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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Councilmember Souza Pursues Development Project

At the last council meeting, Councilmember Stephen Souza brought forward an item submitted as a councilmember for the next week's agenda.
"I will be submitting an item for next week's agenda, called Mace-Covell Gateway, LLC, better known as the Shriner's property for negotiation acquisition for organic farms, habitat, potential sports complex."
An objection was raised to a councilmember bringing forth their own development projects as opposed to going through staff.

According to Souza, the reason he is bringing it forward rather than staff is that:
"I am going to ask the question next week whether we want to take it into closed session to discuss."
According to City Manager Bill Emlen:
"Steve has had some discussions with staff and we're certainly prepared to participate in that discussion and possibly take the lead once we get direction from council... We kind of see it as an item submitted by a councilmember that would likely evolve into something where we take the lead."
A concern was raised that this would set a precedent of councilmembers bringing forward individual development projects.

Even Councilmember Ruth Asmundson seemed a bit apprehensive and suggested it be referred to the City Manager Emlen and City Attorney Harriet Steiner.

However Ms. Steiner responded,
"I think what we need from the council at the moment, or what Councilmember Souza wants is an open session short discussion on whether or not council is interested in pursuing the item. At that point council can give us direction as to what they want to do and then we [meaning staff] can take it from there."
Councilmember Don Saylor was supportive as well of the idea of Councilmember Souza as opposed to staff bringing this forward. He cited the amount of time needed to prepare this item by staff.

However, Councilmember Souza suggested that all he was going to do was bring forward a memo at the next meeting on this item and then get direction from council as to whether to proceed. If that is the case, it does not seem that staff would have a lot of work to do to prepare a similar memo that Councilmember Souza suggested he would write.

Steiner was then asked if there were other mechanisms in place that would allow the city to look into this issue and examine it. Her answer was no.
"Probably the short answer is no, I mean a lot of times developers or property owners will approach the city and approach the city manager or staff person and sometimes they approach a councilmember generally speaking a councilmember would then refer it to staff or at least discuss it with staff. But if it is something that staff doesn't have any direction from council to pursue on a policy level then generally speaking staff wouldn't pursue it... I think the issue is having to have the issue brought forward by the property owner, however that is brought forward, we would want some kind of direction from council before the staff spent any significant amount of time discussing it."
Some comments:

I am very uncomfortable with this process as it was laid forth on Tuesday night. I agree completely with the objections that it would set a new precendent for councilmembers to directly come forward with development proposals.

It is one thing for staff to examine a development proposal, determine whether it was something they could support pursuing, and then making and outlining their own recommendations for action. It is another for a councilmember to bring forth an item of this sort and become the water-carrier for a development proposal. Instead of staff fully examining the implications, you have a councilmember acting as advocate for developer interests. That seems inappropriate to me.

Staff comes forward with development proposals and other proposals all the time without first getting direction from council. They make evaluations based on the benefits to the city versus the costs of the project. On that basis, they make a recommendation to bring a proposal forward, study it, and finally implement it. This instead seems like a way for an individual councilmember to curry favors with a preferred land developer. That does not seem appropriate.

The staff suggested that this would be a quick and simple item that would simply relay council interest to the staff, who would then have the direction to pursue it more fully. However, suppose this does go forward as council decided on Tuesday. The next developer is going to say, hey wait, here is an easier avenue to getting our proposal on the agenda, and they too will try to get a councilmember on board to carry their water on their project.

It seems to me that there is a process already in place whereby these projects go forward. You do not see individual councilmembers taking up individual development proposals and trying to get them agendized. Why is that? I think this will be a very poor precedent that has now been set by council and staff. It seems simple on the surface, but it has many implications.

We shall see next week what this proposal entails. But this seems like a concerning development.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting