to the court-reporter-like secretary to enter into the record. Realizing that she was being parried aside, Debbie gave the secretary a copy but then walked down the Metro Council’s elevated court-like bench. Passing out a copy to each Metro Councilor, Debbie returned to her seat, her time ticking away.

As Debbie quickly delivered her presentation, her carefully prepared white paper laid untouched before each official. Barbara Roberts was the first to pick hers up and at least look at it. Most of the others followed. Rex Burkholder ignored his throughout Debbie’s presentation. It probably remained in place until a janitor cleaned Metro’s holy chambers later that night. A few seconds past her time, Debbie concluded “I will be happy to answer any questions.” There were no questions.

The one minute folks did not have enough time to convey anything interesting for me to write about except one guy. Reminding the councilors that this discussion was declared not to be a public hearing, he read from an Oregon statute that said Metro will hold public hearings when a citizen requests it. He then declared that he formally requests a public hearing, and asked if the hearing they are now having with the public become one. Without batting an eye, Councilor Collette dryly stated “Apparently I am corrected. This is a public hearing.” With his remaining 15 seconds he knocked out three points and a conclusion: 1) we don’t know if the feds will pay for this, 2) the financial plan is not complete, 3) we know the transportation modeling is wrong, therefore this is all bait and switch. We will start working on a project seeking “free” federal money that may never come, sticking us with the full bill. They didn’t have any questions for him either.

After the last one minute citizen presentation was received the CRC staff was lined up to make their reports. Councilor Collette said “before we go on I want to close the public hearing.” With that out of the way, the pace of this meeting changed. The CRC staff were not timed. They spoke slowly and as long as needed. When each staffer finished, they were asked softball question after softball question from Metro Councilors. From her seat in the middle of the audience, Debbie asked “are you going to allow us to answer those questions too?” Councilor Collette responded “the public hearing is closed.” “I wish you asked some of these questions to me” Debbie responded back. The two began talking over each other until Debbie gave up.

After the CRC staff finished telling the Metro Council why the public is all wrong, each councilor took turns explaining why they will be voting yes. Their stump speeches were not timed either. Rex Burkholder in particular drudged on and on with consultant-like phrases such as: “how do you provide choice here? – so the social networks as well as the economic networks are maintained…”

Barbara Roberts positioned herself as the senior stateswoman. Recalling how she fought 25 years ago for the first light rail project, she justified her yes vote with the George W. Bush defense: “when you’re making the tough choices, not everyone will be happy, but history will ultimately recognize you for making a positive difference” – Metro as the decider-in-chief.

Carlotta Collette invoked the Nancy Pelosi defense. After giving lip service to the public’s outrage over the CRC’s planning errors, acknowledging it has a daunting number of red flags, she said: “We don’t resolve the problems by saying no today; we resolve them by moving forward.” Shirley Craddick echoed this argument: “There are a lot of ifs and unknowns out there. We can’t answer a lot of these until we take the next step” – pass the bill first; then fix it!

The most bizarre speech of the day came from the hitherto quiet President Tom Hughes. He gave a political analysis that in many ways reveals the prism through which Metro sees the world. Talking about the CRC’s unprecedented “political complexity,” Hughes pointed out that Portland wants a light rail only bridge while Vancouver will not support a project without a highway expansion so it has to have both. Wait a second! The light rail is supposed to BE FOR THE PEOPLE IN VANCOUVER. If they don’t want it why build it?

Hughes then transitioned from geographical politics to ideological politics, pointing out that the CRC has something for both progressives and conservatives to love. Progressives like the bikes and light rail while conservatives like the private sector jobs the project will create. Really? Conservatives like private sector jobs funded by government spending? Perhaps the only conservatives he has contact with are building contractors who lobby him.

When they actually voted 5-0 in favor, Debbie and most of the rest of the public walked out of the room. Remarkably there was still a significant amount of time left before the meeting was scheduled to end. How did Metro run down the clock? They announced that the CRC, the same CRC whose work Councilor Collette acknowledged leaves us with many red flags, has won an award from the Federal Transit Authority. I did not catch what award it was, perhaps the “showing up to work” award, but what few members of the public were still in the room, promptly left. Councilor Collette heaped praise upon praise on a staff that has been exposed by Willamette Week for fraud and mismanagement. When she shouted out “you guys are awesome!” it had the ring of “Brownie you’re doing a heck-uv-a-job!”

