Never Let A Good Crisis Go To Waste

(04/01/2020: CAMAS, WA)

Today, the State of Washington has the 8th most reported cases of COVID-19 in the United States. We have one of the highest per capita infection rates in America, and serve as ground zero for the pandemic’s reach to the United States. Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a memo declaring that the construction industry as a whole would be largely classified as non-essential and was not exempt from the statewide stay-at-home order he had issued just days earlier in response to the growing outbreak of Coronavirus cases in Washington. The Governor’s clarification has shut down, or halted the start of, all projects not deemed “Essential Critical Infrastructure.”, including all WSDOT road projects.

Inslee made available specific exceptions to the lockout however, which included the following:

  • Construction related to essential activities as described in the order;

  • To further a public purpose related to a public entity or governmental function or facility, including but not limited to publicly financed low-income housing; or

  • To prevent spoliation and avoid damage or unsafe conditions, and address emergency repairs at both non-essential businesses and residential structures.

But just four days later, the City of Camas decided to ignore the stay at home guidance and construction halt issued by

the Governor, by deeming, for the first time in the project’s history, that the Lake/Everett roundabout project was in fact, a critical essential infrastructure project, and construction would begin immediately. Earlier that same day, construction trucks had been seen dropping off safety cones and pre-construction supplies near the proposed construction site.

The announcement states:

“In compliance with Gov. Jay Inslee Stay Home, Stay Healthy proclamation, which allows essential public construction projects to continue, the City of Camas will move forward with planned construction of the Lake-Everett roundabout in the coming days.”

But why is a construction project that hasn’t even broken ground, now considered “essential critical infrastructure”, and again, for the first time in the project’s history?

According to the release, the City claims that “the project is considered essential because without it, the intersection, which includes both City- (Lake Road) and State-regulated (Everett Street/SR 500) roadways, will soon reach failure.” They go on to explain, “This means backups will reach a level where getting through the area will take considerable time and compromise motorist, pedestrian and bicyclist safety.” But in the roughly 18 months of public discussion, and millions of tax dollars spent on consultants and planning- this is the FIRST anyone has heard of the impending failure of the Lake/Everett intersection, previously only referred to as an “improvement project”. It’s danger is apparently so imminent, that it has just now, in this very moment of crisis of uncertainty, been certified by Camas City leaders as essential critical infrastructure and without any sourced information to actually support the new revelation - just vague words like “soon” and “considerable time”. What is considerable time?

Yet the Show must go on.

The Lake/ Everett intersection has been a well known traffic bottleneck in Camas for years at two specific times - school drop-off and pickup. Congestion can be further exacerbated by the Lacamas Lake recreation draw (especially in the summer), and development sprawl to the north and west. It needs to be replaced, and we’re told the new roundabout is designed to achieve exactly that. Citizens can debate what it should cost, how it should work, or where the purple flowers will go - but few disagree with the need to solve the Lake/Everett intersection problem.

The question is, do we need to solve it now? In this very minute? When we’re staring down the barrel of uncertainty unlike any we’ve ever experienced in our lifetimes? While the Fed is anticipating 30% unemployment, States are in panic mode regarding massive reductions in revenue collection, and Washingtonians are literally contracting the virus and dying from it at the fastest rate since it arrived on our shores- the City of Camas has begun construction on an $8M roundabout.

Because they deem it essential.

It appears the evolution of that “Essentiality” however, even before the governor’s order, began a couple of weeks ago when the intensity and projected real-life impacts of COVID-19 were being felt for the first time. Although Camas schools, all other public meetings, even First Friday and the Easter Egg hunt had been cancelled to prevent COVID contagion, the March 16 Camas City Council meetings went on as planned. During these meetings, a continent and an ocean away, Mayor Barry McDonnell was trying to shepherd his family out of a foreign country in full lockdown after arriving for a long-planned family reunion. Councilmember Greg Anderson assumed the duties of the Mayor Pro-Tem in his absence, and gaveled the meeting to order as if on any other day. In its agenda was the vote to approve and sign more than $6.5M worth of contracts including the construction of the roundabout. The expenditures were approved unanimously. Anderson also found time in the meeting, which he decided would persist in the absence of the mayor, to proclaim Camas Gymnastics Week and joke with fellow Councilmember Ellen Burton about the fate of the homeless during COVID-19.

But despite all of the guidance to stay at home and quarantine on that Monday night, and the opportunity for the example that leadership can set, Greg Anderson and Council went forward. At the risk of their own health, some committed Camas citizens still braved the crisis to voice their concerns about the fiscal prudence of breaking ground on the project now, in light of the dire warnings of present and future economic uncertainty. Neighbor Doug Strabel suggested that the City should consider pumping the brakes on this and all other non-essential projects, at least long enough to get a better understanding of what long term impact COVID may have on our city's finances.

