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A different wind is blowing at City Hall

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POSTED November 10, 2009 2:54 a.m.

Out on North Powers Avenue along the stretch that runs from Yosemite Avenue to the fire station, city crews were busy Monday blasting paint off the pavement that separates the bike lane from the travel lane.

The plan is to narrow the travel lane by widening the bike lane in a bid to slow down traffic. It is in response to a concern voiced by nearby resident Fred Millner to Councilwoman Debby Moorhead about speeders and kids crossing the street to reach Lincoln School from the 166-home Curran Grove neighborhood.

Public Works Director Mark Houghton was out there for a good 90 minutes with Moorhead a little over a week ago watching traffic and kids do a potentially deadly tango.

Houghton didn’t like what he saw.

“People were traveling too fast, especially around the curve,” Houghton noted.

The plan is to narrow the travel lanes – it worked on another segment of Powers Avenue – to slow traffic.

“We’d put crosswalks in all over town but the problem with crosswalks is they give kids a false sense of security,” Houghton said. “Even if there was a crosswalk (across Powers at Hutchings Street) traffic is still going too fast for kids to cross safely.”

What makes this remarkable is the relatively short time frame that City Hall has responded with a fairly inexpensive solution to a serious problem brought to their attention by the public through a council member.

This wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t too many moons ago that municipal staff was virtually paralyzed by infighting at City Hall between council members. Ironically, the majority will of the council was being stymied by the minority through an endless war of trying to wear everyone down from elected leaders, the community, and staff to get their way.

The end result chased businesses away and prevented Manteca leaders from getting down to long range planning and putting in place fees that would have avoided some of the need to play catch-up that Manteca’s current council is now faced with.

The intimidation of staff that prompts them to retreat into the safety of codes and procedures that further stymie businesses and economic health is well documented in the book “The Death of Common Sense” by Philip K. Howard.

Howard’s book delineates how laws – and the hammering of bureaucrats by individual politicians with personal agendas – can have expensive consequences that defy common sense.

The best example involved the 1992 incident in Chicago when a freak flood caused when the Chicago River flowed into underground tunnels knocked off electricity and other services and plunged the financial district where much of the world’s commodities trading took place into darkness. The private and public sector losses were in the billions.

It didn’t have to happen.

City crews had noticed structural issues that would cost perhaps $45,000 to repair.

The supervisor of bridges and tunnels was authorized to make repairs up to $70,000.

Several weeks previously an alderman had publically chastised the supervisor during a Chicago council meeting because a crony of his did not get a bridge repair job that was under $70,000 that was awarded to someone else. So the supervisor, who was nearing retirement, opted to have everything go out to bid even though he was authorized to have the work done without going through the process. The supervisor was playing it safe to protect his job.

The bid process delayed the work for weeks. The bid had been awarded finally but the repairs were not scheduled to start until  April 14, 1992 – the day after the tunnel failure.

We expect government workers to employ common sense but often when they do they are intimidated and threatened by elected leaders who actually have no authority as individuals acting outside of their function as a council that can only dictate actions based on majority votes.

The thaw has taken a bit too long to come about at 1001 W. Center St. but it has come. As with all changes not all is bright, though. There are those who believe the new one-stop permit center’s promised rapid turnaround time on small projects is being sabotaged from employees worried about their jobs. Time will tell if that’s the case.

Meanwhile, there is a different wind blowing at City Hall.
An example of it can be seen taking place this week out on Powers Avenue.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, e-mail

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