The Aug. 17 city commission meeting had it all: cruise ship angst, Fantasy Fest in the face of COVID, affordable housing at Truman Waterfront (yet again) and plenty of trash talk (mostly about the city’s garbage collection contract with Waste Management).
Commissioners chastised residents. Residents reprimanded the politicians (and the city attorney), and officials disagreed with each other about how quickly to proceed on projects that have been in the works for decades.
So let’s dive right into the nearly five-hour meeting.
It started benignly enough, with a presentation by Rams Head owner Bill Muelhauser, who wants to transform the old diesel plant at Truman Waterfront into an $11 million brewery, restaurant, event space, museum and playground. The proposal asks that the city invest about $2 million for environmental cleanup on the property it received from Keys Energy Services. But, Muelhauser said, most, if not all of it, could come from federal and state grants.
“We could get on this right away once the cleanup occurs and are expecting it to take about 18 months,” he said.
Most officials were pleased with the proposal, but Mayor Teri Johnston said she wants to see what comes of the RFP the city is drafting to solicit housing proposals for the remaining 3.2 acres of Truman Waterfront. Developers have the option of including plans for the diesel plant in those proposals, or limit it to the 3.2-acre parcel.
Commissioner Jimmy Weekley wanted to move forward.
“I don’t know why we’d limit our options,” Johnston said. “Our intent is to attract the most competition for this project.”
“This property has been sitting for 40 years,” Weekley said. “Let’s not kick something down the road again; I think we ought to move forward.”
Cruise ship criticism
Then came the cruise ships.
City Attorney Shawn Smith told the commission he had interviewed four law firms about providing assistance in drafting cruise ship ordinances that can withstand a legal challenge. Three firms had declined and one, Radey Law Firm, is interested, Smith said.
Commissioner Billy Wardlow then chastised members of the community.
“We’ve all received emails with personal attacks against our city attorney, many of them seeming to be copied and pasted into an email. I don’t think people understand what we’re trying to do. Leave the personal attacks out.”
Commissioner Greg Davila agreed, saying, “We need to take the temperature down. We also need to move as quickly as possible.”
Johnston said, “disrespect has no place anywhere, but this is undoubtedly the most important issue to come before us. I think we got off on the wrong foot when you, Shawn, indicated that you’d have something on Aug. 3. There is a sense of urgency and this whole community is on edge.”
What about those 3.2 acres at Truman Waterfront?
That was the next discussion and disagreement.
City employees indicated the RFP for that parcel would be ready in a month or so. But development can’t happen unless and until voters approve in a referendum a long-term lease of that land to the developers. No developers will touch a project unless they’re assured of a 50- or 99-year lease, commissioners have long been told.
Attorney Smith recommended having a potential proposal in place before asking the voters to approve the long lease. “Citizens are going to want to know who’s doing this project and if you don’t have those answers, you run the risk of them voting no. The sooner you get the RFP done, the better off we are.”
“What else would they need to know? We’re going to build housing there,” Johnston said. “I can’t imagine there’s a person on this island who hasn’t heard our intentions.”
But Weekley said, “If you’re going to vote, you’ll want to know who’s doing this project to feel confident. I wouldn’t want to roll the dice without knowing. There’s a lot of questions the public may have.”
Then Commissioner Sam Kaufman reminded his colleagues that the city had already received “an excellent proposal from AH Monroe. Why complicate this with an RFP? We have to act, you guys. Let’s not wait. We won’t get a better proposal.”
Weekley agreed, saying, “If there’s a way to move forward with the AH proposal, I’m all in. Let’s move on this.”
They never did settle on whether to continue with the RFP. That’ll come up again at the Sept. 1 meeting.
And then the trash talk…
Waste Management, the city’s garbage and recycling company, wants a slight increase in its rates due to increased costs, many related to the pandemic.
The company’s regional director, Greg Sullivan, has been meeting with city manager Patti McLauchlin and utilities director John Paul Castro. He has lowered his initial request.
Johnston and Kaufman were critical of Waste Management’s performance, particularly with regard to mandatory recycling by businesses. But Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover reminded them that the city has not yet required it of Waste Management. “They’re not perfect, but they do a good job most of the time. And we’ll have a hard time finding a partner like them moving forward.”
Other commissioners and several members of the public pointed out how involved Sullivan and the company are in the community.
“What they want makes total business sense,” former city commissioner Margaret Romero told the commissioners. “For certain people to continually pick at them. Let’s not be petty. Accept these changes to their contract and let’s get away from the bickering, pettiness and emotion.”
After nearly two hours of discussion, the item was postponed until mid-September.
What about Fantasy Fest?
That’s a whole different story. See page 4.