“Chicanery” on Grand Street

For a brief while, it appeared that Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft once again possessed the temerity – some would call it “fortitude” – to veer off the course prescribed by Councilman John Knox White and go her own way.

Some time ago, the Mayor declared her independence from Mr. Knox White on police issues, rebuffing his demand to cut the police department budget by 42 percent and voting, over his strident objection, to keep the City’s emergency response vehicle and to authorize the purchase and installation of fixed automated license plate readers.

This time, the issue involved transportation – a subject at the core of Mr. Knox White’s professed areas of expertise.  At its October 4 meeting, Council was asked to approve a proposed re‑design of Grand Street that the lame duck Councilman insisted was crucial to achieving the City’s “climate and transportation goals.”

Ms. Ashcraft voted no, and the motion failed.

But then, within the space of 48 hours, the Mayor announced her intention to change her vote.  Having retracted her heresy, she now has made it possible for Mr. Knox White to get what he wants after all.

Was Ms. Ashcraft acting like a judge who reverses a prior ruling when new facts come to light requiring a different result?  Or was she instead acting like a politician who is loath to alienate any self-appointed caesar with a coterie of social‑media followers upon whose votes she is depending in an upcoming election?

Today, the Merry‑Go‑Round will relate the facts.  Readers can draw their own conclusions.

The proposed Grand Street re‑design issue first came before Council in June.  According to the staff report, the City was eligible for a $827,000 federal grant that would pay for most of the work necessary not only to re‑pave Grand Street but also to make changes intended to improve safety, including re‑configuring the vehicle traffic and bicycle lanes.  (The remaining funds would come from Alameda County Measure B/BB sales tax revenue.)

Staff decided early on to explore the possibility of installing “separated” bike lanes that would run next to the curb with a barrier between them and the vehicle traffic or parking lanes, in place of the existing “traditional” bike lanes that run between parked cars and the vehicle traffic lanes.  Here’s a drawing comparing the two configurations:

Ultimately, the planners decided to present Council with two alternatives.  One would replace the “traditional” bike lanes with “separated” bike lanes from Otis Drive to Encinal Avenue, and would alternate parking on any given block from one side of the street to the other.  The other would retain the “traditional” bike lanes and continue to provide parking on both sides of the street.

Council members Tony Daysog and Trish Spencer favored retaining the “traditional” design; the other three preferred adopting the “separated bike lane” approach, and Council voted, 3‑2, to proceed with that alternative.  But before the vote Ms. Ashcraft made lengthy comments specifying issues she wanted staff to address as it prepared the final design.

One of the items identified by Ms. Ashcraft was what she called “zigzagging” or “meandering.”  (Apparently, the technical term is “chicanes,” and no, we don’t really think it’s short for “chicanery.”)  The drawings presented by staff showed that, in the separated bike lane approach, the vehicle traffic lanes on Grand Street would not run in a straight line from Otis Drive to Encinal Avenue; rather, in order to install separated bike lanes with parking spaces on alternate sides of the street, the vehicle traffic lanes would need to zig and zag, or meander, down the corridor.

(At the October 4 meeting, City Engineer Robert Vance displayed a slide showing the vehicle traffic lane shifts between Clinton and San Antonio Avenues.  It wasn’t included in the slide deck available on the City website, so we took a screen shot:

The zigzagging, Ms. Ashcraft stated, raised a “safety issue.”  She had been told, she said, “regardless of the anecdotal evidence that’s been presented, that this is actually a configuration that can cause more accidents – that teenage driver who’s inexperienced, the person who’s sleepy, inattentive, sun in their eyes.”  She suggested engaging a “public safety consultant” to “tell us what you need to be aware [of], what considerations should be in there, to make this as safe as possible.”

Staff presented a revised design at the October 4 Council meeting.  The staff report did not attach any analysis by a “public safety consultant.”  And the report itself promised only that, “All project features, including lane shifts,” would be “designed pursuant to best practice guidance. . . .”