Other residents were actually communicating real-time with City Councilors during the discussion, while watching the meeting remotely on the city website’s livestream broadcast. During that broadcast, Councilmember Bonnie Carter can actually be heard laughing while reading some of these emails from taxpayers to fellow council members. Other Camas citizens have reached out to Councilmembers asking for a temporary moratorium on hiring and spending until the city can formulate a better picture, communicate it to citizens and plan to deal with the anticipated loss of municipal revenues. But once again, it all fell on deaf ears. Getting the money flowing, half of which must now be borrowed by the taxpayers of Camas to fund, was the most important item on the agenda. And it happened, without pause. COVID or not.

That was the very last public meeting held by the City of Camas to date. It is also the last meeting in which Washington’s Open Public Meetings laws were enforced in full, as the Governor has partially lifted the rules which protect public access to municipal meetings, conversations, and deliberations during this unprecedented time.

And then- at least from the perspective of those on the front lines of the roundabout effort, the unthinkable happens- The Governor of Washington unexpectedly shuts down all non-essential construction projects in the state.

The order was made by the Governor on March 25, and no time was wasted in crafting a response. 4 days later, the evolution of the roundabout’s brand new “Essentiality” argument had been completed- carefully crafted, likely by one or more of the project’s million dollar public relations consultants - some of which also serve on multiple unpaid volunteer positions in Camas and in the Camas School District. Because if COVID can’t create a pause in the project in this moment of complete uncertainty, nothing can- and certainly not a proclamation from the Governor suspending all non-essential construction. Camas didn’t seem to have read this as a proclamation, but a challenge to overcome at any cost - even the health of construction workers and their families at home. A new recipe of justification was quickly mixed in a bowl, thrown into a pan, and baked until yesterday- when it was finally popped out, hastily frosted, and presented like a birthday cake that citizens may find hard to stomach at a time like this.

Because in the last 4 days, the City of Camas has suddenly determined that the intersection of Lake and Everett will now “SOON REACH FAILURE”.

Oddly, an expansive review of meeting notes and minutes, video review from Open House and public forums, and an exhaustive search of news reports and announcements, has returned exactly ZERO confirmation of this impending doom. It simply has never been discussed in this context. Nowhere inside the entire body of public communication since the project’s inception 18 months ago will you find reference to imminent failure of the Lake/Everett intersection. Only when the Governor inconveniently decided that for a few weeks, public health was more important to our lives than non-essential project ribbon cutting- did the roundabout project become critically essential. In 4 days, the intersection you traveled every day, an annoyance at times but generally “fine” by all accounts, has suddenly become dangerously close to failure.

Some things have remained constant though, including the same PR consultants being assigned to this project, the failed $78M pool bond project, and the ongoing North Shore Subarea Project. Part of the expenditures approved in Anderson’s council meeting on March 16, included an additional $1M spend for a planning consultant who among other things, has been tasked with social media management to include “NextDoor monitoring”. Other social platforms allow interaction, but the city only allows consultants to “monitor” NextDoor in the contract’s language without explanation. The consultant’s bill alone has ballooned from around $500K, to over $2M during the pre-construction phase of this roundabout alone. If the latest handling of municipal optics is any indication of the actual value of these PR expenditures, Camas taxpayers may soon be looking for a refund, or at least a group with a more careful hand in signing checks drawn on the taxpayer’s account.

But the train has already left the station. Just like the March 16 City Council meeting did. On time, on schedule, and steaming towards its ultimate destination. No COVID, nor Camasonian, nor Governor would ever be enough to slow it down. Not for a day, or a week, or a month. Not for another second. And it’s no surprise that informed Camasonians are hopping mad about it. In a recent submission to the Washington State Coronavirus Violations Portal, (a quick form to report defiance of the governor’s COVID-related orders) one local Camas citizen shared their submission with WATCHCamas.

“...In a rush to spend state grant money (taxpayer funds) the City of Camas is proceeding with construction it has suddenly deemed essential in order to technically comply with the Governor’s no construction order. The City is suddenly claiming the project is essential because it “will soon reach failure” which is absurd. While traffic had increased at this intersection there isn’t any intellectually honest citizen who drives through this intersection (as I do several times a day) who would look the Governor in the eye and tell him it was true.

The City is flipping the bird to the citizens of the City, the State and the Governor himself in playing these games. As an aside, traffic circles are designed for car traffic, not pedestrians. This intersection is at a recreational area with some of the heaviest pedestrian traffic in the City. This traffic circle will endanger pedestrians and many citizens are terrified that someone will be killed as a result. Surely, taxpayer grant money isn’t intended to endanger the good citizens of Washington.

So please have the Governor issue a cease and desist to the City of Camas for the traffic circle at Lake & Everett. You might have him take a look at the grant money for this project too. Very hard to believe he’d support it. Thanks for your time.”

Is that what City leaders really want from Governor Jay Inslee? A confrontation that squabbles over semantics in defiance of the actual safety protections the declaration was designed to produce? What’s all the fuss over an $8M roundabout that hasn’t even broken ground anyways? In the most financially uncertain moment in the world’s collective memory, it really makes you wonder what’s so special about this by all accounts, NON-essential project. Bad actors of the past have revelled in the tradecraft of never letting a good crisis go to waste. Meanwhile, Camasonians can only sit and watch in quarantine- and begin to consider whether there is another virus spreading in the halls of our city government.

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