The Los Altos City Council’s reluctant release of a controversial memo last week involving the sale of the city’s property at First and Main streets was the right call and an appropriate final act from the 2012 council – particularly from departing members Ron Packard and David Casas.
That said, we’re still left with more questions than answers.
A lengthy press statement, signed by Mayor Val Carpenter, accompanied the release of the February 2010 memo. The city said it released the information to remove a “distraction” for the new council. Two new members, Jeannie Bruins and Jan Pepper, were sworn in Tuesday.
The press release dismisses the memo’s author, former Economic Development Coordinator Anne Stedler, as a “junior staff member” who based her findings on “inaccurate” information.
Stedler wrote to former City Manager Doug Schmitz and Assistant City Manager James Walgren that there was at least one developer other than the Jeffrey A. Morris Group interested in acquiring the property. Stedler wrote, “We have a public sector obligation to hear all legitimate developers.” City officials claimed that they had no other credible offers.
Longtime downtown property owner Kim Cranston, who took legal action in May to force release of the memo, said city staff misled the council into believing there were no other offers to pursue. Critics of the project contended that the city sold the site for a lot less than its real value. This is important, because we, the public, owned this property and entrusted our representatives to make informed decisions.
The city faces a legitimate question of whether it could have negotiated a better deal for its downtown gateway property. But instead of that acknowledgement, the city threw away money fighting Cranston’s request for a memo saying the city could do better. The city spent $15,000 battling Cranston’s lawsuit, but it incurred legal fees before that stonewalling his public information requests. At the same time, it paid more than $25,000 to consultants to ensure the legality of its process in the Morris deal. Cranston said he never questioned the legality of the sale.
What do we take from all of this? Although the city did nothing legally wrong, there are enough inconsistencies in the city’s story to suggest that it was less than upfront about the matter. For instance, the city’s original request for proposal (RFP) banned brokerage commissions. The Morris deal had a substantial one ($186,000). The city argued that the Morris deal wasn’t an official RFP but followed the same process. Why not adhere to prohibiting brokerage fees? And, although the city did acknowledge it made mistakes referring to the deal’s “lease and terms” in council agendas, would other developers have stepped up if they saw “for sale” instead of “for lease”?
At the very least, the lack of communication with the public cost the city a lot of money and the opportunity for a project that could have elicited more than “we got it done.”
This is, in fact, a distraction, for new councilmembers. Perhaps they should look into it.