May 5, 2016 09:49 AM

It's a mistake to look at the DOTD's now infamous community letter as a power move to crush opposition. In reality, DOTD has finally made clear the rules of the game.

DOTD's Toby Picard
Photo by Robin May

Since late last year, DOTD and its consulting partners on the I-49 Connector project have struggled to convey what decision-making role the community at large will play in biggest public infrastructure project Acadiana has seen in decades. In that vacuum has stepped a voracious opposition, led primarily by members of the Acadiana Group of the Sierra Club, crying foul at what they deem an intentional chilling by DOTD of public input into designing and building the controversial Connector. It's a public opinion land grab, with all competing points of view planting flags of claim for community opinion on the Connector.

By and large the drama has played out through the Community Working Group, a citizen-oriented planning committee appointed and invited via the Connector’s Context Sensitive Solutions process — a planning approach meant to ensure the interstate project will enhance, rather than harm, the surrounding area. A recent email from Toby Picard, DOTD project manager for the Connector, to the CWG and its sister committee, the Technical Advisory Committee, has led some to believe DOTD is attempting to quash opposition sitting on the committee once and for all. Such was the implication of a piece published by The Daily Advertiser that characterized Picard’s sentiments as an ultimatum: get with the interstate program or get off the committee.

Picard rejects that characterization outright. DOTD, he says, has no intent of removing opposition voices from the CWG, much less the project on the whole. He points out that DOTD invited the current member roster — which includes IND Co-publisher Cherry Fisher May — and has no intention of forcibly removing or pushing opponents off the board. The problem they attempted to address, according to Picard, is a tendency for CWG meetings to devolve into protracted arguments among a few key voices.

“We want all opinions to be voiced,” Picard tells The IND. “If arguments break out at a CWG meeting and people end up feeling like they won’t end up expressing their viewpoints, then we’re still not attaining the goal. We do want to hear the concerns. We want to hear from people who don’t like the project and who do like project.”

Thinking back to the April 28 CWG meeting which prompted this episode, it’s hard not to see DOTD's point. DOTD’s agenda for that meeting was to review and discuss 13 refinement concepts already before the committee. Instead, the CWG spent close to an hour discussing pointedly the possibility of studying a boulevard as yet another concept.

Picard also points out that the email was meant to reach CWG members who simply aren’t showing up. It’s well documented that CWG has had attendance well below 50 percent.

Obviously, this is a complicated issue. On the one hand, DOTD has bungled the PR message here by dispatching a letter that could be at all construed as a muzzle. Picard argues his intent was not to silence dissent, but rather to establish parameters for CWG conversation.

From DOTD’s perspective, the state charged the transportation agency and its consulting partners with an interstate project that is genetically determined by the 2003 Record of Decision. The language and legislation of that document — which survived a federal lawsuit filed by Harold Schoeffler in 2004, a sitting CWG member — determines the whether and the how of the interstate in very broad strokes. The alignment, the environmental commitments, the stakeholders and the stakes are all defined in ways DOTD would argue it can do very little to change at this stage.

The CWG, as part of that design process, is guided by that scope. Its job is to provide public input on the implementation of what’s in the Record of Decision. In short, it’s the public’s opportunity to play designer, via community representatives, but with a specific set of rules.

DOTD’s failure to clearly define the rules has further eroded trust among CWG members and the contractors in charge. While frustrating for opposition, Picard’s letter does put concrete walls around the types of decisions the community can make through the CWG.

“I’m not trying to brush [opposition] off,” Picard says. “From my point of view I have to implement a project that’s been put forward by the state. There’s a big group that supports the project, but they’re just not as loud.”

Before you’re quick to assume that the silent majority is One Acadiana and a cabal of oil barons, bear in mind that many black leaders and residents in neighborhoods adjacent to the proposed corridor support the project as a chance to get long-denied capital investment into their communities. DOTD should be cultivating a diversity of opinion, and that should include vigorous dissent. But if DOTD loses control of the meetings in a way that privileges a loud, white and affluent opposition to project, that won’t be a net gain for inclusivity of opinion.

CWG member Tina Bingham, a representative of the McComb-Veazay Coterie, has long criticized the process for having a woeful lack of black voices. She admits that it’s a two-way street, with several appointed black members among that long list of absentees. Bingham sees that as a function of ineffective outreach and a lack of interest taken by the black community. Either way the result is the same: There’s disproportionate representation at the podium.

“We’re hearing the voices of planners and business people but not Sally Sue on Benoit Street,” Bingham says. “I’m not hearing that coming from the CWG or in those public meetings.”

Whether DOTD is allowing sufficient public comment is an entirely different question than how the CWG should operate. For what it’s worth, you can draw a straight line from many of the changes currently being discussed in those meetings to the public wallop the Connector team received at a Sierra Club-sponsored “Y-49?” meeting last December.

To outright opponents, those changes are merely shifted deck chairs. But Y-49 occurred outside the purview of DOTD’s design process and still managed to alter the process. Even if Picard's letter was a power grab, it can do nothing to stymie revolt from the outside.