Why I encouraged Howard Lazarus to negotiate a separation settlement
I am prohibited from stating my reasons for voting for the termination of Howard Lazarus but feel compelled to repeat statements and facts about pedestrian infrastructure that resulted in my decision to encourage Howard to negotiate a settlement. The settlement was generous and I believe Council handled the separation process with respect. Many of the statements made by the Mayor and his allies are not supported by facts and events in this statement. Also, the Mayor declined to have a press release from the Council body, which I consider a demonstration of poor leadership and poor judgement.
There were many other dynamics in play, but the pedestrian safety issue provides an easy to understand example of the tension, poor leadership and Council dynamics that were creating a very stressful environment for Howard – one that he did not deserve. I decided to raise the issue with him as I had experience in a corporate environment negotiating separation agreements, both for my employees and myself. I felt confident that I could approach Howard and discuss what he wanted in a separation agreement, given that his Gainesville application indicated that he was not happy in Ann Arbor. My goal was to reach an agreement where everyone felt respected and treated fairly. In late 2019, he gave me a list of requirements but also stated that he did not think there were six votes on Council to vote for his separation.
Background – Pre-Howard Lazarus:
For many years Ann Arbor underfunded pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and a significant portion of alternative transportation dollars were applied to the train station project and planning consultants for the project. At the same time, Council passed a moratorium on new streetlights in 2005. Although some argued that Council approved a one-year streetlight moratorium, it was not reversed for a decade. I was active in local pedestrian safety advocacy and believe that a local crosswalk ordinance was offered as an alternative to expensive infrastructure.
The established process, when pedestrians report having a problem crossing a street, is for professional engineers to conduct a “gap analysis” to determine if there are gaps in the vehicular traffic frequent enough and of a long enough duration for pedestrians to cross safety. If the area does not have enough safe gaps, then infrastructure can be added, such as a refuge island so that pedestrians only have to cross one direction of traffic at a time. Another more recent infrastructure is RRFB’s, which do not stop traffic, but warn the driver to use caution because a pedestrian may be present.
Instead of investing in infrastructure, Council attempted to legislate a solution by passing the local crosswalk ordinance in 2010. It requires a driver to stop for a pedestrian within a crosswalk (on the side of the roadway that the driver is traveling), as well as a pedestrian on the curb, curb line or curb ramp. One of my greatest concerns is a condition whereby drivers are expected to stop for pedestrians at the side of the street at an unlit crosswalk – the pedestrian sees the vehicle, but the driver may not see the pedestrian.
The crosswalk ordinance initially stated, “Stop for a pedestrian approaching a crosswalk,” however, due to ambiguity, Council soon after “word-smithed” to the existing language. In 2016, Council voted to repeal the local crosswalk ordinance and revert back to the Michigan Uniform Traffic Code. Then Mayor Hieftje, as one of his last actions in office, vetoed the repeal, and the crosswalk ordinance has remained controversial to this day.
To my knowledge, a professional engineer, with knowledge of our crosswalk conditions, has never evaluated the crosswalk ordinance.
Howard Lazarus as City Administrator:
Council hired Howard Lazarus in the summer of 2016. I was not on Council at that time but was active in local politics and hosted a welcoming party for Howard and Carol Lazarus at my home. On October 25, 2016, a high school student was fatally injured in an unlit crosswalk on Fuller Road between Gallup Park and Huron High School. The A2 Safe Transport advocacy group was formed and we began attending Council meetings and advocating for more funding for pedestrian infrastructure, especially in the school walk zones. Initially, Mayor Taylor, in a Council meeting responding to the neighbors of the deceased student, stated that maybe a pedestrian safety tax was needed. The advocates responded with anger.
At the same time, the school and city staff started posturing to deflect blame and then all interested parties agreed to attend an AAPS Transportation Safety Committee to discuss improvements. I attended the meeting with city staff, Howard Lazarus and Mayor Taylor. After some discussion, Howard stated that funding would not be a barrier to student safety. I do not remember any similar comments from the Mayor and was most appreciative of Howard’s leadership on this issue.
