Important city work in January included city park renovations, transportation system improvements, and public safety issues.
Miller Park renovations: The first stage of renovation work at Miller Park, restoration of the erosion-impacted stream, is nearing completion. Stage two will include fixing and improving the paths through the park (including the foot bridges), and lighting two of the renovated paths (one north-south and one east-west path across the park). The current target schedule is to start that work by June and finish it by January 2018. The third stage of work, renovating the shelters and restrooms, is targeted for 2018. All the work will continue to respect and maintain the park’s historic character and unique natural values.
Transit system improvements: As I’ve discussed before, the first major overhaul of citywide bus route design was put into effect January 2. The new system is designed to provide better, faster, more efficient service for more riders. It includes new circulators and cross-town routes, moving away from a system which required all routes to start at the central downtown transportation center. There are now many available transfer points between routes, so that riders don’t always have to go all the way into downtown in order to change buses and go back out to another part of town. We went through a citywide public input process to design the routes (in 2015), and then took another full year (2016) to educate the public on the new routes and options. Of course, no major system change ever takes place without some glitches, some dissatisfied users, and bugs to be ironed out. We’re in the process now of reviewing those and preparing options to address them. Minor changes—like moving or adding a bus stop on an existing route—can be implemented by staff whenever they’re ready. More complicated fixes—like changing a route in a way that affects riders’ ability to make their connections to other routes—will have to wait until the comprehensive initial review is completed in April. That’s when Winston-Salem Transit Authority (WSTA) staff is scheduled to report back to the Public Works Committee on adjustment options. A third stage of possible changes—like adding more night or Sunday service to more routes—will require substantial additional funding and will have to be considered as part of our FY 2017-18 budget review. In the meantime, suggestions and comments are welcome while we continue the process of improving our local transit system.
Federal immigration laws and city responsibilities: During the public comment period at the city council’s January 17 meeting, a number of city residents asked for what is called a “sanctuary city” resolution. While there is no precise legal definition of “sanctuary city”, the term is generally used in connection with the idea of support for immigration reform and opposition to indiscriminate deportation of undocumented immigrants. At the far end of the spectrum, it is associated with a declaration of intent to refuse requests from federal immigration authorities to retain a specific individual already in police custody on local charges, and wanted by the federal agency for immigration law violations, for long enough for the federal agency to legally take custody. However, there are also other less extreme uses of the “sanctuary” term as well. As a result, it’s confusing and unclear in practice.
Winston-Salem has instead long considered itself to be a “welcoming community” committed to providing a safe and hospitable environment for established residents and newcomers alike. We are on public record in opposition to discrimination against or mistreatment of residents or visitors on the basis of differences including race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability. We take pride in our diversity, and have specific outreach efforts to help newcomers access city services. Our community provides a welcoming home for many resettled refugee families who have fled from war and disasters abroad.
I and many other Winston-Salem citizens share a deep concern over some of the declarations and executive orders now issuing from the White House regarding immigrants and refugees. It appears to us that some of these directives are based more on fear than facts, improperly discriminate against innocent people on the basis of their faith, abandon American values of standing up for bullied and abused people, undermine our leadership in the world, and thereby make our nation at greater risk rather than safer.
I have always held the view that elected city leaders have plenty of work to do at the local level to solve problems here and improve our communities, and should not spend our limited time and energy trying to tell other levels of government what to do within their areas of responsibility. At the same time, our local responsibilities include reasoned response to broader matters when they intrude upon our work here. By his executive actions last week, our new president has reached the hand of the federal government into local law enforcement and community safety matters. The Winston-Salem City Council’s Community Development, Housing, and General Government Committee will take up this matter for further discussion at our February meeting.
Police body cameras and recordings: During January, the city council met with members of our Forsyth County state legislative delegation to discuss city requests for state legislative action. One of these matters deals with last year’s state law changes regarding the handling of video recordings from police body cameras. Winston-Salem had already made the decision to invest in body cameras for all our police officers. We view them as a way to improve courtesy and communications between officers and citizens, improve officer safety, and provide important objective evidence of events in any disputed transaction. Our local experience has shown the recordings to be a key public confidence booster when we have been allowed to release them. Our officers are among our nation’s best trained, and the recordings here have reflected their good service and professional demeanor.
Unfortunately, state legislators last year over-reacted to national controversy, and took the extreme step of declaring all police body camera footage to be not public record, and releasable to the public only by court order. That legislation undermines public confidence in our police, and thereby puts officers and citizens at greater risk. This is directly counter-productive to what we are trying to do. Think about it: In this age of ubiquitous cell phone recordings, what sense does it make to prohibit our police department from showing the public our officers’ literal view of events?
That’s why we asked our legislators to allow Winston-Salem to treat these recordings as public records, and to release them to the public whenever it is not going to prejudice a pending criminal investigation. To help ensure that releases are done with proper safeguards, our proposal includes notice and time for the District Attorney’s office, as well as anyone else identifiably shown in the video, to review it and ask for a court order delaying public release. We think that the default set for public records ought to be public availability. Whether you agree or disagree, I would invite you to let your legislative representatives know what you think.
Ardmore utility renovation work: I am hopeful that the extended utility lines work in what is known as Ardmore Sub-basin #1 is nearing completion. As of the end of last week, our staff’s best estimate was that the complete closures of Hawthorne Road should be done by the end of this week (February 3). The remaining work on Hawthorne should be doable with just rotating lane closures without diverting all traffic to detours. All the remaining street digging work within the sub-basin should be completed by the end of February (barring more major snow events). I have asked staff to begin the process of evaluating street deterioration from the project work as soon as possible. My goal is to get re-paving of damaged streets done as soon as possible. However, please keep in mind that public contract approvals have to go through more reviews than private work—in this case the City/County Utilities Commission and the full City Council. It’s not under my direct control, and I can only push those bodies to act as expeditiously as the law allows. Your patience is much appreciated.
Upcoming February events and meetings: These are the meetings and events I’d like to call to your attention this coming month:
--City advisory panels: The mayor is accepting applications for a number of advisory panels, including the Citizens’ Police Review Board, the Human Relations Commission, and the Commission on Ending Homelessness. The deadline for applications is 5 p.m. Friday February 10. Information on the applications process is available here: http://www.cityofws.org/Departments/Mayor/Boards-and-Commissions
--“Cops vs. Docs” charity hockey game: The Police Department will hold its annual “Cops vs. Docs” annual hockey game to benefit Special Olympics Forsyth County, on Saturday February 11, 7 p.m. at the Fairgrounds Annex Building. A team of Triad law enforcement officers will play a team of staff from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Tickets are just $5. Come on out!
--South Suburban Area Plan: The process of collecting public input into updating the South Suburban Area Plan will continue with a land uses presentation on Tuesday, February 21, starting at 6 p.m., at the Southside Branch Library on Buchanan Street. (The South Suburban planning area includes a small part of the Southwest Ward located east of Ebert Road and south of Silas Creek Parkway.) To see the existing South Suburban Area Plan, go to http://www.cityofws.org/Departments/Planning/Area-Plans/South-Suburban.
That’s my report for January. As always, you are welcome to email me at email@example.com with comments or questions. Thanks.