First, I'm delighted to, for what I think is the first time, use "bamboozled" in the title of a blog post.
It's an old-fashioned word, but entirely apt in this case, for City of Salem staff did indeed deceive members of the City Council by underhanded means -- along with the citizens who rely on public officials to do things in an honest, straightforward fashion.
I know this because yesterday, August 3, I finally received public records that I requested on June 28. So it took five weeks and $324.25 to get documents that confirmed what I and others strongly suspected:
The City of Salem purchase of a property at 298 Taybin Road NW in West Salem for about $400,000 wasn't really for a stormwater infrastructure purpose, but rather to buy right of way for a portion of Marine Drive that the City Council previously had said was off-limits for right of way purchase.
So, in short, the City Council got bamboozled because they trusted what Peter Fernandez (Public Works Director) and Clint Dameron (Real Property Services Manager) told them at a July 13 hearing on an appeal by E.M. Easterly of the city's use of stormwater System Development Charge money to buy the Taybin Road property.
Councilor Jackie Leung was the only one who voted in favor of the appeal. Good for her. She wasn't bamboozled,
My hope is that after they read this blog post, Mayor Bennett and the other members of the City Council will realize that, at the least, they should have been much more aggressive in challenging the glib answers of Fernandez and Dameron, and much more sympathetic to Easterly when he presented evidence that city staff had stonewalled his efforts to get information about the Taybin Road purchase that he needed for his appeal.
The day after the hearing I wrote "Five takeaways from a disturbingly strange Salem City Council hearing." Here's a particularly pertinent takeaway in light of the public records that I'll share and discuss below.
(4) A stormwater purchase should relate to a stormwater project, right? Not at City Hall. Easterly did his best to get city staff to answer questions about why, exactly, $400,000 in stormwater SDC funds were spent to buy the Taybin Road property and have a house on it demolished.
After all, an issue at the heart of his appeal was whether state law was followed in the purchase. Easterly told the council:
By law Stormwater SDC funds must be used for stormwater infrastructure improvements. The November staff report recommended the land purchase claiming the purchase supported “Reliable and Efficient Infrastructure” without describing that stormwater infrastructure and without explaining how or why Stormwater SDC funds may be utilized to facilitate “Natural Environment Stewardship”.
At the hearing Councilor Kaser, I think it was, asked Fernandez if anything had been done with the property in the four months since it supposedly was an "immediate need" for stormwater management. He answered that nothing had been done with it, other than demolishing the house that used to be on it.
Further, Fernandez didn't describe any specific future stormwater project planned for the property either. He said that sometime in the future, they might do something with the property, stormwater-wise. Or, maybe not. Ditto for its use as right of way for Marine Drive. That might happen. Or it might not.
If someone's spouse came home and said, "Honey, I just spent $400,000 on a lot," then couldn't provide any specific reason why the purchase was a good idea, likely there would be an intense discussion, to put it mildly. But the City Council, with the exception of Jackie Leung, who was the sole vote in favor of the appeal, just shrugged off the non-answer from Fernandez.
Like I said above, the council trusts city staff to do the right thing. Which is a really dangerous attitude for a City Council to take, because it makes staff think they can do anything and won't be held to account for it.
Well, I believe in holding City of Salem staff accountable. That's why I paid for public records related to the purchase of the Taybin Road property. Following are screenshots of key documents from five PDF files I got, along with my commentary on the documents.
The Taybin Road saga apparently began in December 2017 when Fernandez, the Public Works Director, expressed interest in buying one of two houses along the Marine Drive right-of-way after learning from a realtor the property might be for sale.
This is the portion of Marine Drive that was planned to accommodate Salem River Crossing bridge traffic, as I noted in a June blog post, "Shady staff associated with Salem City Council agenda item."
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.
And in December 2017 that dream really seemed like it could become reality, which explains why Fernandez was interested in buying right-of-way for Marine Drive next to Wallace Marine Park. Steve refers to Steve Powers, the City Manager.
