December 05, 2012 - After being contacted by a representative of Centrum Properties — the preferred developer for Crestwood Court — one Crestwood alderman recommended against aldermen having private conversations with Centrum officials or future developers.
Ward 2 Alderman Tim Trueblood said last week he believes such private conversations with developers are a "bad idea."
But Ward 1 Alderman Mimi Duncan, who said she has spoken privately with developers, told the Board of Aldermen she believes she has to talk to "certain stakeholders" to do her due diligence.
Trueblood said at the Nov. 27 board meeting he does not believe he, or other aldermen, should converse with potential vendors or developers when city money is involved.
"... It has come to my attention that that has been happening. The reason I bring this publicly is it needs to stop. We can't do this," Trueblood said.
"It's not a violation of Sunshine Law, but it's a violation of trust and the transparency that we wish to have as elected officials representing our citizens
Trueblood said he received a voice mail from a Centrum representative before the Nov. 13 board meeting, which he did not listen to until he was able to do so with City Clerk Tina Flowers. He then called Ward 3 Alderman Paul Duchild, who serves as board president.
Duchild sent a memo to the board Nov. 7 asking that any discussion regarding Centrum's redevelopment proposal "be expressed in front of the full board and the public in open session."
"I can appreciate that there are strong opinions on both sides of this proposal," Duchild wrote. "I also understand that those who feel passionately about their position might undertake whatever effort they felt necessary to shape the board's deliberations ...
"As your board president, it is my responsibility to encourage open and transparent discussion and to avoid the type of misunderstanding or confusion that can arise when aldermen act independently of the board through private contact with any third party conducting business with the city."
But Duncan said she needs to obtain accurate information from "primary sources."
"I can't rely on anecdotal evidence. I can't rely on the Internet to get my information," she said. "I need to have primary sources, and if somebody has a problem with me, come to me and ask me about it. If my constituents don't like what I'm doing, they have the option to not vote for me. And that's their ultimate ability to do that."
Duncan also said none of her conversations with developers have "inhibited" her ability to make "independent decisions in the best interest of the city."
Duchild said at last week's meeting that, "to some degree," the board has to act as a unit, and the best way to do so is through public board meetings or work sessions.
"My issue is not just with this specific developer," he said. "It would be with all vendors, so that we get equal playing time hearing the pros and cons in essentially the public square ..."
Duchild also said he would like the board to consider if it should contact Centrum and future vendors to inform them the board would like communication with elected officials to occur in public sessions, rather than contacting individual aldermen directly.
But Duncan said she does not believe the city should "throw up another roadblock to development in a city that is crying for sales-tax revenue."
However, when there is no record of communication between an alderman and a developer, board members and the public have "no idea what information was exchanged," according to Trueblood.
"It does cast a shadow, I think, in the public eye — at least it would in mine if I was a citizen — about how a person voted if there was the concept that they were meeting or speaking with or having emails with a vendor, or potential vendor, or developer that weren't public knowledge," Trueblood said.
Ward 4 Alderman Dan Tennessen said he received two calls from Centrum, which he "didn't respond to because (he) thought there was a risk."
"There's some temptation, perhaps, and maybe the door is open from the other side," Tennessen told the board. "I feel like we have a responsibility to engage businesses and not to be too difficult, but perhaps that's at our individual risk."
Duncan, however, said Trueblood told her she has to receive "filtered information" from Mayor Jeff Schlink.
"I can't make good decisions like that. I'm not casting dispersions particularly at Jeff in this instance, but I need primary sources," Duncan said, "and if you don't consider my professionalism and my integrity enough that I would be able to have a conversation in order to gather information, that's a problem. And that's not going to be addressed by you (Tim Trueblood) telling me who I can and can't talk to."
The Ward 1 alderman also said she felt attacked.
"I feel it's unfortunate, and again, if anybody would ask me and come to me, I would truthfully say, 'Yeah, this is what happened and this is what the concerns are and this is the information I gathered,"' Duncan said. "I will not be bullied into submission. I will make my own decision, and I would abide by whatever this board decides, but that is my stance right now."
Trueblood said, based on past experience, communicating with developers is a "bad policy."
"It's bad mojo to get involved with a developer off the record, and I'm trying to protect the city and yourself," Trueblood told Duncan, "and if you feel you can get along with that fine. My comments are made based on experience ..."
Ward 2 Alderman Bob Deutschmann, who has not been contacted by Centrum, said if he were to be contacted, he would tell Centrum officials to bring the issue to the next board meeting.
"These people are going to put some pressure on, that's what they're calling for. They want to put pressure on us. So we've got to stop that," he said.