I stayed for the signing of the resolution by President Tom Hughes, taking a picture with my phone which can be viewed here.

President Tom Hughes has admitted here on the Oregon Catalyst that the public does not think Metro listens. In case you missed his solution, here it is. Let’s think about this for a moment. Metro snubs people who take the time to go to a council meeting, but then wants us to send comments electronically? They will not listen to us in person. Why should we believe they will even read what we send them?

Eric Shierman is a partner at Creative Destruction Investment Partners, writes for the Oregonian under the pen name “Portland Aristotle” on the MyOregon blog, and is the author of the forthcoming book: A Brief History of Political Cultural Change. His articles can be read at: http://connect.oregonlive.com/user/PortlandAristotle/posts.html

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Posted by at 05:00 | Posted in Columbia River Crossing, Metro | 20 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • Frank Martin

    I was AT that meeting.. I decided to leave as soon as he announced he would sign the document.

    IT was painful to listen to every councilor praise the process and each and every councilor mentioned Light Rail expansion as part of their “Speech” with high praise.  
    When Hughes said this.. “What the Vancouver folks have said to me clearly … is no bridge, no light rail,” Hughes said “What we’ve said to them is no light rail, no bridge. So we have both. That’s the only way we can move forward on this.”  I could only think to myself.. was I in a METRO meeting, or did I walk into a TRIMET planning meeting by mistake.  

    I STILL question how METRO came to be with so much power and if you read it’s charter, with sections pertaining to property rights in conflict to those in the Oregon Constitution.. I guess I had better look at the Washington Constitution to verify just how out of wack the system is.

    METRO’s whole plan was to push Light Rail across the river and the State Line by force.     NOW is the time to bombard all Senators, Representatives and Officials with your feelings on the subject.. After all, they are depending on Federal Highway funds to fund a good portion of the project.   

    Frank Martin – Portland

  • Rupert in Springfield

    Martha Bennett will get $175k a year and 520 hours plus ten days vacation? Holy Cow! That’s 13 weeks plus ten days, over 14 weeks vacation?

    OK, that does it. I am totally in the wrong business. $175k a year and more than a quarter of the time is vacation play time, zero accountability, fabulous benefits and a retirement plan that is so sweet its enough to bankrupt a state.

    Who can beat that deal? And given that those in government get those sorts of deals – why should they look upon those who pay for this nonsense with anything but disdain?

    Kids whose parents let them get away with everything, teachers who allow students to pull whatever stunt they like, bosses who have no control over their employees are all looked upon with contempt by those in their charge. Just looking at Bennets compensation package should probably give people a real good idea of why they weren’t listened to.

  • Bob Clark

    Metro should be abolished, restoring the economic development function to its proper place – that being, local city government.  If local city governments compete to establish their economic bases and governance styles, those city governments become more responsive to citizen needs and wants.  In contrast, Metro is a monopoly by government construct; and not surprising, the monopoly doesn’t need to listen.

    I am sorry I registered to Metro’s OptIn because I pretty much fear Metro will use conservative participation as a stamp on how they are really listening to citizens. 

    I took the OptIn survey.  In this survey, Metro had one question which did not permit an honest answer.  It asked the person if they had attended these such and such Metro operated enterprises (like the Zoo and Arlene Schnitzer hall, for instance) in the past year.  I actually had not attended any of the Metro run functions.  But the only box I could check was labelled “I don’t know.”  I actually know that I have not attended any of Metro’s government services in the past year, nor even the past ten years. 

  • just doing the math

    I hate to admit this, but I believe it when you describe the Metro
    arrogance.

    I received in the mail, a green flyer informing us of Metro’s vision for
    the Barbur Boulevard Corridor, which includes “High Capacity Transit”
    aka, Light Rail. Trouble is, if you read comments on some of the other
    sites, talk with those of us that live in that area of town, there is opposition
    to Light Rail. If you drive to other areas of town, where light rail has been
    built (like Interstate);Light Rail has created more traffic congestion. Interstate
    use to be a fairly wide road, easy to navigate.

