Letter to the editor: Three takeaways from the Connector controversy

Editor:

As the chapter on the Edmonds Waterfront Connector closes and a new chapter on how to best provide emergency services access to all of the locations west of the railroad tracks begins, I, personally and professionally, have come up with three primary takeaways.

My first takeaway is that the city should rethink its community engagement processes. Relying on public meetings to solicit and assess public opinions to make critical local government decisions fails to recognize two critical factors.

Public meetings are rarely representative of the community and can lead to government decisions that are ultimately opposed by the population at large and decrease public confidence in government and the processes they use for decision-making. Public meetings leave out significant demographic groups that (a) do not realize the importance of the issue at hand, (b) care but do not have the time or physical ability to attend a meeting in person because of issues such as lack of transportation, health, and work schedules, or (c) feel intimidated or shy about speaking in public forums.

In addition, public meetings are not congenial to how people prefer to engage on issues in the digital age. Today, many people participate in work, family life, relationships, and commerce through digital channels. Social media has created expectations for instant communication about everything from anywhere. Expecting community members to make room in their schedule and travel to and from a public meeting usually guarantees that only those with the strongest opinions show up. In addition, the digital era has trained people to shy away from participating in face-to-face public meetings that often feature tense debate. People who have an opinion they want to share may not attend a meeting just to avoid confrontation.

Going forward, the City of Edmonds should consider employing a process that provides multiple opportunities for citizens to meaningfully participate in major policy decisions through ongoing conversations, learning and working collaboratively with government officials–not just being asked to provide input at a few points in the process. At a minimum, traditional public meetings could be supplemented with a process to gather broader feedback from residents by reducing the barriers to involvement. To be effective, it essential for the city to utilize a range of mechanisms and avenues (one-on-one, small group, large format, virtual) to facilitate the widest possible participation. In addition, the City of Edmonds should use a multi-pronged, opt-out (rather than opt-in) approach to promote the process to engage a diverse (all views) and representative audience. The more varied the views and lived experiences that inform the city’s decision-making process, the more likely it is that the final solution will address the community’s needs and expectations. Consequently, it is more likely that the community will trust the process and accept the outcome.

My second takeaway is that Edmonds residents must assume some responsibility for the previous, ineffective process. While it was exciting to see the impact of a powerful grassroots effort, it was also unnecessarily traumatic. Although a majority appear to support the final result, the city must restart the search for appropriate emergency services and pedestrian access to the waterfront. Time and money have been spent and more time and money will be required to restart this process. In the meantime, trains will continue to run through town and the potential, while statistically small, for a life or property threatening event remains. But let’s look to the future and not assign blame for the failure. Edmonds residents must commit to continuing their involvement in the process by (a) becoming and staying informed, (b) sharing information but not misinformation, and (c) speaking out in a timely and constructive manner. The Waterfront Assessment Committee is correct that many community members were “Johnny Come Lately” to the process and not well-informed about the analyses and prior decisions. This is inexcusable going forward. While the city must assume responsibility for more effective outreach and communications processes, Edmonds residents must monitor the various news (including social media) sources and public notices and voice their opinions via whatever channels with which they are most comfortable.

Finally, both the city and residents should work towards a process that is uniting rather than divisive. We need to avoid an “us versus them” type of dialogue. We are all part of this wonderful community. A positive process will go a long way in ensuring the end result of this next chapter is one with which we might not all agree but the majority will support. To accomplish this, we need a collaborative engagement process that is a dialogue not a presentation by city officials and consultants and public input is ongoing and constructive rather than a protest rally by the residents. Everyone should both speak and listen. Ideas should be shared and discussed in an open, transparent, and ideally non-critical manner. The ongoing flow of information, insights, and opinions should take place without the grandstanding and questioning of motives that have dominated social media before and after the June 18 council meeting. Let’s start this new chapter by accepting the basic assumption that we all want what is best for Edmonds. I offer the above suggestions as a method to accomplish this.

Rebecca Elmore-Yalch
Edmonds

28 Replies to “Letter to the editor: Three takeaways from the Connector controversy”

  1. Why are citizens the scape goat?

    The citizens are not…
    – who has failed to implement the four “Immediate Actions” from the 2016 report, including contacting BNSF to stop trains in the event of a 911 call west of the tracks.
    – who have failed to take advantage of FRA funding mechanisms (neither the FAST Act nor CRISI is even identified in the most recent presentation to Council as potential funding sources).
    – who failed to identify the marine sanctuary at Brackett’s Landing as a deal-breaker.
    – who misrepresented the Waterfront Connector as “superior” with regard to reliable emergency access (its reliability is inferior to that of a southern extension).

