Another chapter in the annals of Belton politics was written into the history books Tuesday night, and if you didn’t know the players, you probably wouldn’t think twice about it.
But if Aspen Dental gets the approval it needs from the Planning Commission on Monday night on its Final Development Plan, and then from the City Council the following week, months of delays can reasonably be chalked up to personal animus that for some reason, must have been temporarily set aside.
Mayor Jeff Davis has, since his first election six years ago, had a problem with Art Ruiz. Ruiz is the former president of the Belton Corporation for Economic Development, a quasi-public organization that handled economic development duties for the city until shortly after Davis took over as mayor.
In his first order of business, Davis formed a committee to investigate bringing the function in-house. In record time, for a government committee, a decision was reached to dissolve BCED and, voila, Davis was on a plane to Las Vegas just more than a month after being elected to try his hand at this exciting game at the annual shopping center convention. And, every year since, Davis has led the Belton delegation to the national event.
From high school coach to woo-er of big money developers in flash. Problem was, Ruiz kept popping up.
Art’s dismissal from the head of Belton’s economic development efforts after 20 years didn’t take him out of the game. And why should it? His track record (just look at M-58 Highway from I-49 to State Route Y, and Markey Parkway from M-58 to 163rd Street to see Art’s mark), speaks for itself. He has been involved with Block Development, and most recently, Herman Enterprises, LLC.
That’s where the latest spat popped up.
Last winter, Rob Herman brought to the City Council a proposal to locate an Aspen Dental facility in an oddly shaped property on the southwest corner of Markey Parkway and 163rd Street – a plot that is also in the Menard’s TIF district.
Now clearly, a dental services business does not generate sales tax revenue for the city, but it does increase property tax value from its present status as vacant land, which is what Herman’s attorney reminded the council last winter.
And the small and oddly shaped plot was going to be a challenging sell to any retailer, he said.
Davis would hear none of it last winter, and the discussion quickly devolved into a shouting match.
Months later, Herman returned with his original plan, plus an agreement to add a second building – within a year after the Aspen opening – for some type of retail. His plan is for a restaurant along the lines of a 5 Guys or other like brand.
It was likely an agreement that could have been reached six months ago.
Solid questions were asked, particularly by Ward 1 Councilmember David Clark – who has come into his own in the past two meetings to show the independence and willingness to challenge Davis and City Manager Alexa Barton in ways many voters had hoped when they elected him back in April.
But an amendment to the TIF contract allowing for the use was passed unanimously by the council, moving the project forward so the Final Development Plan can be considered.
Funny thing was, Davis remained completely mute on the issue Tuesday.
But Clark’s unwillingness to silently play along didn’t go unnoticed by Davis.
Later, as the Council passed a routine ordinance ratifying an agreement with the County Collector for collection of city property taxes, Davis glanced to his right toward Clark. “What? No arguments about the Collector?”
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Both readings of the Herman bill were brought to a vote Tuesday, and there was a reason – it needed final approval for this coming Monday’s Planning Commission discussion.
This happens at times. Emergency readings become necessary due to deadlines of one sort or another, and they’re understood.
But it has become the practice under Barton to push all ordinances through on two readings in one meeting – a move that effectively cuts the public out of the governing process.
In Belton, citizens may not address the Council during its every-other-Tuesday meetings unless they sign up at City Hall the previous Thursday.
Problem is, agendas aren’t posted until the previous Friday – a day after the deadline to notify the City Clerk of a desire to address the Council. Citizens don’t have the opportunity to review an agenda and schedule an appearance to provide input on a topic. They don’t know before the deadline what’s going to be discussed.
That would be manageable if the Council voted on the first reading of an ordinance, then on the second reading two weeks later as the City Charter intends.
Citizens could hear the council discussion on a topic, see the initial vote spread, and decide to appear if they felt inclined.
Clark has decided to begin voting against motions to move to a second reading – admirably. At this point, he is the only councilmember that seems interested in protecting the interest of the voters.
Fellow Ward 1 Councilmember Ryan Finn even defended moving ahead to a second reading Monday night on one topic “which had been discussed previously in a work session, so the public had the chance to talk to us if they wanted to.”
No, Ryan, that’s not the point. Unless there is a verifiable reason for an emergency reading, the public deserves to hear your discussion on an ordinance, see how you vote, and schedule their five minutes.
And it’s not up to the City Manager to change that process, any more than it’s up to her to decide against giving formal employee evaluations.