By Janine Unsoeld
A situation of a possible violation of the Open Public Meetings Act when two strategically planned, off the record meetings and conversations occurred, involving six members of the city Planning Commission, three Olympia city councilmembers, and an area developer, Jim Morris.
The Planning Commission is a quasi-judicial body that hears land use issues and reports and makes recommendations to the city council.
Morris is a party to a code text amendment zoning case having to do with a professional office/residential multifamily zoning district in the Kaiser-Harrison area on the Westside of Olympia.
Morris is in favor of the proposed zoning code amendment, and submitted comments on it prior to the deadline of March 10.
March 10 at 5:00 p.m. was the last day to comment on the case, File 14-0210, which is currently before the Commission. Several community members who knew this made the effort to comment, with many requesting that no action be taken on this case by the Planning Commission or the council until all the facts, meetings held, and conversations are known.
Some community members are calling for the resignation of Chair Max Brown, Vice Chair Kim Andresen, and possibly others. These letters have been posted online at the City of Olympia website with the agenda for the next Planning Commission meeting on March 17.
The Planning Commission heard the case on March 3, and is scheduled to deliberate and vote on a recommendation on the zoning text amendment case involving Morris’ property on March 17, a decision which is forwarded to the city council.
Letter About Off-the-Record Meetings
Late last week, Little Hollywood received emails containing two attachments: a letter dated March 8 from Judy Bardin, Olympia Planning Commissioner, addressed to Leonard Bauer, City of Olympia deputy director of the department of community development and planning, and a letter dated March 9 from attorney Bob Shirley to the Olympia Planning Commission.
The letter by Judy Bardin details that she was invited by telephone by Planning Commission vice chair Kim Andresen to attend a private meeting with developer Jim Morris and others related to the development field.
Bardin chose not to attend because she felt it would be a conflict of interest given Morris' interest in the zoning code amendment and her position on the Planning Commission. In February, she found out that four other members of the Commission and city councilmember Nathaniel Jones attended the meeting held January 31 at the offices of Jim Morris.
On March 3, another meeting was held with Morris, real estate agents and others, with Planning Commissioner Carole Richmond, Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and Councilmember Cheryl Selby in attendance. The evening of March 3 was when the Planning Commission heard the zoning case in a public hearing.Bardin said she decided to write the letter because she is concerned about the integrity of the Olympia Planning Commission and concerned for the public perception of the commission with respect to whether it is dedicated only to the public interest.
Bardin goes on to say that she does not think the commission should take any action on File 14-0210 and that the vote scheduled for March 17 should be tabled indefinitely.
The March 3 Planning Commission Meeting
In the online audiotape of the March 3 meeting of the Planning Commission at http://olympia.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=1113, Planning Commission Chair Max Brown tries to quickly shut down Ms. Bardin's question about the meeting with Morris held earlier in the day. The conversation starts at 1:39:30, and lasts almost exactly five minutes.
There is great effort to get a minimal amount of information dragged out of city planner Amy Buckler, who chooses her words carefully, and Planning Commission Chair Brown about the meeting.
The following is an unofficial transcript as heard from the audiotape by Janine Unsoeld and is not to be used for legal purposes.
Bardin: I wondered if Commissioner Andresen could fill us in on the meeting at Morris’ office today.
Andresen: That was a private meeting, you mean, it didn’t really have anything to do with the business at hand though.
Brown: Yea, I think I’ll take that one off the record for - since it’s not part of the - our liaison assignments – I’ll leave that ‘til a later time.
Bardin: Could we hear who was at the meeting?
Brown: (asking Andresen) Are you OK with that, or -
Andresen: Could we ask staff if this is pertinent to the meeting?
Buckler: Well, I think what she’s asking is, ah, the Planning Commission leadership and the Planning Commission itself wanted to meet with some economic development or developers – to learn about development issues in general and I think you announced it at another meeting or told everybody or invited everybody individually to come outside of a quorum, to sit with some developers, not to speak about any particular projects themselves but just issues in general as part of your efforts to learn more. And when it was discussed at the leadership team meeting it was - Leonard was at the last one of these events - it was announced at that particular event that this was not specific to any issue with the city, there’s not a quorum, it was a general discussion about development issues, just like when other groups meet to learn more about their specific issues, like the Carnegie Group, so –
Bardin: So, I’m just curious, umm, who was at – there was an earlier meeting?
Male Voice: Yes.
Bardin: So, there were two meetings that were basically the same, pretty much the same, today, and the earlier meeting, sort of the same agenda?
Buckler: The same agenda existed for both…I’m trying to figure out what information you would need….the whole planning commission has had the opportunity to be there.
Bardin: Right, but it would just be nice to get, like, a report. Was anything discussed that was relevant to planning and who was at the two meetings?
At this point Chair Brown jumps in, speaking quickly.
