Sunday, May 26, 2024

Parts of Memorial Drive close to become Riverbend Park, seen in December 2020. (Photo: Calla Walsh via Twitter)

One minute new City Manager Yi-An Huang was being toasted by city councillors and told to enjoy his honeymoon phase, and the next saw the first public signs of discord between elected officials and their powerful hire.

The cause was a late item at a Monday meeting in which Huang told councillors he was asking the state to cancel the year’s two remaining Saturdays of “Riverbend Park,” or sections of Memorial Drive that are closed to car traffic so people can use the area for recreation, and asking their support to do so. One cause for unhappiness among some councillors was the attempt at cancellation – which is going forward, though the state Department of Conservations and Recreation has yet to announce a response – and the other was how they learned of it.

“It wasn’t even on the agenda on Thursday at 5 o’clock when most people look to see what they’re going to come and talk about,” vice mayor Alanna Mallon said, addressing Huang. “It is tough to have a conversation about transparency when I opened my email today at 2 o’clock and this was there.” 

The park has traditionally been Sunday-only from the end of April to mid-November, but the need for outdoor recreation during the Covid pandemic sparked a call for an expansion to include Saturdays. DCR, which controls Memorial Drive, agreed to letting Riverbend Park hours run from 7 a.m. Saturday to dusk Sunday, but the traffic diverted into the Riverside neighborhood on the new day sparked calls to undo the expansion. A bewildering series of policy reversals followed, ultimately leaving the park  intact for whole weekends. 

Mallon said she would oppose Huang approaching the state about ending Saturday closings “not because I’m not concerned about the community impacts of the folks who live nearby, but because of the way that this came forward.” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and councillors Patty Nolan and Quinton Zondervan were similarly disturbed by the surprise nature of the item.

The city manager agreed the late order was “not ideal from a process perspective, particularly for a subject that has received so much public attention.”

“I own this,” Huang said. “We should have moved faster as a team to process these decisions, [but] the intention was not to not have that more public conversation.”

Belief park was closed

Riverbend Park is seeing “reduced demand for outdoor activity as the weather has gotten colder, especially this past weekend,” according to the late communication, yet closings during the holiday season would bring more traffic to Riverside.

It became clear that there was a widespread belief that the extended Riverbend Park season ended with November, despite an announcement in late April that Dec. 18 would be the park’s final day for the year. The mistaken belief is why Huang had acted so late in approaching the state and in telling the council, and it helped dampen reactions, as it’s harder to be upset about seeing something taken away when you didn’t realize it was there in the first place. 

Still, there was disappointment among some councillors that instead of moving to close Riverbend Park’s Saturdays, there wasn’t information about use being collected that would help the city set policy for future seasons.

“When should we be opening it, for how long? How many days? Should we end it at Thanksgiving? Maybe that was the right way to go. But we won’t know because we’re not collecting any data,” Mallon said. 

Choices around Memorial Drive may have to change again as a riverfront reconstruction project begins there, Zondervan noted.

Supporting Huang and the closing

Huang entered Monday’s meeting having submitted a comprehensive, universally applauded report on his first 90 days in office – leading councillor E. Denise Simmons to advise him to enjoy his “honeymoon phase” – and goodwill over it and his work since arriving in office lingered into the debate about Memorial Drive. Even a strong proponent of bicycling infrastructure and Riverbend Park such as councillor Burhan Azeem said he would “gladly” support the city manager on the closing, “because of the confusions [around] the holiday season.”

Others such as councillor Paul Toner endorsed the idea of canceling Saturday park use this and next Saturday to help Riverside residents, and Toner and councillor Marc McGovern wanted to use the winter to have clear conversations about what residents and recreations could expect starting next spring.

Mistaken use of power

Councillors have limited abilities to reject or undo work being done by the manager, and they were told Monday by the city solicitor that their past uses of a “charter right” to temporarily stop debate had been wrong – not allowed by the rules they operate under. The power had been  used incorrectly as recently as the previous meeting.

Trying to avoid letting Huang’s actions “set a precedent and … expectations,” Zondervan proposed an order asking him not to talk with the state about closing the park for the next two Saturdays. It failed on a 3-6 vote, with only Zondervan, Siddiqui and Mallon backing it.

The communication from Huang about him approaching DCR was then placed on file, with all councillors making formal votes of approval.