At the meeting, Ms. Ashcraft began by stating that she found much to like about the revised plan.  Nevertheless, she remained “concerned” that the zigzagging could be “hazardous.”  She knew, she added, that “you have to plan for the driver that does the dumb thing.”  Moreover, the Mayor found wanting the data cited to justify the need for the proposed re‑design on safety grounds, pointing out that one of the bicyclist fatalities listed in the staff report in fact involved an “elderly gentleman” who simply “fell off his bike” without having collided with a vehicle or other cyclist.  “We don’t have the kinds of statistics I would really like to see for such a dramatic change to the street,” she said.

Fortunately, the meeting was being conducted by Zoom, so it was hard to see the steam pouring out of Mr. Knox White’s ears as Ms. Ashcraft spoke.  But when she had finished, he launched his assault.

The Mayor may have raised concerns about zigzagging at the June meeting, Mr. Knox White admitted – but he had dictated the language of the motion Council ultimately passed, and it didn’t say anything about addressing zigzagging.  The Mayor also may have suggested engaging a “public safety consultant,” he conceded – but “we were very, very explicit about what we meant by public safety advice, and the motion included language that said it did not have to be a public safety person.”

In any event, he asserted, “I haven’t heard any credible presentations” – presumably including the one just made by Ms. Ashcraft – “as to the fact that there is an actual safety concern related to those [vehicle traffic lane shifts].”

But Ms. Ashcraft held firm, and Mr. Knox White’s motion to approve the revised plan with its separated bike lanes and alternating parking was defeated, 3‑to‑2.  The Mayor then sought to advance the ball – there was a deadline for applying for the federal grant – by moving to approve all of the elements of the revised plan, including the “pedestrian enhancements” it contained, except for the separated bike lanes and accompanying zigzags between Dayton and Encinal Avenues.  (She also proposed to add speed bumps and to paint the bike lanes green.)

Mr. Knox White was in no mood to compromise.  He belittled the Mayor’s proposal by describing it – inaccurately – as “put[ting] back Grand Street exactly the same as it is, with a little bit of daylighting and some blinking signs and some curbs.”  And he derided her suggestion for painting the bike lanes as just “lipstick on a pig.”

He also turned up the temperature.  If Ms. Ashcraft’s motion passed, he declared, “this will have cemented just such a colossal lack of leadership on the issues that the city and our voters have said are the most important things for them.”  (In fact, in the public opinion survey done for the City last February, “climate change” and “traffic safety” tied for third on the list of what Alamedans considered extremely or very serious problems.)

And he concluded his remarks with a not‑too‑subtle insinuation.  As everyone participating in the meeting knew (and we mean to be taken literally), Ms. Ashcraft lives on Grand Street.  It was “really shocking,” Mr. Knox White stated, that Council wouldn’t approve the revised Grand Street design.  “It does call into question, Why is this street special?”

When Ms. Ashcraft called for a vote on her motion, she and Councilman Daysog voted yes, and Mr. Knox White joined Ms. Spencer in voting no.  (According to City Clerk Lara Weisiger, Councilwoman Malia Vella left the meeting prior to the vote.  No reason for her departure was stated publicly.)  And then, 11 minutes later, as Council discussion continued, Mr. Knox White announced he was signing out of the meeting.  “I’m not going to be supporting the motion,” he said, “so my vote is no longer needed.”

But he wasn’t done for the night.

Mr. Knox White left the Council meeting at 10:40 p.m.  At 12:04 a.m., he tweeted three times trashing the Mayor.  “Tonight, the idea of a safe, protected bikeway network in Alameda died an awful death,” the first one read.  “Mayor Ezzy Ashcraft flip‑flopped on her commitment to safety, climate and transportation mode shift costing the city $800k in funding and killing the project.”

It was followed by this one:

Alameda will need to spend the next few years developing actual leaders who move these issues as more than mere talking points for reelection.  Tonight, Ezzy Ashcraft joined Spencer and Daysog in voting against city council adopted policy.  Policies that she supported in adopting.

And then this one:

To the folks who asked “but did she mean it” when she voted to approve the project in June, I responded “I take her at her word.”  And now I just need to say, I apologize and I’ve finally learned my lesson.  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me 5 or 6 times . . . won’t get fooled again.

