One More Time — Council Votes To Proceed With Plaza
Tuesday night at the Yakima City Council meeting the vote was 4-3 NOT to end the downtown plaza project. Hundreds of Yakamanians and the generous contributors of more than $9.6 million will see their gifts, efforts and vision realized -- but it didn't happen without a fight and a level of drama and dishonesty that was ridiculous.
I know because as you may recall, I was there from the beginning. The city council on which I served voted five years ago to boost downtown economic development by creating a central plaza.
The plaza was designed to be the unique living room of the community-the place that over time, everyone would agree is the heart of activity in the city. In addition to a green space of beauty, the farmers market and a family-friendly water feature, the plaza will be programmed with hundreds of events, inviting people from all walks of life and all parts of the city to come together and enjoy downtown. In the process, thousands of people will visit the plaza area each month and it is that foot traffic, that eager and active mass of humanity that is available for commerce. Smart local business and new developments will provide approaches, products and services to appeal to this new ready-made customer base. The economic potential, as determined by expert plaza consultants, is $70 million in development and expansion in the surrounding area.
I say that because many seem to have forgotten the original goals, lost in the squabble over 140 parking spots, parking that has already been replaced with more parking to come. But back to Tuesday night's council meeting.
After a couple of dozen citizen comments running 10 to 1 in favor of proceeding with the project, the council began its deliberations.
If you missed it, it will all be there for you to see on the city's website and on YPAC, the community access TV channel. Here's the short version.
Councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez, who put the item on the agenda, explained her decision by saying "things have come up" that the council didn't know about. She never explained what they were. She tried to make a case of the process suffering from incomplete information, saying she didn't understand the funding mechanism of using real estate excise tax money (REET) to pay off bonds. Seeking backup for that position she asked how many of the other members felt the same way. That approach was short-lived when the mayor and city manager reminded all that information has been readily available and in budget conversations for the last couple of years. Hmmm.
There is more, but as a 30-year experienced newsguy, my reporter instincts told me that her reasons seemed a lot more like excuses. Her lack of clarity and accuracy spoke to something else being the real motivation her actions. A pretty good fix on that was to come out later when the sparks flew.
Gutierrez speculated that cost overruns would be greater than the 600,000 extra dollars the community raised -- without giving any basis for that conclusion and without addressing if cost contingencies were addressed in the project budget as they most often are. She also spoke to the lack of money for other projects and initiatives without acknowledging that the REET money could only be used for capital projects and not other important issues such as public safety, youth development, etc. She also didn't mention it could, however, be redirected to the construction of an eastside pool, a project that the councilwoman has championed. Hmmm ... stay tuned.
In my opinion, none of her reasons seemed reasonable based on the fact she voted for the plaza under the condition that the public contribution be raised from 50/50 with the city to a total of $9 million or 3/4ths the total cost. In what has to be one of the greatest one-time lifts in Yakima's philanthropic history, the community responded with more than 400 contributions totaling $9.6 million. So what was it that really motivated Councilwoman Gutierrez to turn her back on her own agreement and that unprecedented level of public response? Stay tuned, we aren't to the sparks just yet.
Councilwoman Holly Cousens seconded the motion, setting the stage for the vote. What did she have to say? She said during her election campaign she heard from her constituents and the majority of those she spoke to were against the plaza project. She said she ran on a promise to listen to them and oppose the plaza. Was that the real reason? I can't say it wasn't. What I can say is that voters in her district, District 7, were very loud and clear on the issue of allowing marijuana in the city of Yakima. The vote on Initiative 502 in District 7 showed there were more than 2,000 MORE no votes than yes votes on approving marijuana. I would say that was a loud, clear and on-the-record response and message. Did Cousens listen to them and act on their concerns? No. In fact, she led the charge to bring marijuana into the city. So, you tell me. She says acting on the wishes of her constituents was the motivation for her vote. This time? Except maybe not, when she knows people who might benefit from voting against the known will of the district? Puzzling? What might she share in motive with Councilwoman Gutierrez, if anything?
