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Wednesday, August 19,2009

Kids in the Hall

by Neal McNamara

At Monday’s City Council meeting, like a grizzly bear gently ambling through the forest, the Council approved the citizen petition drive-initiated complete streets ordinance. The ordinance, which was passed unanimously, was reminiscent of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s colorcoded terror threat barometer — lots of tense buildup with no actual reason for concern.

Maybe it was paranoia that the thing might have been politically motivated, or bad memories from past Council votes that have gone sour, but there seemed to be the expectation that the ordinance — which encourages the city to implement a plan to make streets “complete” by adding nonmotorized transit options and asking that 5 percent of Act 51 money (dough supplied to municipalities by the state from taxes on gas and vehicle registration) be put toward this — might raise some hell.


On Monday night, there was no brimstone, but there was a little fire — that, we will get to later. Now, let’s travel back in time to last Thursday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, where the ordinance was up for discussion.

Jessica Yorko, the local neighborhood maven and Fourth Ward Council candidate, who led the complete streets charge, gave Council a computer-generated presentation on the definition of streets that are complete. Her presentation was nice, but the definition of complete streets wasn’t really the issue, since everyone on Council seems to agree that streets should be made safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

After the presentation, First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt kicked off a round of questioning with a doozy:


“Why did your organization go for a petition instead of sitting down with Council? Was there a reason?”


Translation: Why did you circumvent Council? See, Yorko and her complete streets buddies could have brought their idea to Council and had them write the ordinance, work it through committee and bring it forward. But they instead undertook an amazing petition drive, a little-used way that citizens can use to pass legislation if they gather the signatures of at least 5 percent of voters. This route forces Council to either pass the ordinance or put in on the ballot in November. And that is probably the root of the suspicion over whether the ordinance was politically motivated — to test Council on whether it would pass legislation that it could not change, even if it’s for a squeaky clean cause.

Yorko’s response was that she and her group wanted to give Council “cover” from bad information. She was concerned because of conflagrations over past legislation that was purported to be in the name of protecting pedestrians and bikers — a snow removal ordinance this past winter, and last year’s ordeal over adding bike lanes to Northrup Street, contrary to some citizens’ desires.

The questioning of Yorko was tough at times, like Hewitt debating with her whether the ordinance was strong enough so that the city could apply for grants to fund complete streets. But the Prescient Question of Last Week’s CoW Meeting award goes to At-Large Councilman Brian Jeffries, who asked Assistant City Attorney Jack Roberts whether language in the ordinance regarding funding would bind the city during the budget process. In other words, when budget time comes around, would the ordinance force Council to spend money toward completing the streets?


On Monday night, the opinion of City Attorney Brigham Smith was put forth that the budget process would supercede the ordinance. So, no, there’s no mandate.

Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Kaltenbach asked Yorko, point blank, whether she would prefer the ordinance to be passed by Council, or sent to the ballot.The consequence of Council’s passing the ordinance is that it could be changed immediately. Putting it on the ballot, however, would make it untouchable for two years. No one on Council has expressed a desire to change the ordinance, but Yorko teetered for a minute (“It would be painful to change it for the 87 volunteers, but we don’t know what the voters would say.”) before saying that she would want Council to just pass it.


Things got a little teary-eyed toward the end of the CoW meeting though, as Hewitt requested an amendment to the complete streets ordinance that would thank Yorko and her compatriots for such a valiant effort. During this discussion, At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar held her head in her hands; maybe she was touched, maybe she was sickened.

Back to Monday night: Third Ward Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson introduced
the ordinance for passage and remarked that Council in its budget
priorities has for years been asking for funding to make streets more
accessible. That led (and here’s the fire) to Dunbar’s pointing out
that it was she who “fought” to get such language into the budget
priorities. At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood gently disagreed, saying that Jeffries had been putting that kind of language into budget priorities since 2006. Dunbar
interrupted Wood, saying, “I’m looking at those,” as if to intimate she
could not find evidence of what Wood was talking about. Second Ward
Councilwoman Sandy Allen, however, broke it all up by “calling the question,” forcing the Council to vote.


The vote was 8-0, and everyone seemed happy.

However, at the end of the meeting, Kaltenbach, speaking with a fury that
this reporter has never seen before, jumped on the “naysayers” (he
didn’t say specifically in his speech, but he meant the “regulars”) for
their negative outlook on the ordinance. Speaking with him after the meeting, he expressed that he had had enough of people getting up “to demean” the efforts of young people trying to improve neighborhoods.

Also at Monday’s meeting was a resolution asking the state to oppose a liquor license for the Walgreen’s located
at 3404 S. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The reasoning behind this,
Robinson said, was that the Walgreen’s in question was located in an
area already saturated with businesses that deal in packaged liquor and that neighbors are against “yet another one.”


Council voted 7-1 to oppose the license.

In a somewhat related issue, as it relates to sympathy for the downtrodden and slippery slopes, the Council had before it on Monday a request by one Dan Stouffer for the city to forgive $359 it had charged him to tow his vehicle
on two separate occasions. Apparently, the axle on Stouffer’s vehicle
had broken, so he had it towed to a spot in front of his neighbor’s
house. The neighbor complained that the vehicle was abandoned and
had the city tow it to a junkyard. Stouffer went to the junkyard, got
his car and had it towed to his backyard so he could fix it. Apparently
it was in his yard too long, unfixed, and the city came yet again and
towed the car. The Council voted 5-3 against his request.

Kaltenbach, the head of the General Services Committee, from
where the claim appeal came, was sympathetic to Stouffer, and he and
Dunbar made an appeal to Council to pay for half the towing fees.
Dunbar, Kaltenbach and Jeffries voted for it, but were defeated by the
rest of the Council, which didn’t want to end up setting a precedent that they would pay or forgive citizens’ debts to the city on a caseby-case basis.


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