My View | Frank Putzu: ‘No, sir, we have not’

My View | Frank Putzu: ‘No, sir, we have not’
The entrance of INOVA Alexandria Hospital on the corner of Seminary Road and Howard Street. (Photo/Missy Schrott)

By Frank Putzu

The first two pieces in this series showed that the Alexandria Fire Department was isolated from the decision to narrow Seminary Road. Freedom of Information Act materials showed how city staff from the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services pressured and ultimately maneuvered AFD to “hold to that talking point” to present a “unified” message before the Sept. 14 council public hearing. Because of these revelations, we next examined the record relating to Inova Alexandria Hospital and the decision to narrow Seminary Road.

We previously noted that the AFD said in a June 21 memo it was told the road diet had been dropped at the request of the hospital. No further public information was given, and hospital communications were not part of the Seminary Hill Association’s final FOIA request.

However, on May 30 the city held a public forum at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School about Seminary Road. After one attendee expressed concern about Inova Alexandria Hospital and AFD, Complete Streets Program Director Christine Mayeur made the following statement relating to why the city developed the new “hybrid” option, which would have cut lanes on a portion of Seminary Road, in lieu of the road diet:

“We did meet with the hospital, specifically. We talked to their head of emergency management. She’s kind of over all of their emergency vehicles,” Mayeur said. “And the one thing that they specifically asked us to do was to maintain two travel lanes westbound. And that is the primary reason for that – for why you see that there are still two lanes in the westbound direction. Eastbound, they didn’t need it as much because they need the route into the hospital.”

T&ES Director Yon Lambert was next to Mayeur when she disclosed this information. According to T&ES, the hospital asked the city to reject the road diet – the one council ultimately approved on a 4-3 vote – and in response, the city created the hybrid to address the hospital’s request. We did not locate any public statements from the hospital.

The May 30 public statement by Mayeur aligns with what the AFD said in the June 21 memo. Ultimately, the apparent request by the hospital, which was referred to by both Mayeur and the AFD, was ignored and outright denied at the Sept. 14 public hearing.

When a speaker at the hearing asked if the hospital had expressed a desire to maintain egress from an arterial leading directly to it, Councilor Canek Aguirre asked: “Have we actually gotten anything from the hospital?”

Mayor Justin Wilson deferred to Lambert, who responded, “No, sir, we have not.” [*Editors’ Note: See clarification at the end of this article]

Aguirre noted that Lambert’s response completed the record on the issue.

No one from the city disclosed that there had been discussions between T&ES and the hospital’s emergency management director. Nor did they disclose the hospital’s prior position that it needed at least two full lanes unimpeded westbound toward the hospital.

The hospital is a private entity, and we do not have access to its records. However, an AFD memo and Mayeur’s public comments at the well-attended May 30 meeting, with Lambert present, make clear T&ES had indeed received input from Inova Alexandria Hospital on Seminary Road. Lambert’s statement that there was no input from the hospital is simply incorrect.

And while it’s possible that City Manager Mark Jinks, Wilson and council were unaware of the hospital’s input, the proposition that T&ES leadership and members of the public at a videotaped public meeting knew about it and they did not seems unlikely.

We thank the Alexandria Times for the important public service of disclosing to our citizens how the Seminary Road decision was really made in their independent review of the FOIA documents, and for carrying on the tradition of a free and fair press in Alexandria. We also appreciate them giving AFD a fair opportunity to respond. The response did not dispute the facts in this series and the Times’ independent analysis – nor could it since these pieces have been based on AFD documents. We look forward to further exploration of the story.

My pieces have been grounded in the materials provided through the FOIA, videos of public meetings and hearings and publicly available documents. FOIA was critical in providing the public with additional insight on how the split decision to disfigure Seminary Road was made.

We share in the Times’ encouragement of the public to take advantage of FOIA on issues you care about and to the city to be transparent and make its materials more readily available and cost-effective.

The writer is Representative of Area 8 of the Seminary Hill Association designated to review the FOIA.

*Clarification: At the Sept. 14 public hearing, about five minutes after T&ES Director Yon Lambert told Councilor Canek Aguirre that the city had not received comments from Inova, Lambert clarified his statement. When Aguirre asked, “Director Lambert, just one more time, have we had a position from Inova?” Lambert responded, “We have not received anything written from Inova. The conversations that staff has had with Inova, and we have had conversations with Inova, they have indicated that they were deferring to fire, but we have not received anything formal or nothing documented from Inova.”

(Read more: My View | Frank Putzu: ‘Hold to that talking point’)