by Max Brantley
Speaking of unilateral exercise of authority:
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today did further reporting on a subject it has mentioned previously -- City Manager Bruce Moore's granting of waivers from building permit and street closure fees for downtown construction projects -- $130,000 worth for Moses Tucker Real Estate's River Market Tower. No link to the story is currently available, but I've put the introduction of the story on the jump.
The waivers follow a long city practice of encouraging welcome downtown redevelopment.
But this is what particularly caught my eye:
Mayor Mark Stodola and City Attorney Tom Carpenter said they think Moore’s general supervisory power over city departments extends to waiving fees for this project.
“I think it’s clearly within the discretion of the manager to do that,” Stodola said, citing Arkansas Code 14-47-120. The statute, which doesn’t specifically address waiving fees, says, “To the extent that such authority is vested in him or her through an ordinance enacted by the board of directors, a city manager may supervise and control all administrative departments, agencies, offices, and employees.”
Here I go again, practicing law without a license, but I call horse hockey on this argument. I don't believe administrative control confers a right to nullify city ordinances. If it does, we need to rethink the law. It's an invitation to favoritism, at a minimum, and runaway corruption at worst.
If the unelected city manager can waive statutory street closing fees, he can override code enforcement citations, parking tickets, franchise fees and every other one of the thousands of rules set out by city ordinance. This is power Strong Mayor Stodola has only in his dreams.
If the city manager does decide to hold one favored property owner exempt, say, from weed lot ordinances, there's not much anyone can do about it. You can file suit over illegal exactions. But I don't think there's a reverse process by which you can make someone pay a lawful fee that a city official has waived.
Like so many things the city has done with good intentions and demonstrable public benefits -- Clinton Library, anyone?, or the midnight tax waiver for the Acxiom office building, or this laudable condo project -- the worthy goals can be accomplished without giving voters another reason not to trust City Hall. You have a project of demonstrable benefit to the city ? You think it deserves help to the limited extent the city can provide it? Fine. Announce the proposed benefit in public, with sufficient notice, and have the City Board vote on it.
I had this same conversation yesterday with Rush Harding about the UCA Board of Trustees' secret use of its private slush fund. If the actions are defensible, why be reluctant to publicize them and approve them in a public vote?
Amen to City Director Joan Adock, who told the D-G Little Rock would benefit from clarifying the city manager's authority.
“I think that is important that people look at city code and know what’s expected,” she said. “I would like to revisit the code and come up with the exceptions that say what’s 100 percent so it doesn’t look like we’re doing certain things for certain people.”
FROM THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
LITTLE ROCK — Little Rock’s city manager gave Moses Tucker Real Estate more than $130,000 in unusual fee waivers on its $65 million River Market Tower condominium project, records show.
Such waivers are rare here, if not unique, and came about four months before the city ended 2007 with a $3.2 million budget deficit. Since then, officials have been scouring the city’s $134million budget for sources of additional revenue or places to cut expenses. Building-related fees are factored into the city’s annual budgets and account for $2.8 million of revenue projections for 2008 - $100,000 more than last year.
In all, City Manager Bruce Moore said he waived $216,669 in building permit and sidewalk and street closure fees for the condos. The building per-mit fee would have amounted $110,937; and the street closure fee, $105,732.
As a residential project in one of five neighborhoods targeted for revitalization, the Third Street development qualified for a 75 percent building permit fee discount authorized by city ordinance. Moore took the unprecedented step of also waiving the remaining 24 percent, or $27,734, as well as the entire street closure fee - adding $133,466 to the reduction set by ordinance.