The Council Chamber at City Hall was mostly empty because it was a Wednesday night and the meeting was poorly promoted. Predictably, there had been no articles about it in the Salem Statesman Journal in the days before the public hearing to inform the public about what was at issue. The public hearing conflicted with several meetings of neighborhood associations including one that was having their annual meeting.
At issue was whether to move forward with an $82 million bond measure in November to construct a 148,000 square foot police facility, which, if constructed, would be one of the largest and most expensive police facilities in Oregon.
Only 14 citizens signed up for testimony and it appeared that the first eight testifiers were all recruited by the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. They all spoke in favor of what Councilor Steve McCoid would later call “the full meal deal.” Besides Chamber Director Dan Clem, there were three people who work for local construction companies, one who works in commercial real estate, and one retired police officer. One of the contractors testified that “as a citizen of Salem I would be willing to forego a few Starbucks a month” to build the full meal deal.
Mayor Peterson once said that she did not like “drama” at public hearings, and one way she has prevented too much drama is to occasionally hold hearings in which Councilors were not able to ask questions of citizens. That was the process on June 8th. And it worked. The 14 citizens each had their three minutes to speak and the hearing was over in under an hour. No drama.
After a lengthy discussion with the city finance staff about how bond sales could be structured to lessen the hit on taxpayers it was time for a pre-prepared motion from Council President McCoid to draft a November ballot measure for passage of an $82 million bond to build a 148,000 square foot police facility. If you watch the CCTV archive video of the meeting you will see the Mayor turn to McCoid, nod her head and say under her breath, “your motion.” The fix was in.
Councilor Tom Andersen, who has been trying for months at various Council meetings on the police facility to bring down the cost and include needed seismic retrofits of City Hall and the Library, tried for the last time. But his motions to save $10 million by removing the regional 9-1-1 call center from the plan, and to save additional money by removing an elevated parking deck, died for the lack of a second.
So the Mayor got what she wanted on June 8th, and so did the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. It was a classic example of what we have seen in Salem for the past 14 years since the Chamber essentially took over our City government. The Chamber will say that this “top down” method of governance, where big decisions are made outside of the public eye, rubber stamped in a public meeting with no drama, and put to the voters with a big campaign funded by the Chamber will work. They will point to the successful 2008 Streets and Bridges Bond measure that they championed.
But that was 2008 and this is 2016. We have suffered through a Great Recession since then and many Salem families and seniors have never fully recovered. For many it is not a matter of foregoing “a few Starbucks a month.” When the public learns that Eugene met their need for a new police facility for $17 million and that the Oregon State Police just moved into a new headquarters building in Salem that only cost $30 million they will certainly question why the Salem needs “the full meal deal” for $82 million.
When Councilor Andersen was running for the Council in 2014 his campaign theme was about the need for “decision making from the bottom up and not the top down.” He ran on the idea that the only way for Salem to make progress in the future will be to fully engage citizens, hear their ideas, and make decisions that reflect their ideas. On November 8th this notion will be tested. The $82 million full meal deal has had almost no public engagement. It comes from the top down.