Going to a Salem City Council meeting isn't the most entertaining way to spend a Monday night. But for me these meetings are interesting on several different levels.
There's (1) what is going on between City officials and the public in the present moment, and also (2) how these interactions point to habitual ways of acting by the City Council -- which is sort of like Blake's "see the world in a grain of sand" notion.
Last night the City Council -- which consists of Mayor Anna Peterson and eight city councilors -- voted to accept a recommendation by city staff to demolish LeBreton Hall. This 1908 building is the oldest and most attractive building that remains on the grounds of the old Fairview Training Center property in south Salem.
I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago in "Salem officials want to demolish another historic building, Fairview's LeBreton Hall." The facts in that blog post are pretty much the same now, aside from the City of Salem staff report being updated to reflect higher projected demolition/deconstruction costs.
During the public comment period of yesterday's City Council meeting, I and several others urged that LeBreton Hall be secured and weatherized for an estimated $190,000, rather than demolishing the building for $250,000 -- with $160,000 of that coming from City funds (the other $90,000 would be paid by the seller of the property, Sustainable Fairview Associates, that's being acquired for a 29 acre city park.
Here's how I saw both the "world" and "grain of sand" aspects of last night's meeting. Meaning, how the specifics of went on with the LeBreton Hall discussion/decision reflected some general problems with the Salem City Council (in boldface).
Disrespect of citizen participation.
As noted in my previous post, the proposal by City officials to demolish LeBreton Hall popped up unexpectedly in the midst of an outreach program by the City of Salem to learn how citizens want the 29 acre park to be developed.
Since LeBreton Hall is on the 29 acres, neighbors and other interested people were looking forward to discussing possible ways the building could be renovated and repurposed. In my testimony yesterday I quoted Geoff James, an architect who lives in the Fairview area. James wrote:
As recently as two weeks ago, at the first Planning Meeting at Pringle Hall the LeBreton Hall was presented as being a building the City and the community is interested in saving and "adaptive re-use" into a suitable use for that elegant building.
So it is a shock to read in "Breakfast On Bikes" that there is now a city staff report recommending demolition, or what they call "de-construction". Too bad that cannot consult with the neighborhood association, and the public participants in the current planning process that makes it the centerpiece or jewel in the Fairview Community Park.
This is typical of how City Hall is run these days. All too often, citizen participation is viewed as a roadblock that slows down City officials from doing what they've already decided needs to be done.
In this case, every piece of public testimony said "preserve LeBreton Hall." Two neighborhood associations, SESNA and Grant, urged that demolition be delayed until citizens were able to weigh in on the recently announced proposal to demolish the building. So did each person who testified at last night's public comment period.
The woman who represented the Grant Neighborhood Association (I've forgotten her name) stood up later in the meeting and asked Mayor Peterson, who chairs City Council meetings, if she could testify as herself, since previously she'd spoken on behalf of the Grant NA.
At first Mayor Peterson said she couldn't. Then the Mayor relented and said she could. But as soon as the woman got to the podium and said a few words that included "LeBreton Hall," Mayor Peterson forcefully said something like, "Stop! I've changed my mind. You can't testify."
I found this very weird.
It was disrespectful both to the woman and to all Salem citizens who want to speak out about some issue. Why not give the woman another three minutes to tell the City Council how she feels about the demolition proposal?
The meeting lasted about three and a half hours. Yet Mayor Peterson, after telling the woman she could speak for three minutes, stopped her after about three seconds.
Why? I suspect because Peterson remembered how eloquently the woman had spoke before about how the Grant Neighborhood Association wanted an opportunity to involve citizens in discussing the pros and cons of demolishing LeBreton Hall.
Fudging the facts.
Both the Mayor and members of her conservative City Council majority are prone to saying stuff that isn't true. (Some top City staff, such as the Public Works Director, are habitual truth-shaders also.) Fact-fudging was very much on display last night.
My favorite example was Councilor Jim Lewis saying that it was citizens like me who were displaying a last-minute "newfound urgency" in preserving LeBreton Hall. He said this was typical, how the City moves along in a certain direction, then boo-birds and nay-sayers jump in near the end of the decision-making process, demanding this and that even though they'd had opportunities to express their opinions before.
That, bluntly speaking, was total B.S. -- especially in regard to LeBreton Hall.
Until the first City of Salem staff report came out on December 2, every indication was that the building was slated to be preserved. So it wasn't citizens who jumped in at the last moment with a different point of view, it was City officials.
The first (and only) time people had a chance to comment on the demolition proposal was last night, along with emailing the City Council after the second updated staff report was released a few days before, on Thursday afternoon.
Councilor Chuck Bennett also contributed a fudged-fact when he said about the City Council, "We do not tear down historic buildings." Actually, the council does.
Back in July, 2014 the City Council overruled a decision by the Historic Landmarks Commission to preserve Howard Hall, a historic building. So either Bennett has a short memory, or he purposely twisted the facts.
I also was bemused by repeated assertions that every effort had been made to find another use for LeBreton Hall, and none could be found. For one thing, the building has been in the hands of Sustainable Fairview Associates, LLC, a private company.
Sam Hall, the managing member, testified last night that he'd tried to get prospective buyers like McMenamins interested in LeBreton Hall, but had no luck. Well, it is one thing to seek a "repurposing" that's attractive to a private business that wants to make money, and another thing to seek a new use for LeBreton Hall that fits with public ownership of the building as part of a city park.
It isn't surprising that private buyers weren't interested in an old building that sits in the middle of nowhere, basically. Most of the Fairview property hasn't been developed yet. Very few people live close to LeBreton Hall. It isn't on a road that people travel on.
But this doesn't mean that a creative re-use of LeBreton Hall for a public purpose as part of a city park couldn't be found. But the City Council decided to demolish the building, which eliminates any chance this can happen now. Which gets me to my final (brief) observation about a habitual City Council weakness.
Excessive confidence that they know best.
This fits in with disrespecting citizen participation and fudging the facts. Open-minded people who are eager to hear other points of view and aren't afraid to change their mind welcome hearing other opinions and getting their facts straight.
But almost every time I attend a City Council meeting, I come away with this impression:
These guys are exceedingly confident that they know what they're doing. Even when they shouldn't be.
Last night I didn't hear serious expressions of "I'm not sure what to do," "We need to know more," or "It'd be better to talk to the community before making a final decision."
Well, with one exception: Councilor Tom Andersen made a motion to postpone a decision on what to do with LeBreton Hall until February, 2016 -- which would allow time for citizens to be involved in discussions about what could be done with a repurposed LeBreton Hall.
However, Andersen withdrew his motion when, after quite a bit of discussion (and misinformation), it was clear that the motion would fail. As so often happens with the Salem City Council, the best idea of the night got no support from the Mayor and other city councilors.