Santa Rosa, SMART back in talks over disputed Jennings Avenue pedestrian crossing

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Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit and the city of Santa Rosa are back in negotiations about a proposed crossing over the tracks at Jennings Avenue, though the SMART board appears to remain staunchly opposed to the pedestrian and bicycle pathway.

Half of the 12-member SMART board spoke up against the east-west connector at a meeting last week, citing general safety issues, the proximity to Helen Lehman Elementary School and a belief no number of safeguards will ensure the crossing is used properly.

“I have a lot of concerns, particularly about the safety of young people who live there,” board member Carol Russell, a Cloverdale councilwoman, said in response to questions posed by a pair of speakers. “Safety is our major concern and always has been. And it has to be, no matter what other considerations we might have.”

“We have done due diligence on this,” added board member Barbara Pahre, a vice president of the Golden Gate Bridge District. “My responsibility as a board member is in good conscience to keep people safe. I will not be part of something that’s not safe for children.”

The crossing — aligned with a long-used footpath fenced off by SMART in 2015 — has been sought by cyclists and nearby residents, who currently must detour north or south to get across the tracks. Two pathway supporters addressed the board last Wednesday, requesting yet again that SMART put the item on its agenda so official feedback can be offered.

In 2016, the project received unanimous approval from the state agency that oversees rail crossings and previously received a thumbs-up from SMART. But it has never come up for a board vote despite the city’s desire to see it completed.

“When the public comes and talks and shares what they want to see happen and then doesn’t hear a response from you, it’s easy for them to come to a conclusion that you don’t care about public input,” Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, told the SMART board during its comment period. “The voters deserve to hear some answers.”

In September, Santa Rosa Vice Mayor Chris Rogers made a similar plea during the comment period, urging the SMART directors to formally take up the crossing. The City Council, a month later, devoted considerable time to a discussion of the project’s continued delay.

But Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents central Santa Rosa, remains unswayed by the city’s case.

“They had a workshop — big deal,” Zane, a SMART board member, said in last week’s meeting. “They have to pay for it, they have to create a safe alternative and they have to also be willing to indemnify SMART in the same way that other cities have. That hasn’t happened.”

In recent discussions, Rogers said he’s been reassured by SMART staff, including Farhad Mansourian, SMART’s general manager, that the issue of legal liability has no specific bearing on the Jennings Avenue crossing. The agency has reached deals covering indemnity and maintenance with San Rafael, Novato, and on Tuesday, with Sonoma County. An agreement with Santa Rosa remains in the works.

But that should be a separate issue from the crossing, where the deciding factor appears to be meeting SMART’s safety threshold, Rogers said.

“We’re trying to make sure the conversations are separate, that the crossings throughout Santa Rosa and indemnity are not related to SMART’s position on Jennings,” he said. “If SMART gave us a blueprint how to get there, I’ll make sure we follow it.”

The dialogue about the Jennings Avenue crossing at the SMART meeting last week took place without prior public notice, raising questions about whether it violated the Brown Act, the state law governing public meetings. Board Chairwoman Deb Fudge, who oversaw the meeting, acknowledged the irregularity of the exchange at the time, but allowed it to proceed, noting members of the public asked for responses.

No such fulsome response was given to Rogers when he urged the SMART board to take up the issue in September.

Fudge, a Windsor councilwoman, did not return messages left for her Tuesday. Jeanne Belding, a SMART spokeswoman, said the board comments represented only brief responses to questions raised by the public, permitted activity under the law, and not deliberation or an action that set policy.

But an open-meetings watchdog who reviewed the transcript said those interested in the Jennings Avenue crossing and not in attendance last week could have been disadvantaged by the ad hoc discussion.

“The point of the Brown Act is to avoid discussion of important items of public interest not put on the agenda, so the public in a way is not blindsided, but aware of what will be discussed and can show up and weigh in as they see fit,” said David Snyder, executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition. “The comments by the board members at least push the boundaries of what’s appropriate.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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