    In the meantime, before the next formal process starts, since past consultants nor the city may have even notified FRA, it can be citizens who help get the attention of the Federal Railroad Administration with regard to the crossing at Highway 104 (Main Street). Public comments are being accepted thru August 13, 2019 at the following link:
    https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/06/14/2019-12572/proposed-agency-information-collection-activities-comment-request

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    1. Brian — I am sorry that you interpreted my comments as anti-citizen; indeed that is not the case at all. However, to borrow some song lyrics from Rob Base & D.J. E-Z Rock– “It takes two to make things right.” To summarize, the city bears significant responsibility for the controversy by relying on a traditional outreach and public meeting process to support a major decision rather than the broader outreach and alternative processes to reach all citizens. The citizens are to be commended for coming together at last in defense of our beach and core values but we all need to stay vigilant, informed, and involved about this and all other major decisions this growing city is facing. And I would hope that everyone — from city officials to everyday resident or visitor — comments constructively rather than making unsupported and occasionally inflammatory statements in defense of their ideas.Note that the other line in this song is that “it takes two to make it outta sight.” I believe that everyone regardless of their opinions on the now hopefully laid to rest Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector has a common goal — the best community and most livable city ever. So let’s everyone keep our eye on the ball and move the process forward.

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    2. Brian,
      Thank you for referencing the Tetra Tech report that recommends the Edmonds Waterfront Access Study. You have clearly done your research as a citizen of Edmonds. Here is a link to the report, provided by Richard Yalch in Council Votes to Kill Controversial Waterfront Connector Project:

      http://www.edmondswa.gov/images/COE/Government/Departments/Public_Works/Public_Works_Projects/Sunset_Ave_Walkway/Edmonds_Waterfront_Access_Study_-_1of2

      And here are the four “Immediate” recommendations you are referring to:

      Immediate Recommendations
      Several enhancements are recommended for implementation independent of the specific alternatives identified in the Edmonds Waterfront Access Study. While these enhancements are supportive of some elements of the Waterfront Access Study objectives, they are more appropriately advanced directly by the City or collaboratively with different groups of stakeholders. Recommended near-term actions include:
       Construct crosswalk improvements at the Main Street at-grade railroad crossing to improve pedestrian safety and comfort (Level 1 Screening concept On-site 4). Recommend this be implemented directly by the City and coordinated with BNSF and Washington State Ferries.
       Construct crosswalk improvements at the Dayton Street at-grade railroad crossing to improve pedestrian safety and comfort (Level 1 Screening concept On-site 5). Recommend this be implemented directly by the City with support from the Port of Edmonds and coordinated with BNSF.
       Implement emergency notifications between the 911 dispatch center and BNSF operations when an emergency is reported on the west side of the railroad tracks to notify trains to halt outside of downtown Edmonds so that police and fire can respond without delay by passing trains (Level 1 Screening concept Operational 4). Recommend this be implemented through coordination between the City, Fire District 1, and BNSF.
       Create and implement a Waterfront Emergency Evacuation Plan with measures that respond to a broad range of potential emergencies (Level 1 Screening concepts On-site 1, On-site 3, and On-site 7). Recommend this be developed and implemented by an appropriate group that would include City departments, Fire District 1, Swedish Hospital, Port of Edmonds, and Washington State Ferries, among others.

      The executive branch of Edmonds city government, Dave Earling, should now be held accountable for working on these four “immediate” recommendations. Council was presented with the “Near term” options, which included the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector and the result was ultimately this public outcry. If the concern really is safety, these “immediate” recommendations by Tetra Tech would have been addressed BEFORE any discussion of a 30+ million dollar ramp for off-loading ferry traffic.

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      1. The first sentence should be “Thank you for referencing Tetra Tech’s Waterfront Access Study.”

        Brian,
        Citizens are often blamed for not following the process, then challenging the decision late in the game. This is a technique of the administration to pressure Council to approve what has been studied “for years”. Marjie Fields’ comment below summarizes her experience of the public process and how the consultants guided the public process to the outcome that the administration (in this case Dave Earling and his staff) preferred. Input from the public is limited to choices that are unacceptable to many. The public is involved to document that public input was solicited.

