The key thing I wanted to learn from a City of Salem public records request that ended up costing me $844.85 was whether City officials were telling the truth when they said this in a staff report for the July 22, 2019 City Council meeting.
The former Capital Press building (Site) at 1400-1440 Broadway Street NE (corner of Hood and Broadway) is the best and only option available to the City that meets the project schedule and site criteria.
"Best and only option." NOT TRUE. This is decidedly disturbing for those of us who value transparency and honesty in our public servants.
I'll explain why I reached this conclusion after briefly describing why choosing the former Capital Press building for a temporary public library was so controversial.
The Salem Public Library is being renovated following the passage of a bond measure in November 2017. For about 18 to 24 months, a temporary library location needed to be found that will house a much reduced collection.
Out of all the buildings in our city of over 170,000 people, City officials settled on the Capital Press building that is owned by the Salem Alliance Church and is part of the church's "campus" on Broadway street north of downtown.
This choice was vociferously opposed by the Salem Human Rights Commission and other supporters of LGBTQ rights, because the Salem Alliance Church is notoriously gay-unfriendly and reportedly discriminates against gay people.
The church rejects same-sex marriage and considers same-sex sex to be a sin. The lead pastor, Steve Fowler, has made clear how the Salem Alliance Church feels.
And you will never find in the scriptures any positive pictures of a same sex union. It just isn’t there... Any kind of sexual activity outside of a marriage with a male and a female, this is something we should not be engaged in... What God is saying is that if you’re engaged in same-sex sex, if you’re using a same-sex relationship in that way, you also need to run, you also need to book it.
So the Human Rights Commission understandably wasn't thrilled, to say the least, about taxpayer money being used to lease the church-owned Capital Press building for a temporary library. The Commission voted unanimously to approve a statement that called for another location to be chosen, if at all possible.
That statement said in part:
The Salem Human Rights Commission (Commission) is deeply concerned about the proposed lease of the property owned by the Salem Alliance Church for the temporary location of the Salem Public Library. The Commission values having a library that they can reasonably expect all persons will access, to be consistent with the purpose and intent of the City’s Human Rights Code. The Commission believes that some members of the community, including some in LGBTQ communities, will not be comfortable accessing the space.
...The Commission has been informed that this location is the only adequate property available for the Library relocation, and that if the City does not use this space, only the west Salem library branch will be open during the renovation.
The Commission respectfully requests that the City review the available properties for other potential options, and select another location, even if that location is not as ideal in cost or operations.
Thus the main question I wanted to answer from the 1,245 pages of public records I got from the City of Salem was whether it really was true that the Capital Press building was the "only adequate property available for the Library relocation."
What I learned was what I'd already strongly suspected. City officials misled both the City Council and citizens in general about viable alternative locations for a temporary library.
Even before I got the public records, I'd written a July 30 blog post, "Liberty Plaza is a viable alternative to a LGBTQ-unfriendly temporary library building." Excerpt:
City officials claimed in a staff report that the church-owned building "is the best and only option available to the City that meets the project schedule and site criteria."
Almost certainly that statement is wrong, for reasons I'll describe below.
I don't blame the City Council for trusting the staff report. I blame Steve Powers, the City Manager, and Kristin Retherford, the Urban Development Director, for affixing their names to what sure seems to be a misleading staff report, at best, and a purposely deceptive staff report, at worst.
Given the facts that I'm sharing below, I stand by that view.
City officials were both misleading and purposely deceptive, because they didn't provide some highly pertinent information to the City Council and citizens about downtown's Liberty Plaza -- and possibly other buildings that could have served as a temporary library location.
Fact One. Liberty Plaza was rated by City staff as highly as Capital Press on the criteria used to assess potential sites for a temporary library.
Capital Press got an extra point for needing less Tenant Improvements. Liberty Plaza got an extra point for access, being right next to a city-owed parking garage with a covered walkway leading directly into the building. The two buildings tied on Operations Efficiency and Quality of Service.
Thus when the Human Rights Commission said that an alternative location to Capital Press should be found even if it was not as ideal in terms of operations, Liberty Plaza was equal to Capital Press in this regard. So that wasn't a reason for it not being chosen.
Fact Two. The lease cost for Liberty Plaza was higher than for Capital Press, but still within the relocation budget.
The library relocation budget was $957,000. This was to cover the cost of a lease, temporary improvements, and moving to the temporary location. Of course, City officials had some latitude to increase the budget as needed.
As shown in the slide above, the Capital Press monthly lease cost per square foot was $1.37, while the Liberty Plaza cost was $1.92, 40% higher. However, the total cost shown in the slide is misleading, because the Capital Press building has only 16,560 square feet, while Liberty Plaza is shown as having 24,309 square feet.
When I listened to an audio recording of the May 2019 meeting of the City Council's Library Relocation Subcommittee (no written minutes exist), Councilor Chris Hoy expressed considerable concern that Capital Press was too small for a temporary library. He urged City staff to keep looking for other locations.
So it isn't true that City officials viewed the church-owned building as a "slam dunk" temporary library. In addition to worrying about the size of Capital Press, the Subcommittee spent considerable time fretting about the downside of housing Salem's public library in a building owned by a church that rejects LGBTQ rights.
