The Real Surprise in Durkan’s Staffing Announcement Was Who Wasn’t Mentioned

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Last Friday, MayorJenny Durkan announced the departure of Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who got in trouble over his role in promoting a now-defunct bikeshare company affiliated with his former employer, and Patricia Lally, head of the city’s Office for Civil Rights. Durkan replaced both Kubly and Lally with interim directors from outside the city—former SDOT director Goran Sparrman and former Youth Violence Initiative director Mariko Lockhart. Kubly reportedly lobbied hard to keep his job, but that was probably never in the cards—his fans saw a visionary, big-picture leader, but his detractors inside and outside the city saw an outsider (from Austin by way of D.C. and Chicago) who threw elbows at too many people.

Durkan also announced a number of department heads she plans to keep, including Office of Housing director Steve Walker, Human Services Department director Catherine Lester, and Department of Education and Early Learning director Dwane Chappelle.

One name that wasn’t on either list was Department of Neighborhoods director Kathy Nyland, the onetime Georgetown neighborhood activist who emerged as one of the most transformative figures of the last four years. Nyland reorganized and attempted to remove the deadweight from DON (her email signature: “New Day, New DON!”, which had been the city department where miscellaneous programs went to languish, and to reimagine the concept of “neighborhoods” itself, to include the renters, immigrants, and newcomers who actually make up the majority of the city. Nyland’s dedication to inclusiveness riled the old-guard neighborhood movement—single-family homeowners, mostly white baby boomers, who tended to oppose changes that would add new people, particularly “transient” renters, to their” neighborhoods.

Those old-guard activists lost big during the last election—NIMBY darlings Jon Grant, Pat Murakami, and Bob Hasegawa lost decisively—but are hoping Durkan won’t realize that their time has passed.

The biggest rift between Nyland and the old guard came when Murray announced that the city would no longer fund or staff the 13 neighborhood district councils, and would dedicate the money they had spent supporting the councils to other purposes. Nyland took the brunt of the blame, as neighborhood activists accused her of failing to get their input and shutting them out of the system they have dominated for decades.  On the campaign trail, Durkan talked about “bringing back the district councils,” and said she thinks “the city has quit listening to the neighborhoods’ needs.”

They haven’t—they’ve just started listening to underrepresented people, too—and as Nyland has pointed out, when you’re used to being the only voice in the room, inclusion can feel like an affront. But neighborhoods are made up of renters, immigrants, night-shift workers, and young people, too. It would be a shame if complaints from activists who want to restore things to the “good old days” of Seattle circa 1990 were successful at pushing out an effective advocate whose work is just getting started.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Evening Crank: Week 2 Shakeups at SPD, Seattle City Light

The big news out of city hall today was the surprise announcement, dropped in the middle of a press conference to announce the less-surprising news that Seattle police chief Kathleen O’Toole was stepping down, that Seattle City Light director Larry Weis had resigned over the weekend. “It was clear to me that City Light … was somewhere we needed to make a change,” Durkan said this morning. “I talked to the director in terms of what my expectations were, we made a mutual decision that he would resign and so we will be having a nationwide search to make sure that we get the right person in place.”

The news of Weis’ departure came after allegations of widespread sexual harassment and sexism in the department, and after the department’s new consolidated utility billing system launched months late and at least $34 million over budget. “We’ve had challenges at City Light… everything from billing to the workplace environment,” Durkan acknowledged.

Weis is the highest-paid city employee, with a base salary of $340,000, and the only department head eligible for a performance bonus; earlier this year, while seeking a $30,000 bonus, he gave himself perfect marks on a self-evaluation of his performance. I asked Durkan whether she planned to compensate the next director as generously as Weis, whose high salary former mayor Ed Murray justified by saying a lower salary would not be competitive with similar positions in the private utility market. “I’m not going to comment on what the range of compensation is, but I can tell you that if we pay at a certain range, we expect a certain performance,” Durkan responded. The city will do a national search for Weis’ replacement; during the last national search, which resulted in Weis’ hiring, the city paid $50,000 to an executive recruiting firm.

SPD chief O’Toole will be replaced, on an interim basis, by deputy SPD Chief Carmen Best, who will the the first African-American woman, and only the second woman, to head the department. The search committee will be headed up by ACLU deputy legal director Jeff Robinson, former mayor Tim Burgess, Chief Seattle Club director (and Community Police Commission member) Colleen Echohawk, and ex-King County sheriff Sue Rahr. Durkan said she would announce the other members of the search committee in the next two weeks, and that they will begin a national search at the beginning of 2018. O’Toole’s last day will be December 31. Best said she plans to apply for the permanent position. Best’s status as a department veteran—she’s could give her the inside track on the job.