Thus provoked, Mr. Knox White’s rabid Twitter followers rushed to condemn the Mayor.  And he did nothing to discourage them.  “[S]he’s operating on the ‘who are they going to vote for, Trish?’ concept,” he replied to two of them. “This should never be supported.  It leads to Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football.”  And early the next day, when another of his acolytes expressed second thoughts about voting for Ms. Ashcraft, he replied:  “[I]t will be a hard choice for many people.  I believe I will be voting for candidate Shaw.  At least he’s focusing on having a vision, and there’s nothing that suggests he could be any worse.”

How many of these (or similarly vitriolic) comments by Mr. Knox White and his followers Ms. Ashcraft saw, we don’t know.  Nor, of course, do we know anything about any private communications between her and Mr. Knox White (or between her and her campaign advisers).  When we asked Ms. Ashcraft for comment about whether she had gotten any blowback from her vote, she replied that she had discussed our request with City Attorney Yibin Shen, who “advised that it is best not to comment on an item that is coming before the City Council.”

The Mayor’ story, as she told it at the BikeWalk/CASA forum, was that she “felt terrible” the morning after the vote and “reached out” to two of the BikeWalk leaders.  They “addressed” the “safety concerns that I’d previously raised” with “new information,” which one of them “shared this evening with Council and the city clerk.”  She had decided, Ms. Ashcraft said, to request that Council “review this new information,” and she now “fully expected to support” the plan that she had voted against two days before.

(The updated “Correspondence” folder for Agenda Item 5‑I on the October 18 Council agenda contains an email, sent at 5:04 p.m. on October 6 by BikeWalk Alameda president Denise Trepanier, to City Clerk Weisiger, City Planner Andrew Thomas, and the five Council members.  Ms. Trepanier said she was writing to “clarify some misinformation that was conveyed by some commenters during [the October 4] discussion which may have swayed Council’s thinking,” specifically “a lot of misstatements made about chicanes, which are a PROVEN and TESTED traffic calming device.”)

Two challenges remained for Ms. Ashcraft.

The first was how to explain to the voters why she was changing her vote.  Uncharacteristically (we believe), she decided to throw City Engineer Vance under the bus.

“I voted no,” she told the BikeWalk/CASA forum, “because I could not get from the City Engineer answers to my question about are there unintended consequences of” zigzagging vehicle traffic lanes.  Moreover, she had asked Mr. Vance about the experience of other cities with that design feature, and he “didn’t know of any other examples.”

Ms. Ashcraft was even more derogatory about the City Engineer at the Alameda Post forum:

So I posed specific questions to our staff, to our City Engineer on the planning staff, about the safety:  So where else can you point me to where this treatment has been done in a residential setting?  And what were the outcomes?  Were there any unintended consequences?  And can you tell me that this – I call it zigging and zagging because that’s sure what it looks like on the drawings – won’t lead to unintended consequences like other accidents.

And so the initial answer is, I don’t know where it’s done before and I don’t know.  So I met with him a week before the meeting, and I posed those questions again.  And he seemed to be listening, but then we came to the council meeting, he didn’t have any additional information for me.

Ms. Ashcraft’s second challenge was how to get Council – before the election – to overrule its decision not to approve the Grand Street design deemed so vital by Mr. Knox White.   She couldn’t style her motion as a request for “reconsideration” because that would violate Rosenberg’s Rules or Order, which require that a motion to reconsider be made at the meeting where the item was first voted upon.  So she described it instead as a request for Council to “review new information” about the Grand Street project at its November 1 meeting.  She was careful not to specify what this “new information” consisted of (even though it was publicly available on the City website), nor to suggest what action Council should take in response to it.

No one was fooled, but it was amusing to see the contortions into which staff (Mr. Thomas) and one particular Council member (Mr. Knox White) twisted themselves in order to avoid uttering the word “reconsideration.”  Ms. Spencer was the only one to say out loud that “there’s more going on” than what appeared on the surface, but, as usual, she and Mr. Daysog were powerless to prevent the motion from passing, 3‑to‑2.  So on November 1, a week before the election, Council will get to hear the “new information” and then take whatever procedural steps City Attorney Shen will suggest (or allow) to get the Grand Street re‑design with the separated bike lanes and alternating parking approved.

If and when that happens, it would be unlike Mr. Knox White to offer Ms. Ashcraft an apology for conduct unbecoming a Council member.  Nor is he likely to accept his victory graciously.  But if he wants to try, we’d suggest a quote from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter he can use:  “Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late.”  If he says that, perhaps someone will even think he’s being sincere.

