In the aftermath of the ouster of streets director Mark Serbousek on Feb 2, the city went largely silent
about the street department. It turned down multiple requests for sit-down interviews from the Inlander —
including with new interim Street Director Gary Kaesemeyer, Public Works & Utilities Division Director Scott Simmons, and city spokeswoman Marlene Feist.
The initial response from Simmons — that the Inlander
should check in again on the street department in six months — suggested it could be a very long time before the city divulged more about how it was operating the department.
But on Friday, the city veered in the other direction, with an all-hands-on-deck press conference featuring Simmons, Kaesemeyer, Mayor David Condon and Amber Waldref. While they continued to refuse to answer any questions about Serbousek's ouster specifically, they painted the scene of a flurry of experimentation over the past three weeks.
At times, City Council President Ben Stuckart has said that he's been frustrated by the pace of innovation in the street department — though he also says that sometimes the department may be unfairly blamed for decisions elsewhere in the city that stymie innovation.
But in the span of only a few weeks — after the last big snow plow finished and the melting snow revealed a series of massive craters in the streets — under Kaesemeyer's new leadership, the department has undergone a flurry of innovation and experimentation intended to strike at one of Spokane's oldest punchlines: potholes.
"The innovative approaches that the team has come up with has really been a grassroots efforts by employees," Simmons said at the press conference, "They've been the ones identifying, how we might go out and tackle this thing."
While the traditional methods had been effective in past years, the sheer amount of moisture under the roads has exacerbated the issues with the city's freeze-thaw cycles.
"There's no better time than when you went through some trial by fire, when things were tough," Simmons says. "It's allowing us to make sure were not being complacent."
It was like a perfect storm, but, you know, for weather.
"The wettest October, in decades," Condon says. "The coldest January, in decades. Those two pieces together."
The severity of the season, Kaesemeyer says, presented an opportunity to seize upon the knowledge the department already had. They'd had other experiences in other cities. They had friends in other departments in other states. And they had plenty of ideas of how to solve Spokane's pothole crisis.
"We'd be sitting in a meeting and have crews come in and saying, 'hey, I had this spot here while I was driving around in the truck today,'" Kaesemeyer says. "We're getting good ideas from all kinds of places. A lot of citizens are calling in, saying, 'hey we did this, we did that.' I had a person from Alaska stop by the other day, saying, hey, used to do this up in Alaska."
By Friday, the city presented a wide range of potential solutions — and experiments — to tackle the pothole pandemic.
1) Team up with the water and wastewater departments.
Before becoming the interim street director, Kaesemeyer actually served as the superintendent of wastewater collection and maintenance for the wastewater department. And that, Simmons says, has been helpful.