Division/Church Corridor Study: Public involvement expert may be hired to move project forward

At last night’s Board of Public Works meeting, a proposal was under consideration to hire a consultant who was described in the meeting agenda packet as having “experience with Public Involvement and the nuances of State and Federal Funding.” (See pp. 24-25 of the agenda packet for a statement of this proposal.)

As I reported about the November public meeting, a number of vocal residents opposed to the proposed design alternatives resorted to outright hostility, threat of lawsuits, profane outbursts, and general rudeness to serve as their say in the process. Needless to say, such behavior is unconstructive and not conducive to civil discussion about the best ideas for reconstructing the Division/Church corridor.

That being said, this public reaction is what the project staff encountered. And this angry group at the November public meeting were a completely different set of people than the angry group at the May meeting, who expressed concerns about the possibility of their Division St homes being destroyed to accomodate right-of-way needs. (The anger of this latter group evaporated as the updated design alternatives considerably reduced the number of homes jeopardized.)

Furthermore, at both of these meetings the public discussion failed to engage with key issues about the project. Essentially no discussion took place on how to make the corridor safer. Little understanding was demonstrated regarding the severe physical roadway constraints that limit the options available. No one expressed any opinion about why one proposed alternative for any specific intersection is preferred over another. (I am referring only to the publicly made comments here, as opposed to one-on-one conversations and written comments.)

After the November public meeting, I can understand the predicament that the project staff found themselves in. With the best of public involvement, they would have a difficult time finding the right balance for reconstructing the corridor. In the current situation where hostile public conversation is failing to focus on what project staff needs feedback about, they likely have great uncertainty about what the appropriate next steps should be.

The proposal at the Public Works meeting was to hire Chuck Rasmussen of OTIE on a Time and Materials contract not to exceed $30,000. According to a statement in the agenda packet, Mr Rasmussen has much experience with projects of this scope, with assessing funding options, and with managing associated public involvement efforts. He was involved with a local project in 2005 when construction took place on Church St near its intersection with Madison St and Park St.

Comments at last night’s meeting were contentious yet constructive. There was some discussion of Mr Rasmussen’s credentials for the role being discussed, but his past experience satisfied all that this was not an issue. Many questioned the wisdom of spending up to an additional $30,000 for this sort of input. Others indicated that on a project of this scope with anticipated cost of at least $30 million, a $30,000 investment to get it right is prudent. [Note: This post originally stated a different anticipated cost. From the published meeting minutes, I notice that the actual figure cited during the meeting is $30 million.] Yet more comments illustrated differing opinions about whether or not the angry voices at the November meeting represented the will of the general public.

Mr Rasmussen was present at the meeting and spoke briefly about how he envisions his role. He did not give specifics but spoke of his intent to engage stakeholders from the general public in conversations about the outcomes they wanted to see from this project.

In the end, the Board of Public Works voted to approve the expenditure of up to $30,000 to hire Mr Rasmussen.

After the meeting, I asked Scott Schatschneider, Stevens Point Director of Public Works, about how Mr Rasmussen’s involvement would affect the process. He agreed that this might be best viewed as a pause in the process to evaluate whether or not the efforts so far are on the right track. He estimated that Mr Rasmussen’s involvement would last a few months.

The final decision on hiring Mr Rasmussen rests with the Stevens Point Common Council, which is expected to meet on Monday, Dec 16.

This is certainly an important turn of events for the Division/Church Corridor Study project. I will continue to keep Poky Pedalers informed about this project and the opportunity to improve bicycling along and across this corridor. As always, I will update the PPSP project webpage under the Speak Your Poky menu bar item as news becomes available.

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