Friday, September 22, 2017

Email Regarding Fire House Sale

The following email was sent out to people on the Arbor District email list. Posted with permission:

Here's a update on Tuesday night's rather infuriating Carbondale City Council meeting from Board VP Dave Johnson. 

Despite many objections from residents of the Arbor District and other citizens, the City Council voted 6-1 to sell the old Fire Station to John Deas and Allison Smith, who plan to turn it into a mixed use property with an Art Gallery, artists' workshops, and a beer tasting room. This means that the proposal by Josh Klarer and his father to build a restaurant with brew pub is off. 

The fundamental objection we raised to this was the failure by the City Council to elicit any input from any citizens of Carbondale, including immediate neighbors and the Arbor District. We in the Arbor District had long made it clear that we hoped to play a role in the decision about what to do about the property--but we weren't the only ones to speak up tonight. Some of the most eloquent testimony came, in fact, from a neighbor who doesn't belong to the district, but lives next door to the affected property. She made it very clear that no one from the council had contacted her about the decision--and she herself did far more to survey her neighbors than anyone from the city did, and discovered that none of them had heard anything about the proposal from the city until after the proposal to sell to Deas and Smith had been put on the council agenda. She, like many other speakers, both from within the Arbor District and without (including former council members Don Monty and Lee Fronaberger), called for the council to step back, let both sides make their case, and take input from all interested citizens. 

Some at the meeting spoke in favor of the Deas/Smith proposal—more, in fact, than explicitly spoke in favor of the Klarer proposal. Most I know in the neighborhood favor the Klarer proposal, but no one I know in the Arbor District thinks the art gallery project is a bad proposal in itself, or that Deas and Smith did anything wrong. Our fundamental point was about process. The city shouldn't make decisions about what to do about public property without consulting with the public.

Perhaps the most striking thing at the meeting is that no one on the city council, to my recollection, defended their failure to consult with neighbors about this proposal. The position of those on the council who voted against us, inasmuch as I understand it, was this. The process the city used was legal (which is debatable, but I don't claim to understand the nuances of Illinois' open meeting law); it may not be a good process, but it is our usual way of doing business (this may be true, but there are other precedents for more open processes); we authorized the city manager to make a deal; he made a deal, and we shouldn't walk away from it. And it would somehow be unfair to Deas and Smith to back out now. 

But Illinois open meetings law explicitly forbids the council from making decisions in closed session. So the council was completely free to step back and reconsider the process. The city could not legally make any binding promises to Deas and Smith before tonight's meeting, so the only harm Deas and Smith would have suffered would have been a week of thinking they had a tentative deal in place. And for all we know the final decision may have been in favor of Deas and Smith even had the process been restarted. 

Some on the city council clearly resented their decision being questioned in the press and social media. To my mind the council lost any right to complain about arguments in social media and the press when it failed to seek public discussion in other forms. This whole thing would not have been argued out on TV and the newspaper--or at least wouldn't have been argued there with the same vehemence--if the city had bothered to ask citizens what they thought in the first place. 

Mayor Henry at one point blew up and asked why the Arbor District felt it had the right to oppose something outside its borders. We lay claim to both sides of the streets around our perimeter, as a matter of fact, and have had dues paying members on the "outside" sides of the border streets. But the larger point is that the city did zero consultation with any citizens of Carbondale about this. This isn't just about the Arbor District. Henry's quick anger obviously reflected longtime enmity between him and some in the district. He later tried to apologize, but continued to mischaracterize the Arbor District's position: we were not insisting on having our way by getting Klarer's proposal approved, as we made very clear. We did strongly argue for citizen involvement in city decision making--as did many other citizens from outside our neighborhood.

Henry also said at one point that he would allow no discussion of any proposal other than the one under consideration (the Deas/Smith proposal), He later relented, and allowed both Klarers to speak about their proposal. Deas and Smith also spoke about their proposal. So the merits of the two plans were briefly discussed--but the debate was utterly irrelevant, as it turns out, as the Council had already made up its mind. It was a "Public Hearing" where the decision had already been made in private and nothing the council heard would change anything. 

My own snap analysis was that six members of the council chose to stick together--not to backtrack on the decision they'd implicitly made in closed session—rather than to admit they erred and retreat in the face of outcry from a pretty large number of Carbondalians. That is, they chose loyalty to the city council over loyalty to the people they are supposed to represent. 

The sole member of the city council to vote in opposition to the sale was Navreet Kang. He made the process argument, and also argued that the sale was financially irresponsible given that the Klarers offered more money and would bring in more tax revenue. To my mind he is to be commended for his vote. 

Members who voted to go forward with the decision made in closed session without any public input were Mayor Mike Henry, and council members Jessica Bradshaw, Brad Doherty, Tom Grant, Carolin Harvey, and Adam Loos. 

Dave Johnson, for the Arbor District

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