Brown: I can give a report - I just don’t want to take up more time since this wasn’t something that we were going to discuss as tonight’s meeting. I’ll give a quick overview…and we can talk about this off-line. The day that we went, I think, there were four commissioners: myself, Commissioner Andresen, Commissioner Parker, Commissioner Horn, city councilmember Mayor Pro-Tem Jones was there, and then a group of four or five, either developers or commercial real estate folks and they were just kind of saying, ‘Here’s some of the opportunities that the city has to or that we see – or that other jurisdictions are using to help incentivize growth and to get projects moving.’ There’s kind of a perception in the community – and Leonard was there as well – and I think, it was just, more than anything, it was a question and answer opportunity for us as officials and city staff to say, ‘What are other jurisdictions doing to help you that’s making it easier for you to do business here that we can be aware of and it was really just kind of some pretty candid conversations about past opportunities that have been missed or, umm, projects that have had opportunities but never been developed but we were very clear about saying any projects that anyone is intimately involved with or working on currently is not to be discussed and those issues were not discussed. It was really just an informative – and I think part of it, too, was to build those relationships of something that hasn’t been in the past to say, ‘What did we learn, what do we not know, you’re the experts, we’re not, what can we do, so I think I’d like to leave it there and kind of wrap it up real quick if you don’t mind and feel free to ask me questions of the meeting or those that have participated. There might be one more and if you have time to go I think it would be very beneficial to hear what people are doing and what people are trying to make happen….
Brown then abruptly adjourns the meeting after getting a first and a second to do so.
Brown, in explaining that at least one more meeting was planned, assures that, eventually, all planning commissioners and city councilmembers would have been extended the opportunity to privately attend one of these off the record meetings, again, without any official quorum, just prior to votes by both bodies about the code amendment case involving Morris.
Commissioner Richmond's Perspective
In a public email on March 9, Planning Commissioner Carole Richmond said that the meeting she attended on March 3, the same day as the Commission meeting, was not about the zoning change affecting Morris' property, which she says was never brought up.
Richmond says Andresen did not stay for the March 3 meeting, because she said she had a “professional relationship” with Jim Morris, indicating that she is an employee or consultant to Morris. Leonard Bauer, deputy director of the city’s Community, Planning and Development department, attended the first meeting.
“Issues discussed were: The homeless situation and how that affects the desirability of doing business or living downtown, lack of a unified vision for the future of Olympia, the costs of construction downtown, restrictions imposed by lenders (one of whom was also in the room), and "things taking too long." That was about it and it was just a free-flowing conversation. These are certainly issues over which the City Council and Planning Commission have some influence, but none of these issues have taken the form of proposals to be acted upon. I think these are issues that developers (and others) would like the Council and Commission to put on the radar,” said Richmond in the email.
Richmond goes on to say that she is glad that Bardin brought the issue to the attention of the whole Planning Commission because of the "appearance of fairness" issue.
"Morris scheduled these meetings so that less than a quorum of Planning Commissioners could attend (at staff/OPC request) and that looks bad. Given a choice, I would've preferred for one meeting with developers to be held during a regular Planning Commission meeting, as nothing was discussed that couldn't be said in public, but I didn't question this. I do know that many developers don’t particularly want to take part in public processes and I wanted to hear what they had to say,” said Richmond.
City Response to Public Comment
Leonard Bauer, city deputy director of Community Planning and Development, sent a letter via email on March 12 at 5:26 p.m., to all those who commented, including Little Hollywood, on the meetings with Morris.
The letter summarizes information about the two meetings, providing explanations that were never given at the commission meetings by staff, commissioners, nor mentioned by city councilmembers Jones, Buxbaum, or Selby during their council reports.
It is common practice for commissioners and city council members to report their attendance at community meetings that they attend, especially if more than one or two or three attended the same meeting.
Bauer attended the January 31 meeting. He states that at the beginning of each meeting, it was stated and agreed that there could be no discussion of any issues that could become the subject of review by either the Planning Commission or City Council, including no discussion of any specific permit or specific use.
Bauer says the topics of conversation included that the cost of construction in downtown Olympia is high, making redevelopment difficult; impact fees are high and the timing of the payment may be difficult to finance; lending practices for construction can make it difficult to redevelop; the usefulness of the multi-family housing tax credit program; increased homelessness has had negative impacts on potential development in downtown Olympia; and a perceived lack of a unified vision by the city for development in Olympia.
Great topics, worthy of public discussion, yet, Morris and others were able to privately control the conversation, and personally reach and possibly influence six out of nine Planning Commissioners and three out of seven city councilmembers.
One public, official opportunity was never offered to the commissioners, councilmembers or the public to learn more about these “economic development opportunities” or “barriers to development” from a developer’s perspective.
Many commenting on the situation feel that the fact that no one spoke up about the meetings until the issue was forced by Commissioner Bardin seems to be a deliberate attempt to circumvent the spirit of the Open Public Meetings Act. Such actions cast suspicion on how prevalent the practice is of purposefully arranged private meetings of members of the same body to prevent a quorum, which would trigger public notice and recording of the conversation.
“I am concerned about the integrity of the OPC, since it has recently come to light that they are having secret meetings with developers. While this might technically be legal, it sure is sleazy. How can I pursue this problem as a private citizen?” writes Nancy Sullivan to the city clerk in a March 9 email.
“…According to a member of the Planning Commission, the staff and members of the Commission recently met in private with a party with a material interest in the instant rezone request – an ethical and legal breach of practice. There was, evidently, an awareness of the fact that such meetings were improper….Will there be consequence in this instance? Will the consultant to the developer be asked to resign from her post? Will the tarnished rezone issue be withdrawn from consideration? Will this initiate a serious review of how the city conducts itself and does business? I look forward to learning the steps the city will take,” writes Bethany Weidner to Community Planning and Development staff in a March 9 email.
The City of Olympia website is www.olympiawa.gov.