    Barbur is the same non congested, wide road, easily navigated. There
    is no need for HCT. The traffic congestion that occcurs is when Barbur
    becomes Pacific Highway in Tigard. And private business, like Fred Meyers,
    are doing their part in investing in the improvements along Barbur.

    Message to Metro. Leave Barbur alone. Many of us don’t like the vision of
    Light Rail, and the traffic mess and crime that goes along with it.

    • just doing the math

      So, I just tried calling a Jay Sugnet and Morgan Tracy, and
      no surprise, message phones. We all know how that works.

  • HBguy

    Metro council meetings are absolutely the worst when it comes to heaping praise on one another and the staff. What a huge waste of time, egotistical, and self agrandizing. The citizens at these meetings hate it, they do not want to sit there and hear that. Do that in private if you want. It contributes nothing to public information or process. I am sure there are some smart fine staff and councilors. But really???? Metro has the biggest tin ear of any government agency or board I’ve ever seen. 

  • Dan phegley

    I have not been to a Metro council meeting but it sounds just like a Damascus city council meeting.  Our planners and council, after spending millions of dollars give each other awards and congratulate each other endlessly on great citizen involvement.  They then denigrate the citizens who go out and get signatures to allow a vote on the adopted Metro plan for our city.  The citizens vote the plan down by a 2 to 1 margin and the council hires a consultant to see what the citizens are saying.  Now they are complaining that the consultant is echoing the vote of the people.
    I will not be biting on Tom’s offer to waste my time, it is much better used writing initiatives and gathering citizen signatures.

    Dan Phegley

  • valley person

    I’m neither a bridge supporter nor an opponent. Nevertheless, a few quibbles with your presentation Eric, in random order:

    1) ” Wait a second! The light rail is supposed to BE FOR THE PEOPLE IN VANCOUVER. If they don’t want it why build it?”

    Because the people of Vancouver drive to and through Portland, cause traffic jams on this side of the river, pollute the regional airshed, and use up limited fossil fuels.  Vancouver is part of the Portland region, and many more Clark County residents work on this side of the river than the other way around. But it is a 2-way bridge, and we may want to bike or ride light rail there. Plus we on this side of the river will be funding a large portion of the cost. Thus Portland has a legitimate say in transportation projects that link our communities.

    2) There were multiple meetings, hearings and opportunities for we the people to give our 2 cents on this project over the past several years. It sounds from your description that this particular meeting/hearing was basically a formality. It is probably the case that all the councilors had heard all the arguments already, so re-stating them in 1 or 2 or 10 minutes was not going to matter. There may be a bigger question on whether people feel they were heard or not, and whether they were actually heard, but one meeting/hearing is not the way to judge this. 

    3) “The fine working folks of this city generally have to work a year on a
    new job before they get any vacation of any kind. During that year they
    get stuck in the gridlocked traffic caused by the fine folks at Metro
    who are given an extra 10 days of vacation right off the bat.”

    Not very fair. The “fine working folks” of this city who are in high level administrative jobs, whether private or public sector, are in a position to negotiate compensation packages based on their talents, their previous position (including accrued leave), and how well they beat their competition for the job. To compare the compensation in this job, executive management of  a large, complex agency,  to an unknown “average” is disingenuous at best, deliberately misleading at worst.  

    4) Shirley Craddick echoed this argument: “There are a lot of ifs and
    unknowns out there. We can’t answer a lot of these until we take the
    next step” – pass the bill first; then fix it!

    Well, she is right. There is no money in a bank account to build this bridge. Local state and federal officials have to vote at various stages with incomplete information and funding in order to move projects to a logical next step. A no vote at this stage is a deal breaker. That is the way it works. It also often works the same way in the private sector, moving from say R&D to project development to manufacturing. Projects can be aborted at some stag if things don’t pan out as planned initially. As Rumsfeld put it: There are known unknowns, unknown unknowns, etc…

    • Frank Martin

      I testified at that meeting that even I will admit that I was kind of late at looking the Issue of the CRC. 

      But on your point #2 your right.. the Council treated it as a formality..and even attempted to run it as a closed meeting… I have ONE question for you.. Looking at the METRO charter.. it states it is a regional government for the Portland, Oregon area.. stating that it covers 25 different communities in Oregon. 

