Morning Crank: SDOT Will Help Fund Runner-Up’s Salary; Agency Gets Acting Director During Viaduct Closure

1.

1. Sam Zimbabwe, the incoming director of the Seattle Department of Transportation (pictured), won’t be able to start for several more weeks, so SDOT is getting another temporary director—current SDOT interim deputy director Kevin O’Neill, who will serve as acting director until Zimbabwe starts, most likely in February. The Alaskan Way Viaduct will be shut down for three weeks, starting this Friday, for the state to reroute SR99 into the new waterfront tunnel.

Since Durkan asked for the resignation of the last permanent transportation director, Scott Kubly, in December 2017, the department has had two interim directors—Goran Sparrman, who left the city for a job with the engineering firm HNTB, and Linea Laird, the former administrator for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project at the state department of transportation.

2. Last week, Durkan announced that she was hiring the runner-up for the SDOT position, retired Air Force general Mike Worden, to a “cabinet-level position” in her office, from which he will coordinate operations between city departments during the coming “period of maximum constraint,” when traffic into and through downtown will be impacted by a number of construction projects as well as the permanent viaduct closure.

When reporters asked Durkan last week whether Worden risked stepping on Zimbabwe’s toes (in addition to the new director, who Durkan has said will be in town this month to “help with the planning” for the viaduct closure, SDOT has a director of downtown mobility whose job encompasses “traffic management, transit investments, transportation demand management, right-of-way management, coordinated regional communications, planned infrastructure investments, strategic data, and metrics”), Durkan reiterated that Worden’s job involved many other agencies, not just SDOT.

But although the mayor’s office is trying to distance Worden from the department he originally applied to direct, his $195,000 salary will be paid, at least in part, by SDOT. Given that the mayor’s office is wedded to its talking point that Worden is not part of SDOT, the fact that SDOT dollars will fund his position in the mayor’s office seems a bit like adding an insult to a snub.

Support

Asked to confirm reports from several sources that SDOT would be footing the bill for Worden’s salary, mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Kellogg said the money would come from “braided funding” and that the exact dollar amounts that would come from various city departments hadn’t been determined yet.  Still, it hasn’t escaped notice inside city hall that the transportation department will be paying the salary of the man who didn’t get the top job, but got hired anyway, and who the mayor insists will not be looking over the new director’s shoulder.

3. Worden, who worked for defense contractor Lockheed Martin from 2010 to 2016 after retiring from the US Air Force, has reportedly instructed all city staffers to address him as “General,” which helps explain why not only Durkan but all her communications staffers consistently refer to him as “the general” or, in writing, as “the General.” City staffers say that Worden’s executive assistant has been meeting with employees to let them know that they should use the honorific when addressing or referring to him.

UPDATE: Late this morning, senior staff were reportedly told to tell their employees to begin addressing Worden as “Mike,” a reversal of the previous directive. I have a message out to the mayor’s office to find out when this decision was made, and why. In an email chain about Worden that began yesterday, a spokeswoman for the mayor shifted from referring to Worden as “the General” (last night) to “Mike” (this afternoon).

There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule on whether retired military officials should use their rank in a professional setting. They’re certainly allowed do so so (except in federal civil service jobs)‚ but many of the protocol and etiquette guides I found online caution against it, for obvious reasons: 1) It’s weird (and potentially intimidating) to pull rank in a non-military setting; and 2) no one wants to be that guy who got a Ph.D and now insists that everyone address him as “doctor.”

 

Morning Crank: If It Isn’t Anybody’s Job It Isn’t Anybody’s Job

Friends of the Waterfront Seattle chair Maggie Walker gives Mayor Jenny Durkan a medal at a press conference announcing an agreement on the waterfront funding plan yesterday.

1. Waterfront property owners have reached a deal with the city in a longstanding dispute over how much they will pay for improvements that are expected to dramatically increase their property values over time. The deal, which Mayor Jenny Durkan announced at the Seattle Aquarium yesterday, is essentially the one I described back in December: Property owners impacted by the one-time assessment, known as a Local Improvement District, will pay about 20 percent less than the city originally proposed—a total of $160 million, rather than $200 million, total—and, in exchange, will agree not to challenge their assessments. A nonprofit established to help fund and operate the waterfront, Friends of the Waterfront, will contribute $110 million to the project ($10 million more than originally planned), while the city will kick in an extra $25 million from commercial parking tax revenues, for a total city contribution of $249 million. The total waterfront budget will be reduced very slightly, from $717 million under the old plan to $712 million under the new one.

