The future of both Courthouse Square and the task force formed to pursue its future remains up in the air, as the task force takes a hiatus to allow for a regrouping of Marion County and Salem-Area Transit, the owners of the property.
The latest information presented to the task force on April was that it’s expected that the insurance companies involved in multiple claims on the building that was evacuated last summer would be denied.
Without the hope of guaranteed funding, the future of Courthouse Square hangs in the balance. “We don’t have a checkbook where we could write a check. Even if we could fix it for some reasonable number, we don’t have a checkbook for that. In some ways, maybe our task force is moving faster than events would warrant,” said Eric Meurer, chair of the Courthouse Square Solutions Task Force, at that meeting.
But Jolene Kelley, communications and administrative manager for the Marion County Board of Commissioners, says that the insurance claim is a factor, but wouldn’t be the only factor.
“What the final solution is would be the final determination of the cost. The owners would have to decide whether they could do it financially. Those discussions haven’t started yet. That’s a question that will come up later,” she adds.
Meurer said that the direction of the task force required the owners of the property to deliberate on a number of items, including funding and whether they’d even want to return to the property.
One task force member and local business owner, Casey Campbell wanted verification that those decisions hadn’t already been made in private.
“I just want to make sure we don’t have a hidden agenda and this task force has been a waste of time,” said Campbell. Meurer confirmed that they had not been made.
Accusations of hidden agendas have occasionally popped up in meetings concerning the future of the property. When asked about it, Kelley says that she can say with certainty that there is no hidden agenda when it comes to Marion County. She adds, “I have heard nothing that would indicate that [Salem-Area Transit] has a hidden agenda. The Board of Commissioners are interested in getting information and getting a sense of the community.”
The various subcommittees were tasked with getting information, though the technical subcommittee has had very little official movement due to conflicts among its members. One of those conflicts reared its head during the task force meeting, where Chair Geoffrey James and member Ric McNall faced off in an argument of semantics.
McNall evoked John Adams with a quote from December 1770 concerning the defense of the soldiers in the Boston Massacre. “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
The facts that were being so stubborn are that the technical subcommittee has not voted on the proposed solution that was brought up by James to the task force. McNall felt that the term “we” was not an accurate depiction of the proposal. James indicated that discussion and forward movement on the proposal had been disrupted by other members of the subcommittee.
McNall said that he was not notified of subcommittee meetings. It’s unknown specifically which meetings he was referring to.
Once the arguing had subsided, James presented the only proposal that has been discussed at their various meetings. The proposed solution is now estimated at $15.8 million to repair the building. That includes $1 million dollars in contingencies.
Members of the technical subcommittee have spoken with multiple contractors, according to testimony given by James, that have corroborated the numbers. According to documents obtained by Salem Weekly, local firm Dalke Construction says that the budget is realistic for the project at hand.
There are questions regarding whether the number is accurate for the solution at hand. Kelley says, “I don’t think we can really say whether [they are] good numbers or bad numbers.”
The budget of the proposed solution will play a key role in the future of the building and could possibly tie the hands of the decision makers. The condominium bylaws for Courthouse Square would require the building to be repaired if the cost of repairs are under 75 percent of the value of the building. How that value is determined is unknown, as of Salem Weekly’s deadline.
Details like that are some of the reasons that Meurer suggested that it was time to slow down the task force’s movement to compensate for the new questions that were generated for the owners of the property.
Meurer said that without the momentum that there will be time lost in the project. But he stood by the fact that it is necessary to suspend the committee’s activities. “We’re not even sure if our owners are positive of the direction that we want to take,” Meurer said.
The goal of the task force seems to be outlined in its charter that says that the task force would “identify and develop possible solutions for a future course of action for the Courthouse Square building and transit mall.”
The subcommittees were also suspended, because as Meurer said, “their work is largely done at this point.”
Kelley says that Marion County staff will compile a report with facts and findings to consolidate the information that has been researched by task force to this point.
“The draft [of the report] will be at the May 3 meeting. They want the opportunity to look over that report. The owners will meet to take a look at the facts and findings to see what direction they want to go,” Kelley adds.
The task force hiatus comes at a time where the former Wild and Crazy Ideas subcommittee (now the “Ideas” subcommittee) was, according to its Chair Jim Lewis “treading water.” The financial subcommittee hasn’t met, because there’s no project to finance. While the technical subcommittee’s tension that was previously reported on escalated to verbal bickering between the members of the committee.
It’s unclear what happened entirely at the technical subcommittee meeting on March 29. Nearly two hours into the meeting, the recorder’s battery failed, according to Marion County staff, with the remaining minutes of the meeting being unrecorded. Marion County officials declined to release the minutes of the meeting, because the technical subcommittee, as of Salem Weekly’s deadline, has yet to approve the meeting minutes.
What can be reported on from the March 29 meeting is that the subcommittee did not discuss nor vote on a proposed solution and budget for the repair of Courthouse Square. Instead, the subcommittee spent over an hour of discussing Salem Weekly’s coverage (Vol 7, Issue 25, “The $1,807,235.51 question”) of the past technical subcommittee meetings. McNall made a motion to add items to the agenda concerning three points: 1) meeting dates, notices, and minutes 2) motivations of the members 3) misrepresentations.