        Having been involved in Edmonds politics since 2004, and a council member from 2012-2015, I have observed this manipulation by the administration repeatedly, as a resident and as an elected official. Unfortunately, the major decisions are made by the mayor and his staff.

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      2. ” If the concern really is safety, these “immediate” recommendations by Tetra Tech would have been addressed BEFORE any discussion of a 30+ million dollar ramp for off-loading ferry traffic.”
        I may have missed it, Joan, where is it stated that the connector would be used for off-loading ferry traffic?

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        1. Ron,
          The plan was always to off load ferry traffic on the Edmonds Street Waterfront Connector, in the event of an “emergency” or a train blockage. The question is, what possible emergency would prioritize getting vehicles off of the ferry over getting people safely off the ferry? Vehicles (property) are a low priority in any real emergency such as a fire.

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  2. Rebecca, Thank you for your thoughtful insights. I agree completely.
    Sometimes the loudest voice is one sided and may not represent most of the community.

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  3. Thank you, Rebecca. Your thoughtful comments are very helpful and wise. I believe most people DO want what is best. We need to respect all opinions whether from newcomers or from those who have been active in the past. Insulting people is not the best way to get good results.
    Let’s think hard and find ways that will work for the best for most people.

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  4. We should all start by adding to the process and not use this as a launch pad to rehash and point fingers. These ideas will work, comments should add value.
    Thanks for providing the framework for some quality discussion.

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  5. Thank you, Rebecca. I hope your three valuable points as read – even if all supporting detail is skimmed through. These are points to make our Edmonds a more comprehensive and cohesive community ~ much more of the way I want to feel about this place I love.

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  6. Rebecca Elmore-Yalch’s letter is insightful regarding what occurred most recently in Edmonds and I really appreciate the resolutions she offers for how to move forward. Let’s proceed as informed citizens, seeking to do what is best for our entire community.

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  7. Rebecca, you’ve been on point on this topic. I owe you coffee. Nigel Farage, when talking about UN assemblies and being an MP, said that government meetings are boring on purpose. Implied Consent is created when the public is disinterested or confused as to what government is up to. Not saying it’s on purpose in this particular case, but the effect was there and it was to the advantage of people with this plan. Brad Shipley said something to the effect that planners hold projects close to their chests to avoid public scrutiny. Part of his platform is to open up those lines of communication, and he mentioned some of the same community engagement ideas. That said, planners planned on putting a bridge on the founding beach. A social media campaign wouldn’t have been kicked off if the Council voted to fix the side walks, which are really getting bad. The people on the council now, thank you for your service though.

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  8. Excellent commentary. City letters should be mailed with option to review online and complete a survey. Not an easy process and doesn’t insure that it works any better.

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  9. Ms. Elmore-Yalch – Thank you for continuing to add to this discussion. It’s important for our community to stay informed and engaged in this discussion. Your voice has been very helpful. And I agree that this shouldn’t be an “us vs them” issue, but a “roll up your sleeves” issue.

    Mr. Richardson – I think I read your comment that we needed to have better outreach with the key information about this project from the planners. I spoke to Brad Shipley last week and he said the same, as much, to me. Edmonds got very engaged just as soon as the visual was promoted with social media.

    If the planners had broadly defined the stakeholders and then used effective outreach tools when they announced their plan after first hearing – back in October (I was there…) to gain community support and buy-in; we wouldn’t be in this place today.

    I do have a question – Do we know for sure that the Mayor has contacted the outside funders saying that the funds for the project would be returned? Or (I hope) that we, as a community needed a bit more time to come up with an emergency response alternative? He did say at the end of the Council meeting that he would do this the next day.

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    1. Cheers. Brad also said something along the lines of a Triage approach to public safety concerns. What is the most likely public safety concern? Are highway 99 improvements lower hanging fruit, that area more in need?

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      1. I think that we need to evaluate and prioritize (is that what he means by triage??) our safety concerns. My hope is that we have enough capacity to have 2 projects run simultaneously.

        Highway 99 should be a high priority for safety and roadway redesign. But I would like to see abundant community engagement about how that rolls out and what it looks like. Yes, there needs to be emergency access to and from the west side of the railroad tracks, but I don’t think we want to consider anything that touches the shoreline – my preference is keep it simple and with elevators.

