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Originally published February 27, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified February 28, 2012 at 8:58 AM

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Taxpayers stuck paying for this traffic jam

The man who botched the response to the 2008 snowstorm is behind another traffic mess in West Seattle and a union petition. Why is he still at the Department of Transportation?

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The stated mission of the Seattle Department of Transportation is "to deliver a safe and reliable transportation system that enhances Seattle's environment and economic vitality."

If that's true, then why is Paul E. Jackson Jr. still working there?

That name shouldn't just ring a bell but set off sirens for anyone who has driven in this city.

Jackson is the one who led (a term I use loosely) the city's response (again, loosely) to the December 2008 snowstorms.

That no-salt fiasco came after a yearlong human-resources investigation into Jackson's management of the department's street-maintenance division. The probe cost taxpayers $515,000, and $150,000 more for consultants hired to tell the department how to improve.

Jackson was demoted, but stayed in management.

His name came up again earlier this month, after a broken traffic light at a major West Seattle intersection stayed that way for 11 hours.

The night shift for the electricians who could have repaired the light had been eliminated and replaced with an on-call, overtime roster. That's fine, except only three people were signed up for overtime, and none of them was available that night.

So, for 11 hours, 35th Avenue Southwest and Fauntleroy Way Southwest went from a lighted intersection to a four-way stop. By the morning rush-hour, there was a 1-mile backup.

We're straying from mission here. A 1-mile backup is not what I would call "reliable," and making so many people rush down side streets and late for work can't be safe, or helping the city's "economic vitality."

And yet, Jackson remains a manager, despite the backup, and the fact that 14 of the city's 21 signal electricians have submitted a petition to the department's chief, complaining about the workplace he's created.

The petition said in part, "His management style of leading through fear and intimidation is unfair, counterproductive and completely unnecessary."

That, too, is going to cost us: Each employee who signed the petition will be pulled off the job and paid for the time spent airing their complaints about Jackson — complaints the city has known about for years.

There are other costs, though, that really can't be measured: Low morale, or a worker's decision not to go the extra mile because doing so would make Jackson — hired as a maintenance laborer in 1998 — look good.

SDOT spokesman Rick Sheridan sent me a list of improvements Jackson completed under the city's "Bridging the Gap" initiative: the re-marking of 306 crosswalks; the installation of 4,700 regulatory street signs; and the replacement of 1,155 street signs and 1,916 feet of guardrail.

"What you see in terms of results is a manager who is delivering as requested," Sheridan said.

Further, Sheridan said, Jackson requested a transfer to his old position after the snowstorm mess. (Not true: Former SDOT head Grace Crunican told the City Council's transportation committee in July 2009 that she demoted him herself.)

"He has paid the price for the 2008 snowstorm," Sheridan said.

Actually, taxpayers paid the price. And that's the key point that I think the city is missing by keeping Jackson on the payroll. This one employee has already cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars, and now key employees in another major division are petitioning his management style.

What does it take to get rid of someone like that?

"I understand what you're saying," Sheridan told me, but "[Jackson] has been working hard for city residents." He said he was afraid people were being unfair.

How about being fair to the employees on the street? To the taxpayers paying this guy's salary and expecting to get from one place to the other without a worry or a wait?

There has been some movement at the SDOT.

Thursday, the head of the city's traffic-management division, Charles Bookman, announced his resignation. Bookman, 64, said he is leaving to care for his father. I wish him well.

But I also wish that, before Bookman leaves, and before someone like Jackson starts circling his office and salary scale, Mayor Mike McGinn takes a close look at what's going on at SDOT, and sees what should be obvious:

Traffic management is Government 101. If you can't get that right and with the right people, then we're all stuck — not just in traffic, but with a hefty bill.

Nicole Brodeur's column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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About Nicole Brodeur

My column is more a conversation with readers than a spouting of my own views. I like to think that, in writing, I lay down a bridge between readers and me. It is as much their space as mine. And it is a place to tell the stories that, otherwise, may not get into the paper.
nbrodeur@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2334

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