The owners at that time of 298 Taybin Road decided not to put the house on the market. However, somehow in 2019 the property was bought by Jim Vick, an attorney, for about $200,000. It's unclear why the City of Salem didn't attempt to buy it when it was for sale. Regardless, Dameron contacted the realtor representing the new owner, Vick, about doing a "quick flip" of his purchase.
Once again, the only mention of why the city wanted this property related to Marine Drive, not to stormwater.
Jim Vick, the new owner, responded by saying that he could substantially increase the value of the property, which included a large acre lot, by developing smaller lots and/or by building 4-plexes or greater to hold or sell. So even though he'd owned the Taybin Road property for just a few months, he wanted $420,000 for it. Again, Vick had paid about $200,000 for it.
Now, we get into some City of Salem staff machinations. On June 10, 2019 the City Council had limited purchases of Marine Drive right-of-way to the area north of Cameo Street. Taybin Road was south of Cameo. Oops. What to do?
Given the City Council order, it wouldn't be possible to use transportation funds to buy the Taybin Road property for Marine Drive right-of-way. One would think that this would have put an end to the efforts by city staff to do that. But if one thinks that, they don't undertand how wily City of Salem staff can be when they want to get around a City Council policy decision.
Dameron tells Vick's realtor that they need some time to find funding sources other than transportation funds.
A few weeks later, Dameron tells Mike, the realtor, that Peter Fernandez still wants to pursue the Taybin Road purchase but needs to use a different funding source, and wants to discuss it with the City Council as buying right of way for Marine Drive south of Cameo would "deviate from their direction."
This is a bit confusing, because an Executive Session to approve the purchase happened in November, 2019, so I'm not sure what discussion with the City Council happened in September. Another email from Dameron says there was an Executive Session in September 2019, which seems to have been when a preliminary approval was given by the City Council.
It is unknown what staff told councilors in the Executive Sessions. There was no indication from discussion at the hearing that any specific need for stormwater improvements were identified by city staff, which fits with my strong belief that stormwater was a ruse to buy the property with SDC funds.
A staff analysis for the July 13, 2020 hearing says that in October 2019 city staff recommended purchase of the Taybin Road property for stormwater purposes, which appears to be the first time stormwater had entered the conversation -- almost certainly because the City Council had closed off the possibility of using transportation funds to buy the property, and staff still wanted it as Marine Drive right of way.
Five weeks later Dameron is unclear what pot of money Fernandez said would be used to buy the property. He isn't sure that stormwater funds were going to be used. That's strange if stormwater management really was the reason the property was going to be purchased.
It isn't strange if the real reason was for Marine Drive right of way, and stormwater was used to bamboozle the City Council into approving the purchase.
A November 7 staff report then says that Stormwater System Development Charges will be used for the purchase, which supposedly is needed for stormwater detention and, also, by the way, just in passing, future right-of-way for Marine Drive NW.
Yes, the same right-of-way that the City Council had said shouldn't be bought south of Cameo, and that Public Works Director Fernandez had his eyes on back in 2017.
I'll end with another excerpt from my Five Takeaways blog post written after the City Council voted to deny the Easterly appeal even though no evidence was presented at the appeal that the Taybin Road property had been identified as being needed for a stormwater
project, and zero progress toward using the property for this purpose had been made even though staff claimed it was an "immediate need."
(5) An executive session to discuss the property purchase was a sham. Glenn Davis and Peter Fernandez repeatedly talked about a November 2019 executive session where, I assume, the terms of the purchase were discussed, followed by City Council approval of the purchase. Easterly writes:
The November 2019 council authorization to purchase the Taybin parcel reflects Council reliance upon and trust in staff recommendations. The staff recommendation appears to be a continuation of staff abuse of discretion that has occurred over a number of years regarding the application of the Salem Area Comprehensive Plan policies and subordinate master plan policies.
I kept waiting for a city councilor to say something like, "Oh, now I remember. In the executive session staff explained that the reason for buying the property was to make these stormwater improvements to the area."
But no, there was nothing like that. Apparently city staff just said something like, "We want to buy the property with stormwater SDC funds" and the City Council obliged with few if any probing questions.
This is no way for a City Council to behave, as a lackey of staff rather than as an overseer of staff decisions and recommendations.