Actions speak louder than words.
Tomorrow night, Monday, July 14, the Salem City Council will make a decision about Howard Hall -- a historic building that is the last structure remaining of the School for the Blind.
Salem's Mayor, Anna Peterson, is fond of saying that she and the eight city councilors are dedicated to making fair and transparent decisions that reflect the broad community interest.
Well, talk is cheap.
What counts are values expressed in actions. So what the City Council does at tomorrow's meeting will tell us much more about what counts at City Hall than the platitudes spouted by city officials.
As I blogged about recently, I'm worried that the council will overturn the 6-0 vote of the Historic Landmarks Commission to prevent Howard Hall from being demolished by Salem Hospital, which wants the land for a parking lot.
Legally, the Historic Landmarks Commission decision seems on solid ground. But I'm a long-time land use activist. Once politicians insert themselves into appeals of land use decisions, crazy things can happen.
My wife and I experienced this when we led our neighborhood's five year fight against a proposed subdivision on high value farmland that threatened surface water and surrounding wells. Two of the three Marion County Commissioners (Sam Brentano and Patti Milne) kept ignoring facts and the law, leading to repeated 2-1 votes in favor of the developers.
LUBA (Land Use Board of Appeals) and Circuit Court appeals finally stopped the subdivision. It took a lot of time, effort, and money, though, to right the wrong caused by elected officials making bad decisions.
Mayor Peterson and the eight city councilors have a duty to uphold the law, not do the bidding of special interests. Unfortunately, past decisions at City Hall show that when push comes to shove, findings of fact and conclusions of law are shouldered aside so Salem's version of "the 1%" can get what they want.
I documented how this happened in my tell-all report of how backroom deal-making led to five beautiful, healthy downtown trees being cut down for no good reason. Check it out: "Outrage: Salem's U.S. Bank tree killings."
The parallels with Howard Hall are worrisome:
(1) In both cases a volunteer citizen group recommended that a valuable resource be preserved. The Shade Tree Advisory Committee said the trees should be pruned, not removed. The HIstoric Landmarks Commission said Howard Hall should be preserved, not demolished.
(2) In both cases a large corporation wanted the City to do something that ordinary citizens objected to. Over thirty people testified against killing the U.S. Bank trees, including expert arborists; only U.S. Bank officials were in favor of removing them. The neighborhood association where Howard Hall is located wants to save the building; Salem Hospital wants to tear it down.
(3) In both cases, almost certainly, backroom dealmaking with special interests is going on outside of public view. I am certain this happened with the U.S. Bank trees, because I made public records requests that proved this happened. Given that the City Council decided to review the HIstoric Landmarks Commission decision on its own, saving Salem Hospital the trouble of filing an appeal, it sure looks like special interest lobbying is going on behind the scenes -- just as it did with the U.S. Bank tree decision.
What remains to be seen is how groupthink'y the Salem City Council is this time around. With the U.S. Bank trees case, city councilors were amazingly passive, taking at face value assertions by the Public Works Director which were factually and legally wrong.
With Howard Hall, we have a staff report prepared for the city council by the same person whose recommendation was rejected by the HIstoric Landmarks Commission. As I said in my previous blog post:
A City staff report recommending reversal of the Historic Landmarks Commission decision was written by the same person who initially recommended approval of Salem Hospital's application. Namely, Kimberli Fitzgerald. This isn't immediately obvious, since the staff report to the Mayor and City Council is through City Manager Norris, from Community Development Director Glenn Gross, signed by Urban Planning Administrator LIsa Anderson-Olgivie, and, lastly, prepared by Senior HIstoric Planner Kimberli Fitzgerald. Yes, the same person who made the same points in a staff report to the HIstoric Landmarks Commission (HLC) before the commission voted 6-0 to reject the staff recommendation and deny Salem Hospital's demolition request. Again, this looks really bad -- to not have a new person take a fresh look at the application prior to the City Council review of the HLC decision.
I'm a frequent and vociferous critic of the Mayor, City Manager, and City Council. For good reason. Because they have a habit of making bad decisions for no good reasons.
Still, I'm an optimist. We all learn from our mistakes.
Though I'm worried that the City Council will overturn the Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) decision for no good reason, I will be pleased to admit that my anxiety was misplaced if the Mayor and city councilors do the right thing tomorrow night, affirming the HLC decision.
For more information about Howard Hall, head to the Salem Community Vision Facebook page. Recent posts have been on this subject. Including this one, which has a good observation about the Statesman Journal's crappy coverage of Howard Hall.
Have you noticed that there has been no recent coverage of this issue in our daily newspaper of record? We'll see if they cover it tomorrow -- too late for a lot of folks to plan to attend. In the good old days when we had a real paper there would have been many articles about this. Reporters would have interviewed members of the Historic Landmarks Commission who voted 6 - 0 to preserve Howard Hall and members of the South Central Association of Neighbors who are passionate about not losing a neighborhood landmark. Sadly, our daily paper is in league with Salem Hospital, a major advertiser, to keep the lid on this issue and hope that no one notices until Howard Hall is gone.