May 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
While Herndon taxpayers’ share increased from about 40% to as much as 90%, none of the 17 councilmembers asked any questions over a period of 18 years. The question is,”Why?” In this blogpost we provide some perspectives.
In any situation, people don’t ask questions because they are unable and/or unwilling to do so. The ability to ask questions depends on the educational and professional background of councilmembers. For example, a councilmember with a civil engineering background should be able ask questions about most public work issues. Some councilmembers do not have the necessary educational background. Willingness, on the other hand, depends on a variety of factors that include:
- Conflicts of Interest: If a member has conflicts of interest, he is not likely to ask relevant questions or ask for studies that shed light on important issues,
- The Desire to Not Reveal Lack of Knowledge: As the Bible suggests “Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.”,
- Hiding True Intent: If a councilmember’s goal is different than the publicly-stated objectives, he is likely to keep quiet,
- Not Having Partners On the Council: If other council-members do not support his or her views, a council-member may keep mum,
- Having Majority on the Council: Some may consider it pointless to ask questions if the majority of the councilmembers have the votes for (or against) a resolution or an ordinance.
Lets take a look at whether some of the factors were present in this case.
1. Conflict of Interest
This looks more like a case of Insider Trading than Conflict of Interest. Mr. Steve Mitchell, who served on the 92-94 council, was then and still is a developer in the Town. Of all the people on the council, he should have and would have known the cost of structured parking. When substantially different figures were being floated in 1994, he could have asked questions, but kept mum. One can only speculate based on the facts of the case. He did not run for a council seat in 1994; therefore, in the second half of 1994 and thereafter, he was free to do things he could not do as a councilmember. In March of 1995, the council approved the sale of the James Building to him with the condition that he participate in the evolving shared-parking program. In hindsight, it is obvious that he knew in 1993-1994 that the Town planned to sell the James Building in the near future and that he would have to purchase the parking spaces. However, there was no risk in purchasing the spaces. It turns out that the price he paid for shared parking was almost half the cost of the land on which it was located and the interim surface parking spaces offered by the Town were located right next to the building. His clients would never have to park in a municipal garage, if one was ever constructed. It was in his best interest to not raise any questions as long as a participant’s share of the parking cost was low. This is not the end of the story, however. In August of 1995, when councilmember Hutchison resigned for personal reasons, the council appointed Mr. Mitchell to the Town Council. The rest of the council had believed that he would be a reliable vote on the council. In 1996, they formally incorporated the James Building parking lot into the shared-parking program. Mr. Mitchell abstained from the voting. His vote would have hardly mattered. The final vote was 6-0 in favor of the program.
2. Hiding the True Intent
The purported objective of the shared-parking program was to revitalize the downtown; yet, no councilmember asked about the needs of the business property owners at anytime between 1994 and 2009 or expressed any concern about the high cost of new construction. They did not do so even when 3 condos located in the TPI center were going bankrupt or when new businesses were choosing to develop their properties under the CCD zoning (rather than under the PD-MU zoning) or when the proposed location of the parking garage ended up next to the proposed location for the Art Center in the DMP and rather than close to the participating properties. In contrast, Councilmember Downer began to mention the future Art Center and its need for parking in 1997, even though there was no mention of the Art Center in council meetings before the policy was finalized in 1996. By 2000, however, the Town staff started including as many as 120 spaces for the Art Center in its estimate of the size of the garage. Subsidized or free parking for it would create a valuable asset. At the right time, it could help raise additional capital. It was well known that, as early as 1991, Messers. Thoesen and Downer (and later O’Reilly, Mitchell, DeNoyer and Reece) were strong supporters of the Art Center. Throughout the policy development process from 1991 until 1996, it would have been appropriate and convenient for them to not ask any questions. It is reasonable to deduce from the record that an unstated goal of the shared-parking program was to provide parking spaces for the future Art Center. It appears that the Town’s share of the program costs was not given much thought, if any.
3. The Politics of It
Some people have suggested that the then Mayor Rust did not like the shared-parking policy from its very start. He voted against its rudimentary form (when it was presented as a part of the Ahmed application). However, he and his potential conservative allies voted for the final policy in 1996. Even if they were aware of or suspected that the primary goal of other council-members was to support an Art Center, they could ill afford not to vote for the policy, because the business community was supportive of it. There is nothing in the record to suggest that they were concerned about its cost to the town’s taxpayers either.
We are, therefore, compelled to ask, “Who was the guardian of the interests of the common tax-payers who would be left holding the bag?”