City Solicitor Can’t Answer Capone’s Question on Legality
By Josh Resnek
Without tending to care very much at all whether or not what they were approving is legal, the city council Monday night voted to proceed with the mayor’s proposal for revitalizing, and essentially, remaking, Everett Square after about 100 years of inertia.
This is, as was discussed by the urban planner/consultant who addressed the city council, a very important first step in getting on with the intensification of density, and all the natural things that come with it, in order for the square to come alive, and to aid the city economically and socially in the years to come.
The plan, in its infancy and something that will take about 20 years to complete, includes new buildings with 6-8 story heights, street floor commercial efforts and the hoped for unification of the many different parts of this program intended to make Everett Square, the single most exciting place in the city.
The matter passed overwhelmingly after more than two hours of debate, giving the mayor a victory on what is perhaps the most significant effort to remake the square in the city’s long history.
The next step is for the city to create a request for proposal (RFP) which the council will presumably have something to do with before it is advertised and put out to bid.
Once that stage has been reached, there is no turning back and the document itself becomes the blueprint for everything to follow.
Not everyone, however, was ready to rush to judgment for a heavy development package plopped onto everyone’s desk and expecting their approval after two hours of debate.
The most stunning moment in this seemingly endless debate, designed to allow the mayor to do as he pleased and to get what he wanted, was between Councilor Fred Capone and City Solicitor Colleen Mejia.
“I would rather we wait two weeks in order to get a legal rendering on what we are doing here,” said Councilor Fred Capone.
Councilor Mike McLaughlin wanted the mayor’s plan tabled so more research and discussion could be had before finally voting for such an important and redefining measure.
“We should take a step back. There is too much information to support this tonight,” McLaughlin said.
At one point shortly before the vote was taken, Capone asked City Solicitor Colleen Mejia if she could tell the council whether or not a spate of amendments offered up by the mayor to hesitant councilors are legal.
She could not.
The vote was taken anyway because as the mayor said:“I hate red tape. I hate not taking action. I want to get going with this.”
Comments ranged from Councilor Wayne Matewsky’s righteous rant about the boarded up Bouvier Building, where the Brighams used to be at the corner of Norwood Street and Broadway, to the council’s quiet but efficient acquiescence to the constraints of time and wanting to be done with this to please the mayor on what turned out to be a rather contentious evening.
The so-called Bouvier Building building has been empty and an eye sore for more than a decade.
That building in the heart of the square epitomizes the need for a revitalization.
The revitalization of Everett Square cannot come to anything without that corner of the square undergoing some sort of renaissance, the councilors agreed.
In fact, the mayor said the building should be taken by eminent domain.
“That is exactly what I want to do,” the mayor told the council.
Turns out that part of the square revitalization effort brings into the fold several government programs which allow for eminent domain and which require it as a tool to redefine the square, what it looks like, what businesses are in it and what types of residents will live in the housing that is added.
The government agencies get to call the shots.
Sal Sacro, one of the city’s largest and most successful owners of residential real estate, was aghast when he learned his building – Sacro Plaza – would be subject to eminent domain possibilities if the measure passed as is.
“I’m worried about regulatory laws,” he said.
He demanded to be taken out of the scheme of development, an amendment to the plan passed immediately by the city council and endorsed by the mayor.
“I want to be part of the revitalization but I don’t want to be part of any deal with the government,” Sacro told the Leader Herald.
The eminent domain question then became an issue.
‘The city council should have the right to approve every eminent domain action,” said Councilor Rosa DeFlorio.
Once again, with the mayor’s OK, a measure approving such a right for the city council was passed without the council knowing whether or not it was legal.
“It would be better if we knew what we are voting on is legal,” Capone added.
The mayor said it didn’t matter whether or not it was legal.
“The government people will tell us if its illegal when they study our plan. If so, they will send it back to us,” he said.
“Why waste the time doing that when we can have the city solicitor study the matter and give us her opinion when we meet in two weeks?” Capone said in reply.
This was a line of reasoning essentially overlooked by the council, the mayor and even the city solicitor who declined to speak up about the matter other than to say, “I don’t know.”
At one point during the debate that raged about going to a vote on a matter of such city changing proportion after two hours of discussion, Council President Richard Dell Isola tried to quiet DeFlorio. He slammed the gavel four times powerfully, the echo reverberating around the room.
“I have the floor and I want to be allowed to speak. Are you telling me I can’t speak?” she asked him.
“How is it all you men get to speak as long as you want and I can’t. Is it because I’m a woman!” she shouted.
She was allowed to speak.
The entire meeting from beginning to end sputtered like an engine misfiring.
The mayor gave in each time the council wanted something, a policy doomed to failure and taking the teeth out of the possible development scenario in the square.
It appeared the mayor’s desire to get the thing passed was surpassed only by meeting the council’s demands to finally be done with the debate.
The mayor’s strategy, in this instance, was perfect, as no one in the room knew for sure whether or not what they were doing was legal.
He got what he wanted but minus some teeth and giving away rights to the city council that could take that body years to figure out if the task falls upon them.
In the end, the mayor gave the council the right to leave Sacro Plaza out of the mix, to delegate eminent domain policy to the council, and for the council to be the approving body for the RFP, all of which significantly alters the ability of the square to be developed by an independent third party who knows what they are doing.
“I can’t rule as a dictator,” the mayor said to his colleagues after all the arm twisting.
The measure passed by a vote of 7-2.