      But one thing I would like to know.. Based on its Charter.. how does it have the power to tell the State of Washington, Clark County, and the City of Vancouver that they must accept TRIMET Light rail.. That is a Oregon transit system.. Tim Hughes suggests that his council DOES indeed have that power.

      • valley person

        I’m not familiar with the charter, but the short answer is likely that Metro doesn’t have the authority to tell anyone in Washington anything. However, since this is a bi-state project that needs cooperation and approval from multiple parties, including Metro, they get to say what it is they will support or not.  Portland and Metro and I think the state of Oregon have all said, no light rail, no support. Take it or leave it. Washington can respond, then we will leave it.   And then we can all live with the earthquake prone, creaky lift span bottleneck for another 20 or 50 years.

        Metro’s interest in having light rail included is legitimate. Clark County cars end up on Portland area streets and highways, and Metro and local communities suffer those impacts and have to pay for road imrovements as a consequence. So to the extent we design a bridge that results in fewer cars than otherwise, we perhaps save money and hassles due to traffic. 

        • Evan Manvel

          Just to be clear, the I-5 bridges are far from the most dangerous in terms of earthquakes. The Marquam is in worse shape.

          And the project’s own hand-picked “Independent” Review Panel said the project wasn’t worth doing if they didn’t have another billion dollars for the Rose Quarter area, as it just moves the bottleneck a couple miles south.

          • valley person

            I don’t disagree with either statement. It may not be the most dangerous bridge, but it is definitely not built for the size earthquake we now anticipate.  And the bottelneck will move south. One more reason to include light rail in the project.

  • Anonymous

    Portland is the only big city with a Metro style government. You have to ask why. And the answer is: Portland is the only city stupid enough (The Portlandia TV show is all the evidence you need) to have a Metro style government. Damn, I’m glad I don’t live within the Portland city limits.

    • valley person

      No it isn’t. Every urban region in the nation has a regional transportation planning authority. What makes Metro unique is that it is an elected regional government. It was voted into existence by the people of this region 30 years ago. So you apparently think the people who live here are stupid. 

      • Anonymous

        Portland is the ONLY city with a Metro style government…Metro is not a regional transportation planning authority, it owns the zoo and expo center among other non-transportation chores…you wrote it yourself. 

        You obviously know little of the history of how Metro came to be and the fact that the voters were tricked into creating it from CRAG. Where the people are stupid is that they’ve allowed it to exist for 30 years.

  • Zopata

    The NEPA regulations clearly define the process which this METRO Project clearly failed to follow and doing so just as clearly violated the federal law that must be followed for funding purposes.

  • Reper

    I have heard much criticism of the CRC from the Willamette Week and the blogosphere, but I would like to see what they have to say in their own words to compare what is being said against them.   It would be nice to provide a link if possible.    

  • R Sorem

    I was at the Metro meeting last Thursday to listen to public comments and general comments pertaining to the CRC project.  Each and every Metro representative had issues with the CRC’s EIS final draft but they still voted 100% to pass along the report to the next level.
    There are too many issues with the entire project to simply rubber stamp the findings as what the bridge will look like, how much it will cost to build and the economic impact to Hayden Island businesses and residents displaced by the construction of the bridge.
    The metro councilors may have worked on doing their due diligence to look at all the “facts” regarding the bridge but they are relying on the CRC being able to present the facts properly. Unfortunately Metro voted to pass “something” just for the sake of moving on to another project.
     
    I was hoping for more and was sorely disappointed.

    Rich Sorem
    Hayden Island resident

  • R Sorem

    I was at the Metro meeting last Thursday to listen to public comments and general comments pertaining to the CRC project.  Each and every Metro representative had issues with the CRC’s EIS final draft but they still voted 100% to pass along the report to the next level.
    There are too many issues with the entire project to simply rubber stamp the findings as what the bridge will look like, how much it will cost to build and the economic impact to Hayden Island businesses and residents displaced by the construction of the bridge.
    The metro councilors may have worked on doing their due diligence to look at all the “facts” regarding the bridge but they are relying on the CRC being able to present the facts properly. Unfortunately Metro voted to pass “something” just for the sake of moving on to another project.
     
    I was hoping for more and was sorely disappointed.

    Rich Sorem
    Hayden Island resident

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