By and large, I'm no conspiracy theorist. But I'm always ready to believe that when it comes to goings-on with the City of Salem, what appears innocent and boring at first glance may be the tip of a non-innocent non-boring "iceberg" below the surface.
So I said "sure" when someone asked if I wanted to learn the backstory behind an appeal of a Systems Development Charge expenditure for the purchase of a house at 298 Taybin Road NW in West Salem. The appeal is on the agenda of the June 22 Salem City Council meeting.
Before getting to the backstory, here's the first outrageous thing that caught my eye when I looked at the appeal agenda item. The staff recommendation to reject the appeal comes from Peter Fernandez, the Public Works Director -- who also happens to be the person at the center of the controversial decision to purchase the Taybin Road property.
Sure, this is common in government bodies. The person who did something that you're upset with, and want to appeal, turns out to be the person who will initially review the appeal. But just because a practice is common doesn't make it right.
Hopefully the members of the City Council understand that when they see a staff analysis recommending denial of an appeal, often, if not usually, there is a decided conflict of interest at play.
Another outrage is that I've been told the City Recorder will not allow the appellant, E.M. Easterly, to appear for his hearing. So the City staff get to address the Council using video but Easterly can only submit written testimony (currently City Council meetings are virtual, being streamed online, with no in-person audience).
This seems crazy. Zoom can handle dozens, or even hundreds, of participants. Other city councils are allowing people to testify online. Why isn't the City of Salem doing this?
NEXT DAY UPDATE: Just heard that the City attorney will overrule the City Recorder and will allow Easterly to speak via video. Good news.
At any rate, the appeal to be discussed next Monday involves whether the correct pot of money was used to purchase the house at 298 Taybin Road NW. More correctly, the house that used to be at this address, since I was told that Peter Fernandez had it torn down before closing on January 20, 2020.
The City of Salem paid $402,000 for the 832 square foot house, which Zillow estimates was worth $215,000. (City paid $375,000 for the house and $26,765 to have the house demolished.) I've heard that attorney Jim Vick bought the house for about $200,000 and resold it to the City for close to twice the price within six months, a pretty darn good return on investment. [NOTE: initially I had a "Bob Vick" as the seller of the property, but someone has sent me documentation that it was Jim Vick, also an attorney.]
(The City Council might want to ask staff why the price paid for this house was so high.)
A staff analysis prepared for the appeal says why the house was purchased. I've boldfaced a provocative part.
In October 2019, staff recommended to Council acquisition of this parcel for immediate use as stormwater detention, streambank conservation, and possible future use for Marine Drive NW construction. Given its immediate planned use, staff recommended use of Stormwater System Development Charge funds for its acquisition. Future use of the western portion of the parcel for transportation purposes would require reimbursement to the Stormwater SDC fund for that portion of the property.
That mention of Marine Drive NW leads into the most interesting part of the backstory, as expressed in the following theory.
A key question is why Peter Fernandez, the Public Works Director, authorized purchase and removal of the house, possibly using the wrong source of funding. Well, maybe because the house was in the path of an approach to the Third Bridge that the Chamber of Commerce was promising would be resurrected with a record amount of campaign spending in the May 2020 City Council primary election.
However, the election ended up with the same 6-3 progressive majority on the City Council, which meant that, for the foreseeable future, the dream of the Third Bridge that still holds sway among key City staff, the Mayor, and several city councilors will not come to pass.
Yet in October 2019 that dream seemed like it could become reality, if enough progressives were defeated in the upcoming 2020 City Council elections to turn a 6-3 majority into at least a 5-4 minority.
What I've been told is that on June 10, 2019, the City Council directed City staff not to buy right-of-way that includes 298 Taybin Road when it adopted a motion from Councilor Kaser to buy property for Marine Drive from 5th Ave and Cameo Street to River Bend Road.
So the nearly $3.6 million of 2008 Streets and Bridges Bond Funds could not be used to buy 298 Taybin. Thus, goes the theory, Peter Fernandez reached into his bag of funding tricks and picked a source of funding that, according to the E.M. Easterly appeal, is not appropriate.