Durkan announced she had asked several other department heads, including fire chief Harold Scoggins, Office of Emergency Management director Barb Graff, and Seattle Public Utilities director Mami Hara, to stay. Last year, Hara was given a significant pay increase, to around $300,000, after the city’s human resources department argued that her pay was not competitive with similar department heads in other cities.

Durkan said to expect more big HR announcements in the coming weeks. Don’t take this as gospel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s taking a close look at who’s running the Office of Housing and the Human Services Department, two departments whose profiles are only going to get higher as the city—and Durkan—tackle the growing homelessness crisis in the coming year. And I would be shocked if she isn’t planning to announce a new director for the Seattle Department of Transportation (whose current director, Scott Kubly, is already applying for jobs out of town) very soon. Although many urbanists may long to see Durkan appoint Jessyn Farrell, the former mayoral candidate, state legislator, and director of the Transportation Choices Coalition, the better money’s on SDOT chief of staff Genesee Adkins, the former chief lobbyist for King County and, as it happens, a former Transportation Choices policy director herself.

If you enjoy the work I do here at The C Is for Crank, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter of the site! For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is funded entirely by contributions from readers, which pay for the substantial time I put into reporting and writing for this blog and on social media, as well as costs like transportation, phone bills, electronics, website maintenance, and other expenses associated with my reporting. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

Pedestrian Safety and Equity in the Rainier Valley

This post, a more detailed account of the pedestrian-safety announcement I reported on in yesterday’s Morning Crank, originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald.

Less than an hour after Mayor Ed Murray wrapped up a press conference to announce new pedestrian-safety improvements along Rainier Avenue South, a collision between a car and a semi shut down the intersection of Rainier and South Alaska St. — an in-your-face reminder that whatever the city has done to calm what is frequently referred to as “the most dangerous street in Seattle”, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. 

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians, but that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero” — the city’s goal of zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030 — has stagnated.

Murray chose Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Brighton to announce new investments in pedestrian safety not only because the school won a $300,000 grant from the city to improve sidewalks in the area, but to highlight the city’s new emphasis on creating safe routes between schools and transit stops. In the next year, Murray said, the city will build 50 new blocks of sidewalks at a cost of $22 million; by 2024, the city plans to add an additional 200 blocks.

The plan announced yesterday would also accelerate by one year the extension of new pavement markings and crosswalks that have been added along Rainier from Hillman City to Alaska Street — improvements Murray credited with limiting “off-roading” by speeding cars like the one that plowed through the Carol Cobb Salon in 2014 — further south, at a cost of $2.25 million. Over the next two years, seven more streets across the city will get the Rainier Avenue treatment. The funding for all the new projects will come from the $930 million Move Seattle levy voters passed in 2015.

Less flashy and expensive, but potentially more impactful, were some of the small changes Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Scott Kubly said the city was making to improve pedestrian safety at individual intersections — and the process the city will use to determine which intersections get upgrades. Instead of reacting to incidents after they happen — say, by reducing the speed limit and width of a road where cars have a habit of jumping through windows — the city will use modeling to figure out intersections that are likely to be problems before accidents occur.

SDOT-Director-Scott-Kubly-Speaking-About-Planned-Rainier-Ave-S-Improvements-at-March-2017-Conference-at-Brighton-School
SDOT Director Scott Kubly speaks about planned improvements to Rainier Avenue South in front of Brighton Elementary School (Photo: Erica C. Barnett)

For example, Kubly said, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns” — a regular green light without a left-turn arrow — “particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian. At intersections where the city knows accidents are likely, SDOT will preemptively add what Murray called “pedestrian-friendly signals” — walk signs that allow pedestrians into an intersection before drivers’ light turns green, giving walkers greater visibility — and traffic lights with left turn signals, which reduces conflicts between left-turning cars and pedestrians (or trucks) heading straight through an intersection. By adding leading pedestrian signals at 40 intersections citywide, Kubly said, the city expected to reduce crashes by 50 percent at those intersections.

Pedestrian safety, Murray said, “is an equity issue,” and that’s certainly been true in the Valley, where, neighbors have been requesting pedestrian safety improvements along Rainier for the past 40 years. Historically, Rainier has had more crashes per mile than arterial streets that carry more than twice as much traffic. Further east, surface-running light rail trains pose a particular challenge to pedestrians, who must traverse unprotected light rail tracks to cross Martin Luther King, Jr. Way; earlier this year, a pedestrian was struck and killed while crossing the tracks in a crosswalk.

