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