Fort Smith Board debates stop sign placement

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 90 views 

Twenty-three minutes.

That is how long the Fort Smith Board of Directors spent discussing a stop sign. And that was why Director Keith Lau spoke up during the Board's discussion of the first item on the agenda – converting the intersection of Chad Colley Boulevard and Massard Road into a four-way stop.

The proposal was placed on the agenda for consideration Sept. 3 by Director Philip Merry and Vice Mayor Kevin Settle following an accident that left 31-year-old Crystal Buswell dead. Reports cited in a memo from the office of street and traffic control indicated that Buswell may have "either slowed or stopped for the stop sign at Chad Colley Boulevard, but ultimately pulled out in front of the dump truck on Massard Road that hit her on the driver's side of the car."

The accident is the only one to be reported since the road opened on Sept. 22, 2011, to traffic in all four directions.

But Lau said the proposal to convert the intersection to a four-way stop and other proposals like it should not be taken up by the Board, but instead left to department heads such as Greg Riley, Fort Smith's director of street and traffic control, who in the same memo to the Board advised that traffic counts at the intersection do not warrant a four-way stop according to the standards established by the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

In making his case against change, Riley said the intersection could actually become more dangerous.

"We would expect a four way stop to generate complaints about the traffic slow down in this area, and cause rear end accidents."

Even so, the Board voted 4-3 in favor of going against the recommendation for the intersection and making it a four-way stop.

Lau said the Board should look beyond issues such as the four-way stop and focus on bigger issue stuff, not "micro-managing."

"This is really a big picture issue that I want to talk about and it's really about micro-management and it's about second guessing our department heads. It's about second guessing engineers who obviously are trained and educated in the field of traffic management and I can tell you, I'm not a traffic engineer. And feel really uncomfortable even voting on this because I have no skill set that addresses traffic. And yet we have a report that says that it's not warranted. There are things that need to be done to that intersection but not to the degree of a four-way stop."

The recommendations Lau alluded to include adding signs that read "Cross Traffic Does Not Stop" and appropriately spaced "Stop Ahead" warning signs on Chad Colley Boulevard, "Cross Road" warning signs on Massard Road, larger "Stop" signs and speed limit changes, reducing the speed at the intersection to 35 miles per hour, Riley wrote in his memo.

By not following the advice of Riley, and Police Chief Kevin Lindsey, who also spoke against converting the intersection to a four-way stop, Lau said the Board was stuck "in the weeds" when they could be dealing with big picture items such as economic development and dealing with an increase in crime.

"We've got a crime problem, we've got a sewer problem, we've got a funding problem, we have a pension funding problem, and we're trying to decide where we're going to put stop signs? That's not where I want to be nor where I think my skill set is, nor do I think the citizens of this town elected us to be."

Merry said the decision to deal with placement of additional stop signs at the intersection was a matter of conscience.

"I think that this is a big issue. I think death is a big issue. As a risk manager I have a little bit of experience in this area. Negligence is knowing about something and choosing not to do anything about it."

Settle, who was joined by Directors Merry, Pam Weber and George Catsavis in voting for the change, said putting a stop sign in an intersection against the advice of a department head was what he was elected to do.

"I think this is part of what the people elected us to do, is to sometimes to make exceptions to what (recommendations) some department heads make. Department heads can say what they want to say, but I think this is a good point that we need to make an exception and public safety is more important than any comment like that in my mind," Settle said, addressing Lau's "in the weeds" statement.

City Administrator Ray Gosack said he feels that the Board is within its rights to go against a professional opinion on any given issue, such as traffic management.

"The department heads are encouraged to make professional recommendations and that's the staff responsibility, to make professional recommendations to the Board of Directors. But we also understand that the Board of Directors is under no obligation to rubber stamp the staff's work. And so the Board is certainly entitled to review the staff's work and to make decisions that it feels are in the community's best interest."

Lau was emphatic following the meeting that the Board had bigger fish to fry than the one discussed for 23 minutes tonight.

"I don't want to be voting on where to put stop signs," he said. "Now this sets a precedent, something I didn't talk about, sets a precedent. Every intersection now that a citizen comes and complains (about) is subject to Board review, right?"

He said that while Buswell's death was a tragedy, it does not change the fact that no prior accidents had ever occurred at the intersection nor the fact that the city's own director of street and traffic control was against making the change.

"So is that good city governance? I don't think so. And that's my opinion. Now I'll probably get chastised because, you know, I'm not empathetic enough or sympathetic enough to the tragedy that happened out there. But this isn't about this intersection. This isn't about that at all. You know what I mean."

Joining Lau in voting against the ordinance creating the four-way stop were Directors Mike Lorenz and André Good.

Because the the vote was only 4-3 and not a super majority of 5-2 or better, the ordinance will come up for a second and possible third readings at upcoming meetings and require passing votes at those readings before becoming law.