Last week, Leigh Tauss wrote about how the Raleigh City Council, led by Stef Mendell, voted to kill a sidewalk project that was five years in the making. In a lengthy response (edited for space here), Mendell calls the story “quite sensationalistic.” 

“I was initially contacted by some members of the Fallon Park Garden Club in March 2018 and asked to meet with them to discuss their concerns about a proposed sidewalk on Oxford Road adjacent to Fallon Park,” she writes. “I had previously met a few Garden Club members, some of whom had supported my campaign, but I did not know many others. However, I shared their concerns about the intrusive nature of the design as well as the $600,000 cost and arranged a meeting for them with city staff. As a result of the meeting, city staff undertook to modify the sidewalk design and came up with several alternatives, one of which was less expensive and much less intrusive into the park, but still concerning to some of the Garden Club members.

“At a public meeting in August, there were many area residents in attendance, some who supported a sidewalk and some who did not. During the meeting, I was asked if the sidewalk was a ‘done deal,’ and I said very publicly that this current council tended to side with what neighbors wanted and that if the neighbors did not want a sidewalk, then we probably would not approve a sidewalk.

“I was having trouble deciding on the appropriate course of action. The new design was much less intrusive, and staff had gone to a lot of trouble to address issues that had been raised. But concerns remained about the impact to trees on the edges of the park. And then I began hearing from residents of Oxford Road directly across from the park—they were concerned not only with potential harm to trees but also the impact of narrowing the road.

“I received an email from one of the Oxford Road residents who had initially supported the sidewalk and signed the petition in 2014, but now that she understood better what it would look like, she was adamantly opposed. She circulated a petition to the twenty-two homes that had been contacted in 2014. Twenty of the twenty-two responded, and sixteen were opposed to the sidewalk; only four supported it. [Editor’s note: Because the city didn’t oversee this petition, it doesn’t consider it official.]

“Consequently, I decided to vote against it. After the vote, I began to hear from other neighborhood residents who were very much in favor of the sidewalk. Many said they had not understood that the sidewalk was in jeopardy. Now that I understand that the wider neighborhood desires a sidewalk, I would like to explore what other options are available to address their concerns about safety. A number of suggestions have been made, and I plan to schedule a meeting so that we can have a broader discussion, not only about Oxford Road, but about the sidewalk-petition process in general. 

“I would like to note that I consider the article in the INDY not objective journalism, but rather quite sensationalistic. I have been attacked on social media with suggestions that I made the decision on the sidewalk because the opponents are my friends and because one of them made a $75 donation to my campaign. That is beyond insulting, and is the kind of activity that makes good people not want to become public servants.”

Rachael Wooten, a sidewalk opponent interviewed for the story, offers similar thoughts: “The premise appears to be that the decision proves ‘the council’s willingness to prioritize the needs of a few vocal residents over its own long-term vision.’ Then Tauss leaves out the very data that refutes her argument.

“The timeline of the decision-making process was long. It involved several public meetings in which dozens of voices were heard, both for and against this sidewalk. These meetings go back even further than Stef Mendell’s tenure. The council responded to concerned citizens’ need for input at every turn. 

“Your reporter chose not to report on the two most important data points. First and foremost, a current resident of Oxford Road circulated a new petition against the sidewalk. The majority of current residents did not want it. Secondly, on the city’s comment site, where non-residents could also leave opinions, 69 percent of respondents were against it. [Editor’s note: Like the petition, the comments are also considered unofficial.] 

“I told Tauss that I would like to see a meeting of people who are concerned about both maintaining the natural integrity of the park as well as safety issues related to the area. Ways to address these issues could include professional trail maintenance around the perimeter of the park, speed bumps, bike lanes, signage, and other traffic-calming measures. Mendell is now planning to offer such an opportunity.  

“The article reads like an opinion piece. Critical data was left out. The article has a polarizing effect. Rather than suggesting creative ways for people to come together and find mutually agreeable solutions, the INDY creates an either-or, us-them scenario that serves no one.”

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