Editorial: Stanley St. project has does immeasurable damage to civic engagement

By Brandi Makuski

After nearly four hours of public input and council debate on May 15, 2018, the Stevens Point City Council approved the following:

“That the Department of Public Works prepare to solicit bids in June for two scenarios to restripe Stanley St. with the following parameters: converting from four car lanes to three-car lanes from Michigan Ave. to: 1) Indiana, and 2) Lindbergh. The restriped lanes will include a standard, 14-foot, two-way-left-turn-lane, turning lane, as well as a five-foot demarcated shoulder in both directions, changing the Minnesota Ave. to have an all-way-stop signs, with left-turn bays instead of TWTLs, with the appropriate transitions at the east end of the lane conversion to merge traffic into three lanes going westward, and expand to four lanes going eastward, and, the addition of a crosswalk, with a pedestrian refuge, if appropriate, at Clayton, as well as consideration of crosswalks for Lindbergh, and/or Indiana avenues.”

It’s an unusually lengthy and specific motion, one that was oddly preprinted by Alderman David Shorr, rather than the city clerk (as is customary), and was not included in the meeting agenda published beforehand. The agenda only included the more general phraseology, “Traffic lane configuration and other safety measures for the Stanley Street corridor.”

Shorr’s motion was a mouthful, and certainly included some technical details foreign to the layman’s tongue: after all, how many of the 100 or so citizens in attendance at the meeting had the background or education to understand the phrase “demarcated shoulder.”

But the language of a motion—what’s needed to introduce a new piece of business or propose a decision or action in the setting of a legal meeting—is critical. Council members vote on the specific parlance of a proposal, and rewording for clarity is common.

Stanley St. was discussed during a series of public presentations in 2017 and ’18 (unofficial presentations were held as far back as 2016), and though discussions occurred on potential funding sources and requests for updates on Public Works Director Scott Beduhn’s information-gathering progress, the issue hadn’t been placed on an agenda until May.

So, what, exactly, was approved in May?

According to the mayor, not a road diet.

“All that’s happened right now is that the council approved a motion directing the public works director to prepare the design and other documents so we can seek bids on the proposal for Stanley St.,” he said following last May’s meeting.

He was also surprised “no one seemed to catch” the exact wording of the motion, which approved the dept. of public works “prepare to solicit bids,” something he felt was an important distinction.

In May, the mayor said he expected the project itself to receive formal approval at the June 2018 council meeting. It wasn’t on the agenda, nor did it return, until September, when the city voted to award a $97K bid for the project to the one contractor who showed an interest.

The road diet gained signification traction during an October 2016 discussion about the 2017 capital budget. That meeting nearly fell off the rails, as Stanley St. was discussed at length despite not being listed on the agenda—the discussion even continued after several warnings from the mayor and the city attorney. Former Public Works Director Scott Schatschneider told the council his office was doing its best to keep up with pavement maintenance and had only been allotted $400,000 to perform about $625,000 of work on city roads during the following year.

During the October 2016 finance committee meeting, Alderman David Shorr suggested funding for Stanley St., which had only been formally proposed as a city project a few weeks prior, could be taken from Schatschneider’s $400,000 budget, arguing the lane conversion “was very simple” in comparison with chip sealing, resurfacing, and other maintenance projects that Schatschneider had identified as necessary. Instead, the council majority lent its vote to approve $60,000 of the city’s $100,000 contingency fund be used for a “Stanley St. Improvements” line item in the 2017 budget, although neither Schatschneider—nor his successor, Beduhn—identified any priority safety concerns on the roadway.

Schatschneider resigned from his position not long after. He was replaced by Beduhn, who had no experience working in municipal government.

Last Thursday, city officials posted its agenda for a special city council meeting scheduled for Aug. 5, which includes a possible vote for “Approval of Extended Re-Striping Design for Stanley Street.”

On Friday, Metro Wire staff reached out to City Clerk Paul Piotrowski to verify when, exactly, the restriping project was approved by the city council. Piotrowski identified three votes relating to Stanley Street: one that occurred in May 2018 under the “prepare to solicit bids” language, and related votes that followed in September, when the council approved the sole, albeit over-budget, bid returned for the project to Century Fence, and another vote in October, when the council voted to retract the award bid, having discovered the city would be able to purchase a used striping machine, using the contingency funds, to perform the work itself.

Piotrowski said after checking with the city attorney, the vote that occurred in May did indeed approve the project.

While he agreed the motion approved in May contained peculiar language, City Attorney Andrew Beveridge last year said he believes it is legally sufficient.

“When you say ‘prepare’, the public works department knows what that means; it’s specific enough for engineering,” Beveridge said, adding the term “prepare for bid spec” is actually a “term of art” used in the field of public works.

But does the public know that? A “term of art” may be useful for internal documents, work orders, or memos, but not for the language of a motion, especially considering its everyday meaning might be very different. Isn’t the purpose of a public meeting agenda to offer language clear enough for the public—not public works—to understand? Doesn’t the language need to avoid any ambiguity so there’s no confusion?

The unusual steps taken to reach what could have been the “simple restriping project” city council members often reference are a large source of the animosity over the project. The usual city process wasn’t followed, as many unofficial city meetings advocating the project were held long before the issue came to the city council, with some council members prematurely publicly declaring the project would move ahead. Those in opposition have been unfairly characterized as being “anti-bicycle,” while council members advocating for the change have done little to avoid any appearance of impropriety, pressuring Beduhn privately to move ahead with the project.

Council members in favor of the conversion argue it will provide a safer, slower Stanley St., and address what they refer to as “transportation equity” for bicyclists, pedestrians, and joggers. Yet none of those factors have ever been identified as a concern by the city’s public works department.

Stanley St. has created a giant rift between the city council and the public. Whatever else this council does, the project has forever marred its reputation in many circles of our community. It has created a watershed moment in Stevens Point: one marking a visible decrease in local civic engagement, and one where the public can no longer trust city officials to utilize familiar, public processes and procedures to approve all of its projects.

It’s one of the lesser attractive qualities of this council, and it’s perhaps the saddest element of what will happen on Stanley St. Tuesday.