In reading the articles the Irrigator has written to date on the fiasco that resulted from the City’s purchase of the building behind City Hall from Mr. John Ramos, the paper unfortunately missed some critical points to help residents better understand how we got to this place. It also appears they missed a long-standing pattern about how many decisions have been made in our city for many years; we are bound to make the same mistakes in the future if we don’t learn the right lessons from this ordeal.
Although the City purchased this building prior to me joining the City Council, I have raised questions for more than a year regarding the manner in which this building was purchased, the extent to which the public was shut out of the decision-making process, and how that resulted in a very poor outcome for the City, to say the least. Unfortunately, because all of the City Council’s discussions regarding whether to buy this building occurred behind closed doors until very recently, we’re left to comb through whatever paper trails are now starting to be made available and decipher a lot of “he said, she said” accusations and counter-arguments.
There are some aspects of this issue that should not be in dispute. In late 2011, the prior City Council made a determination to explore properties for potential purchase, and the consulting team of Howard Sword and Martin Salmon were retained to help conduct an investigation of several property options. The City Council then held between eight and ten closed session meetings over the course of several months to select its preferred property and discuss its purchase prior to authorizing the deal in April 2012.
It’s also been established that the property ultimately selected out of this process was purchased in “as is” condition, meaning that the buyer (in this case, the City) would be responsible for all improvements once the sale was complete. Finally, it’s been established that a structural engineering inspection of the property was not conducted until after the purchase was completed.
That’s where the accusations and counter stories start developing, with some City Council members (current and former) claiming that they had insisted on major structural inspections prior to the purchase, while others saying that such direction to staff either didn’t occur or wasn’t that specific.
For those who wish to lay all of the blame for this fiasco on city staff, I have one simple question.
If certain City Council members at the time truly had so many concerns about the state of this building, if they truly insisted that major structural inspections were needed, then why did the City Council approve the purchase if those inspections had not been done? Did the City have some kind of gun to its head that the building had to be purchased by a certain time? Did the building owner at the time give the City some kind of deadline to decide? If the City Council knew that they’d be inheriting any problems with the building once it became their property, don’t you think it would have been incumbent upon the City Council to make sure they knew exactly what they were buying if they still had questions about the building’s integrity?
As far as the openness, or in this case the lack thereof, of the City Council’s decision to buy this building, a couple of clarifications are needed. According to state open meeting laws, cities are allowed to hold closed session meetings regarding the terms and conditions of a real estate purchase.
However, that doesn’t mean it was appropriate or ethical to leave the City Council’s ENTIRE decision-making process behind closed doors. Since the taxpayers would be footing the bill for this building, don’t you think it would have been appropriate for the City Council to come forward at some point before the building’s purchase with a publicly agendized item, letting residents know about the City’s intent to purchase a property and the purpose(s) of that purchase?
Isn’t it possible that residents might have had some good ideas to bring to the table for the City Council to consider before the deal was done? I personally knew of a property within a block of City Hall that was a comparable size, which could have served the same purposes and was on the market at the time for half the price of what the City ultimately paid for the building. But instead, the City ended up paying $650,000 for a building that we will likely have to blow up and start from scratch, with a final total cost estimated to be well over $2 million.
Then there’s the issue of why the building was being purchased and for what purposes. Doesn’t the public have a right to weigh on in whether the City purchasing the building made sense? Were some individuals or organizations alerted to the potential purchase and not others, and if so, why? According to written reports, the whole idea for the City buying property started as a possible long-term solution for the Teen Center, and yet the Teen Center is no longer part of that plan. When did that change, and were they ever consulted at any point? To what extent were other groups approached regarding the need for office space or conference room facilities? These are all questions to which we’d already have answers had the City Council handled this purchase in a more open, transparent manner from the start.
Rather than lots of finger pointing and calls for outside investigations, I hope that the City Council and the community can agree on a few hard lessons learned from this very foolish and very expensive decision. First, for any major decision involving a significant expenditure of taxpayer dollars, it should always be the City Council’s top priority to inform residents about the pending decision and provide them with opportunities to weigh in. If residents choose to not get involved, that’s on them. But if the City Council doesn’t give residents that opportunity, then shame on the City Council. Had that occurred in this case, the City Council may have taken a different course and we wouldn’t be facing the choices we are today.
As for those choices, for better or for worse, the City now owns this building and must decide on a new course that makes financial sense and best serves the long-term benefit of the entire community, not just a select group of individuals or organizations.
All the more reason why, going forward, we as a City Council need to go out of our way to inform our residents about the choices we face as a community and getting as much input as we can before spending the taxpayers’ money. Because if we don’t learn the right lessons from this poor decision, history is bound to repeat itself.
Sheree Lustgarten, Patterson City Council (elected November 2012)