City officials consistently told ART opponents that the effort was a done deal, that their opposition to it, or efforts to change it, were unwelcome.
Nob Hill Merchants Responded Late in the Process
BY DENNIS DOMRZALSKI
By the time opposition to Mayor Richard Berry’s Albuquerque Rapid Transit project crystallized and fully mobilized last summer, it was almost too late.
The city was on the verge of, or already had, submitted its $69 million funding proposal for ART to the Federal Transit Administration. And, the FTA had already granted the city an exemption from having to do an environmental assessment of the project’s impact on Central Avenue and its surrounding neighborhoods.
City officials consistently told ART opponents that the effort was a done deal, that their opposition to it, or efforts to change it, were unwelcome. The bureaucratic machinery was already grinding away.
The recent federal court hearing in which opponents sought an injunction against ART bore that out. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Gonzales said he could rule only on what was contained in the FTA’s administrative record regarding ART – a record that had been assembled long before opponents organized to add their voices to the record.
So what happened?
Were people, especially Central Avenue business owners – generally politically and socially involved people – not paying attention to a process that had begun in 2009?
Was there nothing for them to pay attention to, meaning did the news media do its job of thoroughly informing the community about Berry’s plans, and did City Hall do a diligent job of getting word out about the project that blew up in its face?
Checking a box?
Did the city do enough to publicize the process and engage as many people as possible – in the window of time when their voices could have affected the project – or did the city do only what was minimally required in order to be able to check off a box on its FTA funding application?
Based on the available record, those are questions whose answers are subject to opinion and interpretation. The city’s ART project website says it had 17 public meetings with various neighborhood and other organizations between 2012 and 2015.
It also held a series of six, often raucous, meetings earlier this year. The city also said it notified Central Avenue business owners with doorknob hangers and fliers about ART and the planning process.
ART opponents say they didn’t hear about ART until early to mid-2015. They call the city’s public outreach efforts a sham and designed to satisfy an FTA requirement that they do some sort of public outreach.
So how many people attended those early public meetings, and what did they say?
We don’t know, because, apparently, no records were kept of them.
Joan Griffin, president of the public relations firm that does public relations work for ART, told ABQ Free Press that no minutes were kept of the meetings because “ART was a guest at most” and was just presenting information. Such presentations logically would have occurred at meetings of the transit arm of the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which appeared for a time during ART’s early days to have conducted parallel hearing tracks with the city on various iterations of the ART idea before the city took over exclusive control of the project.
Rick De Reyes said ABQ Ride’s public outreach on ART began in November 2012. He said he no meeting minutes or sign-in sheets of that series of meetings were kept, but he invited the newspaper to file an Inspection of Public Records Act request in the event such records exist.
The Albuquerque Journal, the state’s largest newspaper, published a total of seven articles about ART between May 2009 and August 2015. Not one of them mentioned an upcoming public meeting on ART – or BRT for Bus Rapid Transit, as it was initially called. Only two of the articles – in April and June 2015 – offered details about the project.
ART opponent Doug Peterson, a lawyer and former chair of the city’s Environmental Planning Commission, said he didn’t hear about ART until February 2015 when a friend told him about it. Peterson served on the EPC from 2008 to 2013, and he was chair of the board for two years.
“You would think that if the city started planning this [ART] in 2011, that the Environmental Planning Commission would have heard of it,” Peterson said. “I believe the city did just enough so they could later say that they reached out, while knowing it [the outreach effort] would not be effective.”
Central Avenue business owner Steve Schroeder first learned about ART in the middle of June 2015 “after reading about it somewhere.” On June 6, 2015, the Journal published a lengthy article under the headline “Envisioning ART.”
By then, the public was standing on chairs and shouting down speakers at the series of City Hall-organized ART meetings. The question now is whether all that noise and commotion fell on deaf ears.
Dennis Domrzalski is an associate editor at ABQ Free Press. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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