McNall, contrary to his own statements during the task force meeting, told subcommittee members that the meeting notices were handled properly. When asked for clarification, Kelley says that there was an issue with the Marion County website, which houses the minutes, agendas, and a plethora of information concerning Courthouse Square, being updated in a timely manner.
“Our goal really is transparency. There was a mixup and something got delayed. The meeting notice didn’t get onto the website,” says Kelley.
After the Salem Weekly story was published, Marion County staff verified that a fax was sent to local media, a list that did not include Salem Weekly. While media like Statesman Journal likely received notification of the meetings, they have yet to attend any.
Marion County may have met its legal obligations, but still felt that they should increase its efficiency when it comes to notifications. As a result, Marion County will soon transition away from the fax machine of yesteryear to a more modern approach of alerting the media using e-mail.
Speaking to the motivations of the members, McNall implied that James and Pfeifer were colluding to earn Pfeifer a position in the future of the Courthouse Square remediation.
“What is your motive in doing this? I notice that Eric [Meurer] is in tune with you. Did you guys talk about this ahead of time and talk about how you’re going to do this?” Pfeifer asked McNall at the time. McNall admitted to speaking with Meurer about his plans prior to the meeting.
“We’ll talk further about Eric [Meurer]’s secret agenda if that’s what you want to do. I’ll bring all of that out,” Pfeifer added.
Pfeifer accused McNall of a “character assassination” to which, McNall responded: “Listen, Gene, you don’t want to go there. If you want me to unload on your character it would get ugly.”
The already ugly meeting turned uglier as McNall led the group line by line through the Salem Weekly story which was full of quotes from their public meetings. McNall did not recognize those discussions. (The recordings are still available online at The $1,807,235.51 question)
“You subvert meetings when you come to them and it’s inappropriate. You are the chairman of the task force; you’re not the chairman of this [subcommittee] and every time you come you disorganize what we’re doing,” Pfeifer said to Meurer in the meeting. This resulted in a discussion regarding Pfeifer’s official capacity in the technical subcommittee. Meurer and McNall argued that Pfeifer was not a member, while James and Pfeifer disagreed.
Kelley says that Pfeifer is not a member of the technical subcommittee nor the task force. “He was invited to participate in technical subcommittee meetings as a guest. The technical subcommittee did not go through any type of formal process, through the county or transit, to have Mr. Pfeifer formally appointed to the technical subcommittee. The subcommittee does not have the authority to appoint voting members,” she says. Anyone can attend the meetings, but recommendations sent to the full task force can only be voted on by official members of the subcommittee.
Pfeifer declined to comment on either his official role in the subcommittee or the personal attacks that were made against him at the March 29 meeting.
As the meeting continued its derailment, McNall suggested that the committee remove James from his position as chair. “You need to be replaced. I think this group stays together but we move forward under different leadership. Otherwise I don’t think we can get anything done. Everything that we’ve done so far is suspect. It’s tainted; unbelievable.”
There was no vote, according to Marion County staff on whether James would remain chair or not. He represented the group at the following task force meeting.
Meurer made it clear that there will be not Request for Proposal (RFP) based on the solution discussed at technical subcommittee. “It’s just not going to happen. I’m looking you in the eye and telling you that; it’s not going to happen,” Meurer said in the meeting, adding that he plans to recommend an RFI (Request for Information) to the task force. The RFI would solicit contractors and architects in the public for their proposed solutions. It’s unclear what the goals of the technical subcommittee were if a proposal from that subcommittee was not intended to be used for the basis of the plans.
“I think we are stuck now. I’m not sure that we have enough material on the table to move forward. Let’s ask for some ideas from all these people that have been floating around out there,” Meurer said. Over $1.8 million dollars has been spent investigating the problems at Courthouse Square.
With the task force on hiatus, it’s unclear when, if ever, an RFI process will move forward. Kelley says that conflicts and procedure aside: “When we finally get to the end of this, then the RFP and RFI will be open and competitive. We’re going to follow through our processes.”
The minutes for the technical subcommittee meetings are now available on the Marion County website. Meeting minutes for the subcommittees
The audio recording ends at 1 hour and 57 minute mark of the 4 hour and 10 minute meeting. The remainder is summarized in the minutes as follows:
“In the third hour, the group resumed the previous conversation which became more heated and personal. Mr. McNall and Mr. Meurer together made repeated charges attacking the credibility and past experience of Mr. Pfeifer. No conclusions or actions were taken formally in the meeting. The meeting concluded at 5:20 pm.”
At the April 19 technical subcommittee, according to the minutes, Pfeifer presented copies of a letter signed by Commissioner Sam Brentano and Director Marcia Kelley, co-vice chairs of the Courthouse Square Solutions Task Force
The minutes say:
The letter stated in part “… you have been identified as someone with valuable technical expertise, and we would appreciate your willingness to serve and advise us on a subcommittee if it becomes necessary.” Mr. Pfeifer submitted the letter to document and validate his role on the Technical Subcommittee.
Technical subcommittee meeting: March 29, 2011 – Download