Again, the Human Rights Commission called for another location to be chosen even if it cost more and was less ideal operationally. We've already seen that Liberty Plaza was viewed by City officials as being equal to Capital Press in terms of operations.
Let's take a closer look at cost.
Fact Three. City officials failed to disclose the true cost of leasing space at Liberty Plaza. I know this, because I engaged in an exchange of emails with Norman Wright, the Community Development Director for the City of Salem.
I'd seen from the public records I got that Wright was involved in selecting a temporary library location, so I asked him why Liberty Plaza was excluded from consideration, since the public records didn't contain any reason for this, other than a pithy "Expensive and didn't meet the criteria."
Well, Liberty Plaza did meet the criteria, as noted above. So that part of the pithy explanation was false. That got me to wondering how expensive Liberty Plaza actually was.
It turns out that City officials significantly overstated the cost of Liberty Plaza in the slide above, because they assumed that the entire second floor of Liberty Plaza would need to be leased in order to have a suitably sized temporary library.
But as shown in the screenshot below, in addition to 13,309 square feet on the first floor, Liberty Plaza had spaces available in the basement, second floor, and third floor. I have no idea why City officials wrongly claimed that the entire second floor would need to be leased, but this wasn't true.
I know this, because I talked by phone with the person in charge of leasing Liberty Plaza, Dennis Randazzo.
He told me that there was flexible space available on the second floor, so another 3,000 square feet or so could have been added to the 13,309 square feet on the first floor, which would have approximated the 16,560 square feet in the Capital Press building.
Assuming the same square footage had been leased at Liberty Plaza, the monthly lease cost would have been $31,795, or $572,310 for an 18-month lease. Recall that the total temporary library budget was $957,000. It sure seems that Liberty Plaza was feasible, cost-wise. (City officials never estimated the cost of temporary improvements for Liberty Plaza.)
Yet Randazzo told me that City officials didn't speak with him in a serious fashion about Liberty Plaza. He was eager to work with them. Concerns about the non-functioning escalator could have been addressed. The lease cost was up for negotiation. Restrooms shouldn't have been a concern.
Which gets me to...
Fact Four. No formal Request for Proposals (RFP) was made by the City of Salem. Randazzo told me that based on his extensive experience in commercial real estate, he was surprised that City officials failed to issue a RFP for temporary library space here in Salem.
Instead, the public records I got showed a rather haphazard approach to locating and assessing possible locations. City staff would hear about this or that possibility, then discuss who should be involved in scouting it out.
Not very professional, for sure.
It was clear that Liberty Plaza was one of the top three locations considered by City officials for a temporary library. Randazzo said that after coming up with several viable options for leased space, typically a government agency would make a final request to the prime candidates who responded to a RFP.
Agency staff would talk to each of them another time and ask for a re-bid. However, that never happened with Liberty Plaza. It seems that an informal "rush to judgement," as the saying goes, was made by a small number of City officials who favored the church-owned Capital Press building.
This calls into question the exceedingly brief assessments of alternative locations shown in the image above.
City officials knew how controversial the Capital Press building was, since a neighborhood boycott of the Broadway Commons had been publicized given the discriminatory attitude of the Salem Alliance Church toward LGBTQ people.
Yet there was no systematic approach to assessing locations for a temporary library. There's very little information in the 1,245 pages of documents I got from my public records request about why certain locations were favored over others.
Again, this reflects the puzzling absence of a RFP for leased space to house a temporary library.
We've seen that when City officials dismissed Liberty Plaza in the slide above with "Expensive and didn't meet the criteria," this was a false statement. Which is a polite way of saying, a lie. Liberty Plaza did meet the criteria, and the cost of leasing space at Liberty Plaza appeared to fall within the library relocation budget.
So the many people in Salem and elsewhere who supported the Human Rights Commission call for a location to be selected other than the Capital Press building, even if that alternative site cost more and wasn't as operationally efficient, have good reason to be upset at how City officials mismanaged the search for a place to house a temporary public library.
They didn't inform the City Council, nor the public, that the church-owned building wasn't the only viable location. Instead, City of Salem staff misled people by wrongly claiming that no alternative to Capital Press existed.
My strong suspicion, which borders on a certainty, is that this was done because the Human Rights Commission statement contained these two sentences, as previously shared above.
Locating the Library at the proposed site will result in a Library that some members of the community, not only the LGBTQ, will not be willing to visit, and will negatively impact the Library’s mission.
The Commission has been informed that this location is the only adequate property available for the Library relocation, and that if the City does not use this space, only the west Salem library branch will be open during the renovation.
It's deeply irritating that City officials told the Human Rights Commission that the church-owned Capital Press building was the "only adequate property available for the Library relocation." This was a falsehood, a lie.
I've shown how those officials deceived the City Council and concerned citizens by both failing to present information on alternatives such as Liberty Plaza, and by failing to conduct an in-depth professional assessment of alternative sites.
There's more to say about this issue, and I'll address other topics in future blog posts.
What's highly concerning to me is how City of Salem staff failed to present pertinent facts to the public, choosing instead to put out a misleading staff report on the Capital Press building that claimed the church-owned building was the only feasible location for a temporary library, ignoring the significant drawback of housing a public library in a building owned by an organization that denies fundamental LGBTQ rights.
Since City officials put out falsehoods in this case, how much can they be trusted on other issues? I'll address that question in my next blog post.