Crosswalk improvements were made in 2017 and 2018. A2 Safe Transport continued its advocacy for funding and completed an extensive analysis of the school walk zones, which became the guiding document for improvements. The city increased funding by $Millions and significant improvements were made in the school walk zones. The RRFB installation on Huron Parkway is an example of the excellent city work.
During this time I continued to advocate for a state crosswalk law and learned that Traverse City staff had discussed a state law, but then decided to pass a local ordinance which stated, “ STOP for a pedestrian within a marked crosswalk,” leaving the MUTC language of “YIELD for a pedestrian” for unmarked crosswalks. I continued to advocate for a state crosswalk law and state representative Adam Zemke held a few meetings in Lansing with pedestrian safety advocates (the Mayor attending at least one of these meeting) in an attempt to reach agreement on language for a state crosswalk law. However, the MDOT legislative liaisons would not agree on STOP language and the community members from urban areas felt strongly that STOP was needed.
During this time, I am not aware of city staff conducting any analysis of crash data. I was elected to Council in November 2018, and continued my advocacy. I tracked crash data using MichiganTrafficCrashFacts.org and A2 pedestrian crashes decreased in 2017 and 2018, from a high of 68 in 2016.
In early 2019, Council discussed the need for a PE with Vision Zero expertise, as documented in an Mlive article. Howard did not hire a PE and did not appoint a PE to the Transportation Commission. Howard attended the Transportation Commission meetings and was involved in all the roadway reconfiguration projects. Council approved a PE position with Vision Zero expertise in the 2021 fiscal year budget, effective July 1, 2019, however a PE was not hired. Howard continued to be involved in all of the pedestrian projects and I was frequently critical because the projects did not meet engineering best-practices, and in one case, I publicly stated that the project bordered on insubordination. Howard expressed his displeasure of my critical comments and made statements that engineers are rigid.
In the spring of 2019, I became concerned when staff reported 11 pedestrian crashes in March. I discussed this with Howard and repeated my plea for a PE with Vision Zero expertise and a more aggressive approach to crash analysis, per Vision Zero principles. Many projects came before Council that were not best practice but were supported by the Mayor. From my perspective, the focus was on innovation over engineering. Sometimes, Howard would agree with me in person, and then not follow through. One contentious area where this occurred was the traffic flow at Huron High School.
I became extremely concerned about the lack of crash analysis and the lack of lighting at newly constructed crosswalks. Articles appeared in Mlive and the Ann Arbor Observer about the lack of lighting and crash rate. In late May of 2019, I ran a 10-year query of pedestrian crashes and the raw data showed an alarming 40% increase in crashes from 2008 through 2018. This started a discussion of crash rates and a further analysis by staff with the focus on reducing the actual crash rate being reported. I organized a community conversation on July 29, 2019, with some Councilmembers, Howard, his staff and community members presenting information and we discussed possible next steps. While it was contentious, I optimistically thought it would accelerate an improvement process. However, there was no indication of applying Vision Zero methodology. Instead, staff used a 7-year rolling average method to report crashes, thus smoothing out the data and delaying any significant increase in reported crashes. Again, I was critical because I did not see any analysis of individual causes, nor corrective actions, with the exception of turning movement in the downtown area.
Another example was the road reconfiguration on Earhart Road. The project did not include any significant road surface improvements or lighting for unlit. Staff proposed a new bike lane in the outside lane where cars rarely drove because the road surface was so deteriorated. Also, staff proposed painting a traffic circle in the intersection of Earhart and Glacier Way with a few streetlights and, yet to be defined, traffic guidance posts. It was described as an experiment.
