Taking the “community” out of community meeting

As promised, my trip report from tonight’s public meeting:

Let me start by saying that, though I would like to see the city reexamine its focus on a car-centric infrastructure, I certainly understand the need to maintain (and even upgrade) our roads and bridges. This is not a public transit nut’s rant about the amount of money spent on roads. This is an ordinary (well, not exactly ordinary) citizen’s rant about being blatantly manipulated by the people she has entrusted to run her city.

A couple of weeks ago, I received a flyer from SDOT in the mail. The front of the flyer said, “Transportation Priorities Open House” and had several pictures: people walking, people biking, people driving, people waiting at bus stops, buses stopping at bus stops, etc. The back of the card said, “Mayor Greg Nickels, Councilmember Jan Drago, and the Seattle Department of Transportation are hosting a town hall meeting in your community. We want to hear from you. Attend this meeting to share your transportation priorities and help us improve our aging transportation infrastructure.”

Of course I was down.

Part of it was my fault. I assumed that a meeting about transportation priorities would include everything that fell under the transportation umbrella. It did not immediately occur to me (and it probably should have), that there is a difference between Seattle’s transportation priorities and the Seattle Department of Transportation‘s priorities. (SDOT only handles maintenance of roads, bridges, sidewalks, and bike paths.) Still, even after figuring this out (mind, only because I took the time to read the information on the Internet), I still wanted to go. Buses use the roads, too, and besides, I wanted to hear what my neighbors thought about the issue.

Folks, I could’ve had a V8.

First, let’s talk about the survey. I tried to fill it out online last night (after I had foolishly encouraged you to) and found myself unable. The questions were leading and worded in a way that could be used to support almost any agenda. Here’s an example:

How would you rank the value of a good transportation infrastructure/network to your day-to-day life?

Very important Somewhat Not important

I would rank a good transportation infrastructure as crucially important, but that doesn’t mean I think we should build more roads and highways. There was no way to indicate this in the survey.

Here’s another:

Were you aware the City of Seattle has lost critical funding sources (totaling over $20 million dollars per year) that were dedicated to transportation?

Hey! I thought this survey was about me telling them stuff.

On to the meeting. Here’s what I gave up my evening to do:

1. Arrive. Sign in. Pick up a slick brochure with the mayor’s face on it.
2. Find my house on a map of the city and put colored pushpin there.
3. Fill out a paper version of the same lame “survey” that’s on the Web.
4. Look at some displays with pictures of the dire condition of our roads and bridges while waiting for the mayor to arrive.
5. Eat cookies and drink coffee while waiting for the mayor to arrive.
6. Sit down. Listen to: a near-endorsement of the property tax levy the mayor has apparently proposed to fund our transportation “priorities” by the evening’s moderator, a gushing introduction of the mayor by said moderator, a speech by the mayor, and a testimonial about the importance of transportation funding by a Greenwood resident.
7. Watch a PowerPoint presentation by an SDOT rep, complete with scary pictures of deteriorating streets and ummarked crosswalks.
8. Sit in openmouthed silence while the moderator adjourns the meeting and politely invites audience members to stay after and “ask questions of” any of the nice SDOT reps stationed around the room.

The end. There was no public discussion, unless you count this:

Citizen who took time out of his life to attend the meeting: “I’m very confused about this meeting. I was given the impression that this was you coming to the Central District and asking the Central District, ‘What neighborhood priorities do you have from SDOT?’ Instead what this seems to be is a way to say, ‘Oh gosh we’ve got a huge problem here. We need to kind of build up public support by showing all these deteriorating crosswalks and sidewalks and everything, so we can have a funding increase.’ I don’t understand. I got the impression we were going to say, ‘Well, we need to have a street repaired here,’ and that sort of thing. And that’s not what this meeting is about at all.”

Moderator: “The purpose of the meeting was to come and show you the problem as they see it–both the mayor and the Department of Transportation–and to have you and ask questions of city staff, and to put your funding priorities on those green and yellow sheets. We hope you will let your views be known on all of that–both the levy and the funding priorities.

Citizen who took time out of his life to attend the meeting: So there’s no community discussion of priorities, then?

Moderator: “Not as such right now, sir.”