Voltaire said we should “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Asking the right questions is what Andy Taubman, Ad Hoc Residential Street Infrastructure Advisory Committee chairman, sees as the main role of the group of nine citizens charged with addressing the problem of failed residential streets in Corpus Christi. Taubman made it clear an hour and 50 minutes into the October 20 City Council Meeting that the questions he and the other committee members have about engineering, accountability, contracting methods, and information sharing are designed to assist City staff in evaluating the existing program to identify successes and areas in need of improvement, not assign blame.
At this meeting, Taubman’s Infrastructure Committee Plan came under fire from Mayor Martinez and Council members McIntyre, Scott, and Riojas, who were opposed to the plan and ultimately voted against it.
Council member Lucy Rubio spoke in favor of the plan: “What are we afraid of? We have a group of people who want to help us get this right.” Rubio voted for the plan, as did Council members Vaughn, Garza, Magill, and Rosas.
At the October 27 City Council Meeting, Taubman was nominated by Councilman Magill who said: “He’s got the mind and the will to actually produce something that is tangible and actionable.”
In a November 1, 2015, Caller-Times editorial, Taubman proved Magill’s assessment when he wrote: “Understanding the current situation is a necessary precursor for improving it.” By posing the right questions, Taubman believes the committee can facilitate change in the existing system, and perhaps even in the existing culture. “We started the process by looking at an existing program because you get two benefits by doing that. We get to ask: What happened in the existing program? Do we think it is efficient? Well-run? Did the money get spent right? Are we happy with it going forward in its same incarnation?”
These questions prompted the committee to invite contractors, consultants, and outside engineers who help the City with street work to the meeting on December 1, 2015. “We think that any problems and any solutions that exist are probably going to come from the people who are doing that work every day. That’s why we are seeking out feedback – because the goal is not necessarily to be judged on making mistakes. However, we will be judged on repeating or not repeating the mistakes. We are looking at the Street Preventative Maintenance Program (SPMP) as a model for what will ultimately become the Street Reconstruction Program.”
At the December 16 Ad Hoc Residential Street Committee meeting, Taubman shared “A Private Business Person’s Perspective on a Governmental Process,” a 19-page report co-authored by fellow committee member, Chris Duff. The committee concluded that the SPMP can be labeled a success because “money got spent” and “roads got fixed.” Below is a list of some of the information included in the report:
- An overview of the SPMP Program including current funding sources;
- A program underfunded by $5 to $10 million per year in comparison to the natural aging of the streets;
- The high price tag attached to ADA requirements;
- The cost of seal-coats and overlays;
- Possible funding sources, including RTA funds;
- Observation that seal coat is one year behind while overlay were 23% complete at fiscal year end;
- A method for bidding and awarding contracts that may not lead to the best value and is not small-contractor friendly;
- A terminology used by City staff to relate information to the citizens that is confusing and rarely allows for real transparency;
- A lack of feedback to evaluate efficiency in the City system;
- A need for the use of technology to determine the condition of a street;
- Staff responses to the committee’s observations and recommendations.
Did the committee learn anything beyond that? In an interview from December 31, 2015, Taubman offered his thoughts on how current street maintenance practices affect the whole program:
“The seal coat program is one year behind schedule. In two years they’re one year behind. That’s not a little miss; that’s a big miss. The reason the seal coat exists is to preserve the streets. Being behind isn’t just an inconvenience, it has a real cost. Cities don’t do a very good job of measuring opportunity costs. Everyone complains about the $100 being spent in a place somebody doesn’t like. If by not getting the seal coat work done you’ve lost a million dollars in value of the streets, nobody says anything because you can’t measure opportunity costs. If projects are managed well, there are three variables that really get managed: time, quality, and cost. Those are the three variables that get managed in a private situation. The goal is to balance the three. In a city setting time goes out the window. This discussion doesn’t happen because the three types of years (program year, fiscal year, calendar year) don’t match up. So, no one asks the question. Nobody really knows.”
When asked if City staff has the ability to adjust that, Taubman responded: “Excellent question. No one asks if the city can ramp things up to meet a deadline. The money is already allocated through our fees, so it isn’t a question of funding. The way they contract for these services is that they wind up in an IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery / Indefinite Quantity) with only one provider for each service. In private business, the owner will hire extra contractors and get the work done. If the question is never asked of City staff, then it can’t be addressed. And, since there’s only one provider, the question can’t be asked at all.”
Taubman believes another question must be asked: “How and why does the money get spent?”
“If people are concerned about how the money gets spent and why the money gets spent, then it’s important to have a street committee. I’m not convinced people care how or why the money gets spent. I think that businesses that are very well run ask this all the time,” said Taubman. “I’m not saying anything bad about City staff, but they don’t care if the question gets asked or not. The City council members feel they need to ask the question out of a sense of duty or obligation, but do they really care if the question gets asked or not? Some do. Some don’t. Do the voters really care whether the question gets asked or not? I don’t get an overwhelming sense that that’s an important part of what people think about. The paper definitely doesn’t care about the question. When you think about the role of media in society where they’re supposed to be asking the question, that’s where I say the biggest deficit in dereliction of duty happens. Do I really think anybody cares? No. So why are we doing this? I don’t really know.”
When asked why he is driven to lead the committee and continue to ask the question, Taubman said, “Part of why I’m doing this is because that’s not the way governments operate, but it is the way people operate. In my experience personally and professionally, I think it’s an important thing to do. Should we as citizens come together and ask that of government? I would otherwise in a vacuum say yes. I just don’t see any evidence that’s the way the world really works, so I don’t know. People in their own lives and businesses do it, so come hell or high water we’re going to do this on behalf of the citizens in the context of good government.”
Like the little boy in Han Chrisian Andersen’s “The Emperer’s New Clothes,” Taubman’s questions are opening doors, eyes, and minds to the possible need for change in the status quo. “Is there a need or willingness for change within the current system?” Taubman asks. Time will tell. For now, the committee members continue to take the road less traveled by the average citizen in their quest to “get it right.”
(This is the second of several articles covering the work of the residential street committee.)
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Retired from education after serving 30 years (twenty-eight as an English teacher and two years as a new-teacher mentor), Shirley enjoys her life with family and friends while serving her community, church, and school in Corpus Christi, Texas. She is the creator and managing editor of The Paper Trail, an online news/blog site that serves to offer new, in-depth, and insightful responses to the events of the day. She also writes and edits for The Texas Shoreline News, a Corpus Christi print newspaper.