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  10. Thanks for your letter Rebecca.
    As was stated years ago— A house divided cannot stand. I believe we all want the best for Edmonds. Let’s concentrate on that.

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  11. I want to comment about the public input process for the connector project. I went to all the open houses and gave my input, as did others; but the only input requested was choosing which bridge design we preferred. Amid much grumbling from the public and many angry comments, those tasked with selling the project kept telling us how beautiful and meaningful this overpass would be. Ultimately, many of us did provide input that favored the least intrusive model, but that didn’t mean we favored the connector. A choice between undesirable options is not a real choice.

    This project seemed to sneak up on us, even if we were paying attention. At first it sounded like just a pedestrian walkway that might accommodate an ambulance. We do care about safety, so we thought maybe it wouldn’t be too bad. But then gradually, in spite of the artistic drawings, we came to realize that this was really a highway overpass being proposed. Ultimately we realized that it would be a massive structure because it had to allow for the weight of bumper to bumper traffic going on and off the ferry.

    As we move forward with a more reasonable and responsible option for safety – one that isn’t a disguised ferry traffic route – let’s hope for more transparency and better communication.

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  12. I hate to sound like a pessimist, but I’m also a realist. I have very closely observed city issues here for the past 16 years and GENERALLY citizens do not get involved until they learn that they will be directly impacted by the issue. So no number of changes to improve the process are likely to markedly reduce the number of citizens who get involved late in the process.

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  13. We have representatives of the community that take part in voting for this project. I believe it would be a good idea for them to get out and visit those in the community that they represent. I will say there are some that do this. I do not believe this responsibility should be shoved back on the community. The council has lost touch with the community. Now it is being asked that we do the job that they were put into office to do. Get out and talk to the community, then go into the council meeting and you will have a better chance of not having a rebuttal from the community you represent.

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  14. I hope the people currently running for office will see the value in their citizens, which over the last few years they seem to have their own agenda. ( backing views Seattle has) I’m already making my list who not to vote. I long for the time I can jump up and say this person has my vote.

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  15. I pretty much agree with Rebecca on all counts here. I think the problem is systemic to the current form of city government in Edmonds. For example, is it wise to give hiring and firing power or, at least, the perception of that power, to the Executive over people who have to present supposedly neutral reports to to the policy makers? Is it wise to give the Executive any veto power over the seven people who are elected to make city policy and manage the tax payer’s money? Is it wise to give the Executive of public policy the power to break ties of City Council votes on policy and/or appropriation of funds, when the number of Council members present, is designed to prevent tie votes on issues? (Do you think a Mayor behind closed doors might be encouraged to ask his best pal, who is on the council, to get sick at convenient times? I’m not saying this happens, but the possibility is there under current system). Is it wise to have city council members elected at large, rather from neighborhood districts, where people could present their views in small district town hall meetings to someone they know personally and where they aren’t restricted to 3 minute comments. I don’t think the current system serves ALL the people very well and it promotes cronyism, back door deals, and political dynasty (lame duck Mayor endorsing his heir apparent to continue his agenda. Luckily, I think Neil Tibbott is a better man than that, and will ultimately do the right things if he is elected. His connector change demonstrates that and I thank him sincerely).

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  16. Thank you, Rebecca, for this well-thought-out letter. I hope everyone reads this carefully and with an open mind.

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  17. I would like to add that I 100% agree with Marjie’s comment–I am pretty sure I was at the same public meeting where I was told that they were not taking comments on whether the proposed Edmonds Street Connector was the right solution. Rather I could only comment on the design alternatives–like Marjie it was kind of like picking the lesser of two evils. In addition, when I asked questions about how they would handle security, lighting, stormwater run-off, maintenance I was told to “not worry” it would be worked out.
    So to my three points — the city needs a way better public process, citizens need to stay vigilant, be informed and require suitable answers, and in the ideal world we all (city and citizens) do it in a positive and constructive manner:)

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  18. Dear Rebecca Elmor-Yalch,
    Your letter certainly was well thought out. It reminds me of a CEO that needs to get employees convinced that the implementation of a new company policy is best for all. A great selling job that also insures that those most vocal against the policy are silenced. We certainly do not work for the city, the city government works for us. We should have a say how tax money is spent. Those that show up to meetings take the time, and are also the ones most concerned. Your process is certainly effective for management in a corporate playbook.

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