The Olympia City Council has recently experienced some public drama because of a surprise vote that removed Mayor Stephen Buxbaum from a committee.
At its Feb. 24 meeting, the council voted 4-3 to change the composition of the Community and Economic Revitalization Committee. The committee was formed to help guide the process for the Community Renewal Area, an economic development tool that expands the city’s eminent domain powers for downtown sites that are declared blighted. The CRA’s goal is to fix downtown properties in poor condition by partnering with private developers.
Councilwoman Cheryl Selby caught some of her colleagues by surprise when she made the motion to change the committee and get it “back on track.” The committee needs to provide input as city staff seeks potential private partnerships for a redevelopment deal, said Selby, noting that CERC had last met Dec. 15 and “is not functioning at this point.”
With the vote last week, the council removed Buxbaum from the committee — where he served as chairman — and replaced him with Councilman Jim Cooper. Other council members on the committee are Julie Hankins and Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones.
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In supporting the motion, Jones said he was concerned by the lack of CERC meetings and committee input in the discussion of potential redevelopment projects. His interest is getting a CERC recommendation for project proposals to the council.
“There has been frustration at how slow this process has been over the years and certainly within the last few months,” Jones said.
Council members Steve Langer and Julie Hankins had joined Buxbaum in voting against Selby’s motion. The issue also sparked a heated discussion at the council’s March 3 meeting, in which Hankins and Langer said the council had engaged in poor public process — and had damaged trust among council colleagues.
“It was an ambush and a surprise. There was no way to know this was coming down the pike,” Langer said March 3. “The city depends on all of us to function well together and trust each other, and that was broken last Tuesday.”
Hankins said the issue wasn’t with how the council voted, but how the council went about the vote.
“This council engaged in extremely bad process last week,” she said. “There were other ways to get to that end result.”
Buxbaum, who will not seek re-election this year, told The Olympian that he will continue working on the Community Renewal Area through the end of his term and beyond. He said he is pleased that the council wants to see the CRA succeed, even if details for proposals still need to be worked out.
The CRA has been one of Buxbaum’s top projects since his election in 2011.
“We need to come together as a council as to how to move the CRA forward. It really does not matter to me who is on the committee,” Buxbaum said. “I have absolutely no hard feelings.”
Selby told The Olympian that her motion was intended to keep the committee functioning and moving forward.
“I felt like we needed to unstick that committee,” she said.
The CERC will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday (March 5) at City Hall. The agenda includes selection of committee officers.
For the CRA’s next steps, city staff will search for partnerships with private property owners. The council is expected to approve a final CRA plan by late 2015. The CRA effort has been underway since 2012.