Monday, January 7, 2013

A Correction re: River’s Edge and Alleged “Power Grabs”

By Terry E. Cohen, Council President

Happy New Year to all! I hope your holiday season was joyful, safe and restorative. The Salisbury City Council resumes its schedule today with numerous items at a work session starting at 4:30 p.m.

With a new year under way, it is time to take up again the task of setting the record straight due to erroneous information published by The Daily Times, specifically an article and an editorial the newspaper ran on Dec. 2, 2012. Other corrections appear on this site below this post, and more will come as time permits.

In its front-page article, The Daily Times attributes an accusation made by the Mayor against three members of the Council, citing one of the examples of an alleged “power grab” by them as “directly negotiating a deal with an affordable housing developer.” This is a reference to the River’s Edge housing project on Fitzwater Street.

The Daily Times reporter Jeremy Cox goes on to state the following as fact:

In response to the majority’s rejection of a traditional subsidized housing project on the Fitzwater Street site, a developer returned this fall with a Cohen-negotiated plan for an artists community.

While I appreciate the credit for “negotiating” a better outcome for the project as an artist-preference community - which provides an economic generator to the City, a compatible enhancement for Downtown, a partnership with the Epilepsy Association and a beneficial bridge of opportunity for the adjoining neighborhood – I can’t take any more credit than finding the new proposal intriguing enough to schedule on the Council agenda for discussion. Also, two members of Council and the Mayor had already supported the traditional affordable housing proposal, and the two other members who had dissented previously also found the new proposal to be worthy of discussion.

The revised River’s Edge project, which scored the highest of all 19 applications submitted to the State for Federal tax credits, was successful first due to the initiative taken by Brian Lopez, executive vice president of the development firm, who recognized legitimate concerns existed. He reached out first, individually, to the three Council members who felt the original proposal did not leverage the prime riverfront real estate for the best interest of the City.

His first contact was to Council Vice President Campbell, likely because she is known nationally for her work in affordable housing. Mr. Lopez, who met with Mrs. Campbell and Councilman Tim Spies, informed me that she advanced the concept of an artists’ residence. Mr. Lopez, excited by the idea, took that ball and really ran with it. This is a demonstration of how Mrs. Campbell’s expertise and national exposure to successful projects throughout the country is an asset to the City.

The exchange was a conversation, not a negotiation, between a developer and two members of Council, who also toured the Downtown area with Mr. Lopez, including showing off the beautiful Art Institute & Gallery there. No decision to accept the proposal was made outside the public work session (I know my mind wasn’t made up until I heard Mr. Lopez’s presentation), and no one or two members of Council can make any binding commitments for the City.

The Mayor’s complaint that such interaction between the independently elected representatives of the people to obtain information on a legislative measure constitutes a “power grab” is without validity. (I’ve even confirmed with the City Attorney that Council members have a right – and often a duty – to reach out for information in this manner.) The Mayor has frequently condemned the same three members, most specifically Council leadership, for doing their jobs in this manner, but inconsistently has rebuked the same members at times for not having conversations he deemed they should have had.

The decision of support for the revised River’s Edge proposal was unanimous for Council, and the Mayor signed off on it, so what is his complaint? That three members of council held off on a lesser idea, kept an open mind and voted for a better outcome for our City? That the developer gave up density and potentially higher profits for a plan that will better serve the city and its Downtown, as well as the nearby neighborhood? Or that any individual council member – who cannot make any commitment for the city alone – took time to speak with someone without the mayor’s unnecessary permission in order to perform his/her legislative duty?

I’ll let you be the judge of whether this constitutes a “power grab,” or whether it’s merely good governance in the performance of one’s duty, in keeping with a balance of power between legislative and executive branches.