Asked whether SDOT planned to follow danger “indicators” wherever its traffic engineers found them, even at the risk of abandoning its commitment to geographic equity, Kubly responded, “the mayor has made it abundantly clear to me and the department that we need to be equitable in our work… One of the things that is true in Seattle and a lot of other cities is that the incidents of serious and fatal crashes, and just collisions in general, tend to be in areas that also present more need for equitable investment” — that is, poorer and historically neglected areas like Southeast Seattle — “so I would anticipate that by following the data we’ll be investing more in neighborhoods like the Rainier Valley.”

Morning Crank: Indicators, Not Incidents

1. As the Trump Administration prepares to cut billions from the federal transportation budget, starving transit and road-safety projects across the city, Mayor Ed Murray announced at a press conference in Southeast Seattle yesterday that Seattle is taking a different path, funding new sidewalks and pedestrian-safety improvements through the $930 million Move Seattle levy that passed in 2015. Over the next two years, Murray said, the city will accelerate Phase 2 of the Rainier corridor safety project (restriping Rainier Ave. S. to calm traffic and provide space for bikes and a left-turn lane, for $2.25 million) and build 50 new blocks of sidewalks (at a cost of $22 million), with a goal of completing 250 new blocks of sidewalk by 2024. The city will also add more “pedestrian-friendly signals,” Murray said.

Then, looking like he’d reached his capacity for transpo-jargon, Murray turned the press conference over to Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly, who fielded reporters’ (okay, my) wonky questions about stop bars, leading pedestrian intervals, and protected left turn phases. (For the record, those are: The lines on the street telling drivers where to stop; signals that let pedestrians start walking into an intersection before the light turns green for drivers; and signalized left turns, where drivers turn left on a green arrow while pedestrians wait.)

Those are all pretty standard (though necessary and important) pedestrian safety improvements. More interesting was the new safety “tool kit” Kubly said the city would use to inform its safety investments in the future, a tool kit he said might be “the first of its kind in the entire country.” According to Kubly, instead of looking at “incidents”—data about accidents that have already happened—the city will focus on “indicators”—signs that an intersection is inherently dangerous, even in the absence of accident data. For example, “we have seen a fair number of crashes with left turning vehicles where they have permissive left turns”—a regular green light without a left-turn arrow—”and what we’ve found is that with those permissive left turns, we’re seeing crashes, particularly in places like Northeast 65th Street,” where several serious crashes have resulted when a driver speeding down the hill has turned left into an oncoming cyclist or pedestrian.

Last year, council transportation committee chair Mike O’Brien noted, there were about 10,000 crashes in the city. Of those, fewer than 7 percent involved cyclists or pedestrians. But that 7 percent accounted for about 62 percent of the fatalities from crashes in the city. Although Seattle remains one of the safest cities in the country for pedestrians, progress toward actually achieving “Vision Zero”—zero serious injuries or deaths from crashes by 2030—has stagnated. Right after the mayor’s press conference, a truck and a car collided dramatically on Rainier and South Alaska Street— right at the northern edge of the Rainier Avenue S improvement area.

2. Back in 2004, after then-mayor Greg Nickels made a gross attempt to buy the support of newly elected city council members Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen by hosting a chichi fundraiser to pay down their campaign debts, my Stranger colleagues and I started a new political action committee and learned that, like filing ethics reports and counting envelopes full of cash, coming up with a clever campaign acronym was harder than we imagined.

Fast forward 13 years and say hello to “Homeless Evidence, Transparency, and Accountability in Seattle,” or HEATS. It’s one of two new campaigns to stop the new levy, I-126, which will help move some of the 10,000 or so homeless people in Seattle into apartments, treatment, and supportive housing. The person behind it is a blogger who wrote a 1,600-word post mocking a homeless woman for having a criminal record, filed a frivolous ethics complaint against a council member for providing public information to a reporter, and took surreptitious photos of me and posted them with comments mocking my appearance. So far, HEATS has raised $0.

3. Speaking of the Stranger, Crank has learned that the paper has hired a news editor, after posting job ads and interviewing candidates for more than a year. Steven Hsieh, who has  worked as a staff writer for the Santa Fe Reporter and has written for The Nation, will join the paper officially in the next few weeks.