This is the fifth of 10 questions about issues and priorities that NewsWorks asked the seven Democratic candidates running for the Eighth District City Council seat. The questions were drafted by voters who attended NewsWorks forums earlier this spring. Their answers will appear on NewsWorks.org during the week, two questions per day. Answers to question 6, about term limits and the DROP program will be posted later today.
We will be running the candidates’ answers to questions 7 and 8 on Thursday.
Our community forums revealed a huge amount of discontent about government-supported developments being planned out of public view and in ways that to some smack of favoritism and insider deals. The Chelten Plaza/Fresh Grocer situation in Germantown would be a prominent, recent example. How would you proceed when presented with a development proposal to avoid another Fresh Grocer mess? What if what the community wants in terms of development is impractical?
I would institute a policy that required developers to present their proposals at public meetings in the District and seek public input prior to presenting their proposals to me. In this way, community residents and businesses get a chance to know, in advance, what, where and who is proposing a development plan, and they get an opportunity to be heard about their take on the plan. This process will save developers’ and community residents’ time and serve as a useful marketing tool for developers and a needed communications vehicle for residents—a win, win situation. What is impractical is merely a matter of opinion. It may seem to be impractical for community residents to insist that all future development in Germantown be LEED-certified for neighborhood development. But it is actually impractical to allow a development project to proceed that will ultimately not serve the community’s best interests and cause even more middle class residents to take flight from the area.
Any deals made by elected officials need to be fully disclosed and explained to the public. That has not happened in the case of Fresh Grocer. This is a case where public money was allocated, ostensibly for the public good, and it not only failed to have a positive impact, but it left a blight on our neighborhood. Taxpayer dollars were used to move the Fresh Grocer to the LaSalle University area, which is good for one neighborhood, but bad for Germantown. In cases like this, I would insist that the players, both public and private, face the citizens before an irrevocable decision is made. When public money is used in our neighborhoods, the public has to be consulted. A major focus of my campaign has been to create the conditions where our city can attract private investment. If what the community wants from a development is impractical or impossible, it is the duty of those who have control over the development to work with the community to build consensus. Ignoring the people or hiding decisions from them is never the way to push development forward.
We have to reassess and update the Eighth District’s zoning map (I recently participated in a similar effort in Tioga) to ensure that the community has a more appropriate amount of input into what is developed in their communities. Neither developers nor residents can “go-it-alone” when it comes to community development. As a neighborhood representative with decades of experience working with developers and residents, I understand the importance of ensuring that (a) developers think of the residents surrounding their projects as neighbors to be surveyed, not nuisances to be shunned, and (b) effective community representation requires us to negotiate with developers in good faith. In short, regardless of whether their projects require zoning variances or government subsidies, developers must communicate their plans with neighbors and their representatives – preferably through community meetings and/or direct mail pieces. (A project benefitting from taxpayer-funded subsidies should be required by law to publicly detail their plan through a combination of meetings and newspaper advertisements). Communities, in turn, must be reasonable and consistent in their critiques of those plans. A strong and active councilmember can ensure both of those things happen.
The best way to solve perceived insider dealing and favoritism is to copy some of the reforms that the Administration has put into place. One of the first things I will tell a potential developer is that they must put on a presentation before the community or communities that will be affected by their project. Once that is completed, I will also get input from those respective communities about their thoughts on the project. Once all sides are heard, then I will move forward with giving (or withholding) my recommendation. If the community wants something that is impractical, I will make that decision and give my thought process as to why I made such a choice (whether it be in community meetings and/or through a mailing to the affected constituency). I will also keep up a website that has links to economic opportunities that will be available too for public scrutiny.
I would have a member of my staff form a small committee of knowledgeable community representatives to represent my office throughout the district where development is proposed. I would have community meetings to listen to all sides and have a role in the final decision. I would not be in the dark on any development projects. If I believe that certain projects would benefit the district I would help both sides come to an agreement that all could live with. I do believe that we need to modernize parts of the district.
I first would create a community council consisting of leaders of more than 30 community organizations. This initiative is the key to a transparent council office which communicates, and is accountable to the residents it’s beholden to serve. This council would be responsible for identifying the needs and concerns of the community, as well as formulating and assessing Request for Proposals (RFPs) forwarded to developers interested in the district. I don’t envision a situation where with a community council in place, where site studies, property valuations, economic census information is accounted for within the formulation of an RFP, where the community request for development would be impractical.
Immediately open a district office in Town Hall and conduct town meetings monthly throughout the district to listen and inform neighbors of city business. No position will be taken by my office on any zoning or development proposals until transparent public input is given by neighbors in the affected communities.
Tomorrow we’ll hear from the candidates on whether they favor changing the city’s tax structure and if they have the experience to handle the racial and economic diversity within the District.