In September, Howard applied for a job in Gainesville, Florida, citing difficulty working with the new council majority, per an Mlive article. Shortly thereafter, I attended a Vision Zero conference (at my own expense) in NYC and returned energized and ready to work with staff. The conference provided an opportunity for my views to be confirmed by transportation professionals. There were many like-minded attendees and they appreciated someone from the Midwest. At the conference, I mentioned the painted traffic circle plan and someone from San Francisco laughed and said, “Yes we tried that and it was not a success.” (And SF did not have to contend with snow and ice.)
However, after a few weeks in Ann Arbor, it became clear that a PE with Vision Zero expertise was not being hired, nor a consultant from the firm already working on our Vision Zero Transportation Plan, even though Council passed resolutions to that effect. Tensions were high, the team was not functioning well, communications were poor with most people very sensitive. My request for improved communications was met with charges that I was accusing staff of lying. I felt we did not have the Council leadership or will to recover.
This is when I approached Howard after an Administrative Committee meeting in the fall of 2019. The meeting was called to discuss tensions between Howard and Council. The Mayor and CM Grand, members of the Admin. Committee, chose not to attend the meeting, but we’re aware of the topic. CM’s Lumm and Eaton and City Attorney Stephen Postema were present for the Adm. meeting, but not my conversation with Howard after the meeting. Howard had a very generous separation agreement that included one year’s salary. I voiced support for resolving this issue before the end of the year as I felt we were at the point of no return, primarily due to council dynamics and weak leadership. My primary focus on Council had been pedestrian safety and Howard and I continued to disagree in open meetings about the lack of engineering best practices in the designs. I do not know what role the local crosswalk ordinance played in these disagreements, but it seemed to be an underlying issue.
In early 2020, I became aware of the significant increase in pedestrian crashes in 2019, based on monthly data from the police department and in the administrator’s report. Again, there was no evidence of Vision Zero analysis and no corrective action was communicated to Council. Also, in early 2020, we had two pedestrian fatalities. A pedestrian was fatally injured crossing Thompson Street after dark and another pedestrian fell on an icy crosswalk ramp as he attempted to step over a mound of snow and ice. He died one day later. This was not a crash but attributed to an unsafe crosswalk ramp. Following Howard’s separation, MichiganTrafficCrashFacts.org confirmed 74 pedestrian crashes in 2019, an increase of 15 crashes over 2018 and the highest number since data was available in 2004.
Post Howard Lazarus:
We are all responsible for this increase in the crash rate, and more importantly, the lack of an aggressive corrective action. It is not one single person’s fault, but it is clear the leadership structure in place in 2019 was not optimal. I do not know the extent that the local crosswalk ordinance played in these dynamics, but I am confident that a PE with Vision Zero would have found the local crosswalk ordinance incompatible with our existing crosswalk conditions. Also, the PE would have found that many of our crosswalks do not meet minimum standards and that the lack of consistent infrastructure is a detriment to pedestrian safety. I can only speculate on why Howard did not hire a PE. However, the Mayor and his supporters’ emotional attachment to the local ordinance, personal attacks on me and quick response to question data is troubling in the midst of similar actions at the federal level around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many will argue that crosswalk crashes are going up everywhere, but the latest data does not support that statement and an analysis is available upon request. It is long past time to focus on reducing pedestrian crashes, especially fatal and serious injury crashes that are the focus of Vision Zero.
Per MichiganTrafficCrashFacts.org, the Ann Arbor pedestrian cash rate rose by 25% from 59 in 2018, to 74 in 2019. The crash rate was the highest in 2019 for the 10-year period beginning in 2010. The Michigan pedestrian crash rate peaked in 2015, and has declined slightly since then.
Statisticians use many different analytical tools and present data in many ways, there is even a book, How to Lie with Statistics. However, I prefer to use Quality Improvement methods, such as statistical process control or trend analysis. Given our spending on pedestrian infrastructure, one would expect a continued decline in pedestrian crashes, not the significant increase in 2019.