At Thursday’s press conference, Durkan said the city would pay for the additional $25 million by issuing additional bonds against the city’s existing commercial parking tax as existing bonds are retired. Besides requiring the Friends to come up with $110 million, the legislation Durkan will transmit to the city council tomorrow commits the city to spending $4.8 million a year (adjusted upward annually for inflation) on park operations and maintenance for the park, a catch-all term that includes the city’s contribution to security. That money would come from the existing parks levy (passed in 2014), the parking tax, and the city’s general fund. The legislation includes an emergency clause that allows the city to spend less on maintenance and security if general fund revenues decline in a future financial downturn.

2. The press conference included an awkward moment, when the mayor introduced Pike Place Market Public Development Authority council chair Rico Quirindongo (pictured, clapping, above), as Brian Surratt, the head of the city’s Office of Economic Development under former mayor Ed Murray, who also happens to be black but does not look like Quirindongo. After Quirindongo introduced himself and said a few words, Durkan returned to the mic and, without missing a beat, spelled his (actual) last name out loud for the press.

Support

3. Durkan also answered several questions about her decision to hire retired Air Force general Mike Worden, who was a runner-up for the Seattle Department of Transportation director position, as “mobility operations coordinator” during the “period of maximum constraint,” when mobility downtown will be pinched by several major projects around the center city, including the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the construction of the Washington State Convention Center expansion, and the closure of the downtown transit tunnel to buses. Worden, whose career spans more than 30 years in the Air Force and six years as a director at defense contractor Lockheed Martin, has little direct experience in transportation planning.

Durkan announced her selection of Sam Zimbabwe, most recently the chief project delivery officer for Washington, D.C.’s transportation department, as SDOT  director last month. By choosing Worden for the newly created $195,000-a-year position, Durkan was effectively able to hire both of the remaining SDOT finalists—one for the position that both men originally sought, and one for a position created specifically for him. (A third finalist, Sound Transit division manager Kamuron Gurol, reportedly dropped out of the running late in the process). A similar scenario played out in Durkan’s selection of a new police chief, a drawn-out process in which she rejected, then reconsidered, then appointed then-deputy chief Carmen Best to the position, while also hiring one of the finalists, former Philadelphia police chief Cameron McLay, as a senior policy advisor.

The mayor said yesterday that she made the decision to hire Worden with Zimbabwe’s full collaboration and support. “He was very much in favor of having a person who would coordinate across all departments, because this isn’t just [about] the Seattle Department of Transportation. It’s much [bigger] than that,” Durkan said. For example, the city might need to redirect fire trucks to go around a traffic jam downtown, or offer flexible hours for people to file permit applications. “If it’s nobody’s job, it’s nobody’s job,” Durkan said. Currently, though, coordinating the city’s response to the so-called “Seattle squeeze” is somebody’s job—SDOT’s own Heather Marx, whose job title is “director of downtown mobility.” Marx did not play a role during yesterday’s press conference, and I didn’t see her in the crowd.

4. Also conspicuously absent: Deputy mayor Shefali Ranganathan, the former Transportation Choices Coalition director who oversees “major transportation-related policy” for the mayor’s office and who would seem to be the natural choice to oversee Worden’s work in the mayor’s office. Instead, that role will go to deputy mayor Mike Fong, who also oversees almost a dozen city departments. Asked why she decided to have Worden report to Fong instead of transportation expert Ranganathan, Durkan said, “Again, this isn’t just about transportation. Senior deputy mayor Fong is the senior deputy mayor so [Worden] actually reports to me [and] coordinates with senior deputy mayor Fong.”

In October, when Ranganathan’s portfolio was reduced in a reorganization of the mayor’s office, she told me the changes would give her time to focus on “major initiatives” like congestion pricing downtown. Yesterday, both she and Fong echoed Durkan’s line that Worden’s job will mostly involve coordinating between departments like police, fire, and utilities—a point everyone at the mayor’s office hammered home so consistently that I started to wonder if traffic coordination had anything to do with transportation at all. SDOT—the agency everyone was so keen to de-emphasize—is, of course, the primary agency that will have to deal with traffic backups, transportation construction, transit access, illegal parking, bikesharing, enforcing new restrictions on Uber and Lyft, and any number of other initiatives related to center-city mobility.

