Heading off another end-run around due process

COLUMBIA, Mo 7/7/14 (Beat Byte) -- Third Ward Columbia City Councilman Karl Skala says he will ask that Opus Development Group's request to temporarily close public streets, sidewalks, and an alleyway be pulled from the Council's "Consent Agenda" tonight, giving the public and other Council members an opportunity to discuss the oddly-timed Resolution. 

Opus does not own the land nor have a building permit to construct the six-story downtown student apartment the street closures would accommodate.   A development agreement governing use of public property for the project, including streets and sidewalks, is on hold pending the outcome of a citizen petition.  

Council Bill R118-14 "authorizes Opus Development Company, LLC to temporarily close portions of sidewalks and parking lanes along the east side of Seventh Street, the north side of Locust Street and the west side of Eighth Street, and the temporary closure of the alley between Seventh Street and Eighth Street, from July 7, 2014 to July 31, 2015 to facilitate construction activities at 127 S. Eighth Street."

"I will request that the Opus request be pulled from the consent agenda, for a full public discussion on Monday night," Skala explained on Facebook yesterday, responding to a Heart Beat story about City Hall facilitating the project without public approval.    

A development agreement between the city and Opus that governs the developer's use of public property, including utility infrastructure, is in legislative limbo, awaiting a second petition that needs 140 more valid signatures.  

Council members repealed an earlier, nearly-identical agreement after Repeal 6214, the petition organizers, delivered nearly 4,000 signatures opposing the project.   Due process problems, including a week-long series of special City Council meetings to approve the agreement, prompted much of the opposition. 

Both Opus development agreements address street closures in paragraph 9d.   "The City expressly retains the right to control and determine all matters relating to the public streets and rights of way without any regard to the impact such decisions may have on the Project or Developer Tract, including but not limited to the granting of right of use permits and/or street closures adjacent to the Developer Tract." 

For Council members to approve the street closures absent a development agreement violates basic principles of democratic governance, and may violate the City Charter and the development agreement ordinance, Section 22-75 of the Columbia code. 

A list of legislative items automatically approved unless challenged, the Consent Agenda is normally used for quick passage of routine Council matters.  
But it can also be used to avoid transparency.  Until Council members Paul Sturtz and Jerry Wade blew the whistle in December 2008, two Consent Agenda items would have automatically approved use of eminent domain to acquire land downtown for a State Historical Society Museum.   Devised in part by Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters, and placed on the Consent Agenda by then city manager Bill Watkins, the eminent domain plan failed after a sustained public outcry.

At least one other Council member publicly supports permitting Opus to intrude on public property without the public approval a development agreement provides.  "There is no longer a need for infrastructure-related development agreements downtown," Councilwoman Laura Nauser told the Columbia Missourian Friday.   Opus has the "legal right to build as they wish," she added. 

"With all due respect," Skala said, "Mrs. Nauser does not speak for me."