What about eastside Councilman Jason White? Here's where it starts to get a little "sparky." The wiseguy in me says Jason's lips moved but Bruce Smith's voice came out. I say that because again, he didn't seem to have the comfort of his convictions in his presentation. It seemed to me -- no accusation, just interpretation -- it seemed like he was trying to present views off someone else's script.
He started by saying the community was given false information (lies?) in the first place about the legality of being able to use the parking lot as a plaza location and he added that somebody needed to be held accountable for that. I guess he's big on the truth. Good.
He started to talk about the pending lawsuit by the unidentified "Preserve Downtown Parking" group only to be quickly shut down by the mayor and city attorney, who cautioned him against speaking out about pending litigation in conversations which are not for the general public but are reserved for council executive sessions. Turned down there, he changed his tact and said that the city had other deserving projects (eastside pool?) but that the city was basically broke and couldn't meet its financial obligations! To me that seemed really desperate, really irresponsible and untrue -- which the mayor and city manager quickly reinforced. And they cautioned White not to say things that weren't accurate (lies?) adding that the city is not at all broke and is certainly meeting all its obligations. (Truth and accountability, anyone?) So what would make someone say such ridiculous, untrue and even unauthorized things? Either they are clueless about city operations, which is bad enough, or they are dishonestly manufacturing a case against spending for the plaza for some other purpose. What purpose? (An eastside pool?) Hang in, we are getting close.
Councilwoman Carmen Mendez lit the match that set it off and GOOD for her for trying to interject some truth and transparency into the proceedings.
Why was the council once again putting plaza supporters, opponents and the multimillion-dollar group of donors through the wringer? Again! Why, when the needed money and more was raised to fund the public's portion of the cost, why was scrapping the entire project up for a vote, again?
Ms. Mendez felt obliged to tell us. Thank you.
She started to talk about the frustration by some (Gutierrez?) with the lack of progress on another project (eastside pool?) and the tension and frustration spilled over to ... STOP. Now, at this point, Councilwoman Gutierrez called for a Roberts Rules of Order move known as a" Point Of Order" -- saying that the Mendez should stop her line of comment. In essence, saying the real backstory wasn't "relevant" to the current debate! She didn't say it wasn't true, just not relevant! WHAT?
Councilwoman Mendez was being muzzled from telling the rest of us about the apparent -- what would YOU call it? A tantrum? Is that a good word? I don't know, I wasn't there, but Ms. Mendez thought we should know and Ms. Gutierrez certainly thought we shouldn't!
Do we not deserve to know what it was that led Yakima to the very doorstep of potential lawsuits by proponents and investors in the plaza and to the moment of the greatest betrayal of goodwill and broken community trust that I have seen in my 30-plus years of covering news in Yakima? Incredibly the majority of the council agreed. No dirty laundry allowed, even when council's integrity was at stake. I always thought the TRUTH sets us free, not covering for bad behavior. (Accountability, anyone?) But I digress. Councilwoman Mendez managed to finish her presentation without all the specifics, but the message was clear. This was about "someone" not getting their way. So why?
Nature abhors a vacuum, right? So now allow me to brainstorm with you. Do we simply feel that strongly about the need for having an eastside pool Right Now? (Don't forget, the last time there was a pool at Washington, subsidies for low uses were in the neighborhood of seven times those at the Eisenhower pool)
Or, are there other forces and influences at work? Just for instance, could it possibly be a Seattle-area intervention? Is it possible, could an organization with ties to some council member -- and organization like, oh, say OneAmerica -- see the delivery of a pool as a major social justice/political victory and thus be a significant recruitment tool for some folks on the eastside?
I don't claim to know and I'm not accusing. I am just speculating out loud with you and the great KIT audience, and perhaps asking those with the proper pathways to possibly investigate. OR -- it could be I just misread the entire night, right?
In the end, both council members Kay Funk and Brad Hill gave mini-indictments of the plaza process in general, but agreed that to dump the project at this late date wouldn't be fair. They are right, of course, and good for them.
So the dump-the-plaza vote was Gutierrez, Cousens and White -- KILL IT for all the odd, untrue and puzzling reasons.
Coffey, Mendez, Funk and Hill voted to LET It PROCEED and to continue to responsibly work on all the other wants, needs and challenges facing our great city. Thank You.
Watch the tape, see for yourself.