On Nov. 8, less than 24 hours before it became public, city officials met with me (and other council members) regarding a July 27 purchase agreement for the North River property between the owners of the property and the Redevelopment Commission. For Council's consideration is the city's agreement to fully indemnify the sellers for all remediation costs associated with environmental contamination – both known and unknown. And here's the kicker: Because of a nondisclosure agreement, neither the public nor Council is permitted to have access to or otherwise know the results of the environmental testing that was done on the property a decade ago. My offer to sign the nondisclosure agreement was quickly rebuffed. But not to worry, Council was assured, “it's not that bad.” In other words, the mayor's office has asked Council – and by extension the taxpayers – to trust them. And if that wasn't enough, the deal is set to expire on Dec. 1.
Having been on City Council for two years now, I have experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of politics. I ran for office as a conservative yet thoughtful and pragmatic individual who looked for solutions, not rhetoric and grandstanding. My path thus far has been a difficult one. Though not an exclusive list, I've had the opportunity to experience transparent, candid and thoughtful communication with areas such as City Utilities, Public Works and the fire department. Unfortunately, the transparency is not universal. Potentially controversial topics such as annexation, the wheel tax, local income tax, downtown arena and even budget matters are dealt with in clandestine fashion and disclosed in the 11th hour, creating a self-inflicted sense of urgency to get the deal done.
Since the day I took office – even before that – I have extended an open invitation to the mayor and Community Development to publicly update our master plan – especially for downtown. I even publicly supported a budget appropriation for the same. Yes, a Republican recommending money for the Democrat-led administration to foster a better sense of collaboration and communication – both with Council and the public. That invitation still pends.
When I read the indemnity agreement for the first time (as it was made public), I realized that it inadvertently contained language that might nullify any applicable insurance policy that might be available to help reimburse for remediation costs on the property. As an attorney who has dealt with insurance matters for more than a decade, the omission was significant. I confirmed my concerns with an expert in environmental coverage and immediately informed the city. Four days later I was given several reasons for the omission – with the city ultimately landing on the final position that the seller would not have agreed to different language. We'd have to trust them on that. There's that word again.
In my tenure on council, I have extended my trust to the administration on several difficult issues including the local income tax, the Landing and Skyline Tower. Council even held discussions about Phases II and II of riverfront development (all east of Phase I) without knowing the city had signed a purchase agreement for 30 acres in the opposite direction. City officials will ask Council (and the public) to “trust” them when we write a blank check to indemnify the Rifkin family for the costs of environmental cleanup of the property they wish to sell to the city.
Has that trust been earned?
Michael Barranda is an attorney and at-large representative on the Fort Wayne City Council.