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Transportation Commission Chair Van Konynenberg Hot Mic: “Go. . . Beat the Hell Out of Them”

California Transportation Commission Chair Paul Van Konynenberg, with mask

The most recent meeting of the California Transportation Commission was, hands down, the most exciting one in recent history. The commission usually spends two days every month listening to speeches from grateful constituents and rubber stamping decisions that have already been agreed to ahead of time. This time, there was disagreement among the commissioners, a split vote - probably the first one in a very long time - and a disturbing threat made by the chair into a microphone that should have been muted.

This may be the kind of snafu that happens in this era of online meetings and Zoom snafus, but the remark is one that should not have been made under any circumstances.

Chair Paul Van Konynenberg was heard very clearly saying the words "go down there and... beat the hell out of 'em."

He didn't mean that he would do that, of course. He may even have said it in jest, thinking he was making a private comment to staff in the room with him. Nevertheless, it disturbed and frightened people who were tuned in to the meeting. It was unprofessional, inappropriate, and abusive.

When asked for comment, Van Konynenberg responded:

Since the May 13th meeting, I have spoken with Caltrans leadership regarding my frustrations and concerns over their failure to submit a fiscally balanced SHOPP and the Commission not being able to adopt a SHOPP with $100 million for additional complete streets elements at that meeting.  I have apologized for my use of hyperbole. This was an unintentional expression of my frustrations on an important issue and not meant to offend anyone or be taken literally. I understand it was unprofessional, and I am sorry to all that may have heard it and it will not happen again. I consider myself friends with many members of Caltrans leadership and staff.  We have a good working relationship, which I hope will continue.

As explained in a previous Streetsblog post, Caltrans had asked for a "reserve" of $100 million to be set aside for Complete Streets improvements within the 2020 State Highway Operations and Performance Program (SHOPP). The department had identified seven projects that could be moved forward to a future funding cycle or adjusted in some way to free up the $100 million for this purpose.

However, only three of the projects could easily and quickly be moved to a future cycle, and they totaled $42 million. The other four projects were slightly more complicated and would take more time to deal with. Caltrans planned on coming back at the next meeting in June with an action the commission could vote on to free up the remaining $58 million.

It seemed a simple procedural question as to what action the CTC should take. Staff insisted that under the rules of fiscal constraint, which meant they could only approve funding in the SHOPP that is already lined up and ready to go, they could only approve the $42 million and had to put off any decisions on the $58 million.

But Caltrans director Toks Omishakin offered what he saw as an alternative: that the CTC approve the $100 million, "contingent on Caltrans coming back next month" with the necessary adjustments to make up the remaining $58 million. That way, the commission would be on record as supporting the entire reserve.

Commissioners were split, with Commissioner Bob Alvarado warning that "if you go outside the lines on this one, you jeopardize the whole allocation."

"This is something people have been looking forward to for a long time," said Commissioner Hillary Norton. "Given the opportunity to give additional support in a difficult year... it's only one month. I'm wondering if we could support Director Omishakin's request and at least let the public know there's a goal to give people time to prepare their applications" for the funding.

Commissioner Yvonne Burke raised a different reason to acquiesce to Caltrans' suggestion. "Will there be any attempt after [Governor Newson's budget revision] to remove funds that are not committed?" she asked. If that were to happen, "it could take years to restore. Under normal circumstances I would say absolutely, let's approve what we have now." But with the looming budget crisis now, "we are really on shaky ground." Burke asked for an analysis of whether, if they didn't commit to the entire amount, it could be taken away in the next month. "I'm very nervous about this," given past experience with transportation money being taken away, she said, even given the protections written into S.B. 1.

The Chair, Commissioner Paul Van Konynenberg, was clearly losing patience. "We could make cuts right now," he suggested.

At some point, clearly rankled, Van Konynenberg could be heard speaking over the top of a Caltrans staffmember who was attempting to explain the department's viewpoint. The words "go down there and... beat the hell out of them" are crystal clear, even through the mask Van Konynenberg is wearing.

He later called it hyperbole, and apologized to Caltrans. After reiterating that their actions were to blame for his frustration, that is.

Nonetheless.

A lot of people heard the remark. Those who were willing to speak to Streetsblog about it were, to a person, disturbed by the implied violence, but not one of them was willing to speak on record for fear of offending the chair and jeopardizing their work, or their organizations' relationship with the commission.

This is how a violent threat, even one made in jest, suppresses open discussion.

Paul Van Konynberg made a mistake - and it was not that he didn't hit mute. Taken together with other remarks made by commissioners, it contributes to what could be a hostile environment. For example, Commissioner Fran Inman repeatedly, as she has in past meetings, addressed Director Omishakin by his first name. This stood out jarringly in contrast to the respect with which Omishakin addresses the commissioners. In past meetings, Inman also addressed a Black colleague as "girlfriend," in what seemed to be an attempt at being cool but came off as disrespectful.

Whether you call these micro-aggressions, put-downs, or simple mistakes, they form a picture of an attitude that is inappropriate in a state body that makes decisions about large amounts of funding that all Californians contribute to and benefit from - or not. For years advocates have been working to get wider representation on the CTC because they know that a lot of community voices have no chance of being heard in the context of a commission where such comments are considered normal. Under Governor Brown, advocates made little headway, except for A.B. 179, which requires the governor to consider diverse socio-economic background and professional experience when making appointments to the commission.

Commissioner Van Konynenberg was voted chair of the CTC by the other commissioners in January, the same month his term came to an end. While Governor Brown tended to simply reappoint (most) commissioners when their terms ended, there is no reason to expect Governor Newsom to do the same. The timing of the chair's election was odd, at best, and manipulative, at worst, if it was meant as an attempt to force Newsom's hand on Van Konynberg's reappointment.

Under normal circumstances, the governor has ninety days to appoint or reappoint a commissioner. For Van Konynenberg and Commissioner Lucy Dunn, the deadline to make a decision would have been May 1. Under the coronavirus crisis, Newsom signed an executive order giving him an extra sixty days to make that decision.

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