Durkan Names D.C.’s Sam Zimbabwe to Head Seattle Transportation Department

Sam Zimbabwe, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s pick for Seattle Department of Transportation director, will (assuming he’s confirmed by the city council) walk into his new office early next year facing an immense amount of scrutiny: From bike and pedestrian advocates, who are (understandably) skeptical about Durkan’s commitment to the Bike Master Plan; to supporters of the downtown streetcar, which remains on hold; to transportation advocates of all stripes who have criticized the mayor for appointing one interim director after another to replace former SDOT leader Scott Kubly, who stepped down shortly after Durkan was elected. Since Kubly’s departure, SDOT has been led by a series of interim directors.

Zimbabwe’s resume includes a stint as director of the Center for Transit-Oriented Development at Reconnecting America, a D.C.-based smart growth nonprofit, and seven years at the District Department of Transportation as associate director for planning, policy and sustainability. When he took that job in 2011, the urbanist transit nerds at Greater Greater Washington hailed it as  “a very exciting choice.”

Since 2017, he has been the D.C. agency’s chief delivery officer, a new position created under current D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser in 2017. Opinions vary on whether Zimbabwe ultimately delivered for multimodal advocates in D.C., where bus riders have spent years asking for bus lanes on 16th Street, a central thoroughfare.

And, regarding the latest flash point for transit advocates—scooters, which Durkan has said she considers too dangerous and risky unless the city is indemnified from crash-related lawsuits: They are allowed in D.C., but only under conditions that scooter companies have criticized as too onerous.

At a press conference today, both Durkan and Zimbabwe  avoided directly answering questions about how much autonomy Zimbabwe would have as director.  Instead, they both swerved to sound bites about “the city of the future” (Durkan) and “a safe, equitable, multimodal transportation system” (Zimbabwe.)

Observers of Zimbabwe’s time in D.C. describe him as a capable administrator, but more of a “process guy” than a “vision guy,” which raises questions about whether he’s likely to push back when Durkan calls for more process and deliberation on contentious proposals like bike lanes and transit investments that take lanes back from cars. (On the other hand, people who don’t like “vision guys” may be relieved to hear that Zimbabwe doesn’t take after his elbow-throwing predecessor Kubly, who also preceded him at DDOT).

Support

Durkan said she expects that “when we go to the city council and when the SDOT team members get to know Sam as I’ve been able to do, that they will think that Sam is actually from Seattle.”

But Seattle is different than D.C., in ways that have sometimes confounded outsiders who come here for high-profile jobs in the city. (Kubly, a D.C. transplant, experienced this first hand.) For one thing, the other Washington tends to be a transient place—people come for jobs, stay for a few years, then move on to another place. Seattle is more settled—the people lobbying against bike lanes or or transit-oriented development in 2018 are pretty much the same people who were arguing against those things 20 years ago, and they’ve spent decades honing their arguments against “big-city” ideas (like, say, bikesharing.) As an outsider, Zimbabwe will be subjected to a level of neighborhood processing which he may not be fully prepared for.

Zimbabwe hasn’t witnessed the Seattle Process, wherein leaders and stakeholders debate and focus-group and charrette ideas for years on end, and sometimes to death. Will  he be the kind of leader who will put his foot down when (for example), neighborhood activists delay and stall and file endless appeals to stop a bike project that has been on planning maps for nearly a decade? Or will he follow the lead of his new boss, whom urbanists and bike and transit advocates have criticized for delaying the implementation of projects that would make streets safer for all users?

Asked about his capacity for dealing with pushback from the public, Zimbabwe responded, “I come from a place—Washington, D.C.—where we’ve met a similar set of growth challenges. … It’s something that I relish and that I look forward to.”

City council member Rob Johnson, who chairs the planning and land use committee, says he “really likes” Durkan’s pick. “His pedigree and work experience and track record lead me to think he’s going to be very strong on the multimodal investments that we want to continue to make as a city,” Johnson says.  “I think about Sam as the kind of person who has a good, strong set of values but isn’t going to try to be in your face about them or spend a lot of time trying to convince you of the righteousness of those arguments—he’s going to use data and expertise to make those arguments.” That assumes, of course, Durkan lets him.

One final note on today’s SDOT announcement: The three finalists for the position, whose names were first reported by Crosscut, were all white men. (One, Sound Transit north corridor development director Kameron Gurol, apparently dropped out of the process before Durkan made her pick). SDOT has only had one female director in its history—Grace Crunican, who served under former mayor Greg Nickels between 2002 and 2009.