The Oregonian reported today that the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) meeting slated for March 20th will be postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
That’s the right decision given the state of the outbreak and current “social distancing” best practices. But the decision that caught my eye was that they plan to hold a “telephonic meeting” sometime in early April “to decide the fate of the freeway project.”
That “freeway project” is the I-5 Rose Quarter project, a highly controversial plan to spend nearly $800 million to widen I-5 and make changes to surface streets. This is a very consequential meeting where OTC members will finally make a decision about whether or not the Oregon Department of Transportation needs to do more thorough environmental analysis of the project’s impacts. The OTC delayed a vote on this subject at their December meeting and then got an earful from regional politicians at their January meeting. After cancelling their February meeting, we were supposed to finally hear their decision on March 20th.
The possibly that the OTC could hold such a consequential vote about an expensive and contentious project without ample public participation is very concerning. It only furthers the sense of distrust and misleading public process from ODOT that has plagued this project for months.
Upon learning the news today, activist group No More Freeways PDX spokesperson Chris Smith released this statement:
“No More Freeways appreciates the Oregon Transportation Commission’s decision to postpone the upcoming hearing on the approval of the $800 Million Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion. Given the public health epidemic crisis unfolding, it’s appropriate for the agency to encourage social distancing.
The COVID-19 epidemic, however, is not an excuse to shortcut meaningful public engagement over a controversial $800 million freeway expansion with well-documented, substantial community opposition. ODOT forbade public testimony at the hearing to the state legislature earlier this month; in December, the OTC intended to vote on the Environmental Assessment in Lebanon, over eighty miles away from the site of the expansion.
The Oregon Transportation Commission can’t hide from the public behind a virus. They must postpone their vote on the Environmental Assessment until it’s safe for the dozens of concerned students, neighbors, Tubman parents, and climate advocates to deliver testimony in person in Portland to do so. No More Freeways calls on Governor Brown, who recently announced Executive Action for leadership on both climate and coronavirus concerns, to require the OTC to hold a standard, in-person hearing for a vote of such consequence.”
In The Oregonian story, ODOT Communications Manager Tom Fuller didn’t mention anything about public participation on the phone call. That’s a problem.
According to the OTC’s own bylaws (PDF), “Except as provided by law, all Commission meetings shall be conducted as public meetings and are subject to the Oregon Public Meetings Laws.”
Oregon Public Meeting Laws (ORS 192.630) clearly state that, “All meetings of the governing body of a public body shall be open to the public and all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting.” Furthermore, Oregon law (ORS 192.670) requires that (emphasis mine),
“When telephone or other electronic means of communication is used and the meeting is not an executive session [which this isn’t], the governing body of the public body shall make available to the public at least one place where, or at least one electronic means by which, the public can listen to the communication at the time it occurs…”
Given the importance of this meeting and the closely-watched decision they’ll be voting on, the OTC needs to either postpone the meeting until after the Covid-19 outbreak has leveled off, or be more transparent about how the public can participate in some sort of electronic meeting. The technology exists.
I’ve asked ODOT’s Fuller for clarification about the OTC’s bylaws and plans for the April meeting. I’ll update this story when I hear back.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and firstname.lastname@example.org
— Get our headlines delivered to your inbox.
— Support this independent community media outlet with a one-time contribution or monthly subscription.