And the voters?  Ms. Ashcraft will get their response when they go to the polls.

Sources:

June 21, 2022 Council meeting: 2022-06-21 staff report re Grand Street project; 2022-06-21 Presentation (Grand Street)

October 4, 2022 Council meeting: 2022-10-04 staff report re Grand St. project

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
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6 Responses to “Chicanery” on Grand Street

  1. Tom Charron says:

    Robert:

    No matter what JKW and the current mayor do with Bicycle paths etc one thing is for sure, the world has gone crazy with non enforcement of rules of unsafe/illegal vehicle use on city streets!!! Both bikes and cars run red lights, stop signs and make dangerous illegal turns against red lights all over alameda. Auto speeders in Alameda pass on left over double yellow lines and also pass on the right sides into bike lanes often as I observe here in Alameda!! Now I hear all jawalking laws may be or have been invalidated by state law? The world has really gone non-safety crazy….

    Perhaps we should go back to having 24 hour full complement Alameda patrol police presence on our streets to cite those who are non compliant!!! 25 mph is a good max speed here and should be easily enforced with speed traps on different streets everyday!!!! Give bicyclist tickets for illegal street behavior too!!!!

    John Know White wanted to reduce police budget by 42%!!!!! I want more enforcement law officers!!!

    Tom Charron

  2. jayman2017 says:

    When I heard of the initial outcome of the meeting, I was disappointed at the apparent reversal as were many others I am sure. As you have done here, I even entertained the thought hat were some self-serving motives at play. I was quicky disabused of these notions when she took the opportunity at the CASA/Bike Alameda meeting to explain her position. I look forward to a positive outcome at the Nov. 1 meeting . I take her at her word that she was looking for more more information to make a more informed decision and find no fault in that. While I am a general fan of this blog, I find this characterization of her as Mr. Knox-White’s lackey – lacking at best.

  3. permanentevigilante says:

    The words actually are related. The word chicane is derived from the French verb chicaner, which means “to create difficulties” or “to dispute pointlessly”, “quibble”, which is also the root of the English noun chicanery. (Wikipedia).
    One thing you may have missed: After JKW left the meeting at 10:40 pm, he did return after the vote to make some live comments. I watched until the meeting went off the air. JKW said something tantamount to: “the only people who object to this project are people who live there (!)”
    And that’s why around 110 of us signed a petition to retain the Class 2 bike lanes and consider alternatives like more four way stops, which really are proven to slow down traffic. At least you get a point on your license and a raise in your insurance if you don’t stop. I live on Grand and would love to have more stops. Not flashing lights which there’s no penalty for sailing through. Not obstacles which will cause more problems for all vehicles. But no city meetings have been held with the actual neighborhood residents who will have to live 24/7 with all this junk. And that’s just poor city management. Almost all of the demand for the Class 4 Shoreline style reconfiguration is loudly coming from people who might pass through occasionally, but live east of Park St. or north of Lincoln or even in Oakland or farther afield. It’s not happening in their neighborhoods.

  4. Teresa Miller says:

    I thought Mr. John Knox-White was moving elsewhere is these fair United States and thus loosening his hold on Alameda politics. What an unfortunate design decision, and how disappointing. It seems a colossal waste of funds.

  5. Publius says:

    We need more protected bike lanes, on Grand and many other streets. Protected bike lanes are a positive good.

    But who in the hell came up with the zig zagging plan? That is so amazingly wrong headed, it’s hard to imagine just how high is the ivory tower where it was created. I’m genuinely surprised such a silly plan made it all the way to a council vote.

    Or maybe I’m not so surprised…

  6. Good Swimmer says:

    If the City of Alameda has $40 million to spend on streets, why spend it in the wealthiest neighborhood in town, the Gold Coast? Why spend it when just about every affected Grand Street resident signed a petition asking the City to stop? Our Mayor lives on that street, and the design left her two parking spaces right in front of her house but eliminated the rest. We are spending money just to spend money.

    Wait until the construction starts, parking moves to side streets, the delivery trucks start blocking the one traffic lane left and the complaints start rolling in….

    This is a bad plan by a scheming politician.

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