I’m always happy to discuss any of my city council votes when folks reach out. There have been enough questions on this one that I figured a longer post was the best route to communicate and let people know what the issues were.
Here’s the bottom line: housing development was going to happen on this site, no matter what.
The developers owned the land and had approval from the city council 20 years ago to build there. They could build their original project at any time and there wasn’t anything anyone could do to stop it. The question before us on the council last November (when the main decision was made) wasn’t about building versus not building, it was about what was going to get built.
The property had changed hands over the years since the first approval. The original, approved plan from 20 years ago was for larger lots, larger houses, and in frankly the worst location possible: in the most ecologically-sensitive part of the land. These new owners had acquired other land that they wanted folded into the overall development plan, and they wanted to build more units, and more mid-size and small ones. We as a community want that, too. We’re in a housing crunch and we need more and smaller options for middle- and working-class families, not mansions. We also need continued construction work for tradespeople and union members.
Before I was on it, the city council voted against this updated development plan, even though it had been overwhelmingly approved by the Reno Planning Commission (5-1). The developer then sued the city. If they had won that lawsuit, the city would have had to pay potentially 100s of millions in damages, and the not-great building plans would STILL have been approved.
The city was required by the court to enter into settlement talks with the developer. I was one of the two councilmembers selected to take part in those talks (probably because I was not on the council when the first vote happened, and I have been a lawyer for 20 years). I read through thousands of pages of technical filings, legal documents, and reviews. I listened to experts and community members, and worked hard to get concessions and improvements. I met with our planning staff, our lawyers, the developers, and opponents of the project multiple times. In the end, I made a judgement call. My call was based on several factors:
1) In my professional estimation as a lawyer after more than 200 hours of studying this case, I felt that the city was going to lose the lawsuit (remember, that means costing Reno taxpayers potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and still ending up with a worse project).
2) The settlement proposal moved the development out of the most ecologically-sensitive part of the land, added flood protections, required the developer to chip in significantly more for parks and fire service, and added smaller housing unit types. IMPORTANTLY, this new plan was developed with the consultation and sign-off of the region’s pre-eminent hydrologist and wetlands expert in order to improve and lessen the project’s environmental impact.
So, when the final vote was taken, it was a choice between: (a) taking a massive risk with taxpayer money on a lawsuit or (b) taking the settlement offer. I chose the settlement offer. It was not an easy call and I certainly respect my colleagues who came down on the other side. I just want to be very clear with folks that it wasn’t a choice of Daybreak vs. no Daybreak. The Daybreak development was going to happen either way. My vote was for an improved, imperfect project with more affordable housing and jobs, rather than a lawsuit we would have likely lost, leading to a less environmentally responsible development with basically no affordable housing units.
(For an example of the opposite settlement outcome on a different unrelated lawsuit, check out this article from This Is Reno concerning the Mortensen Ranch litigation:
There are lots of parallels in this article and it might help folks to understand how each decision was arrived at.)
This is a really long post, and runs against a lot of standard PR and campaign “best practices” (I’m “keeping the story alive”). So why post it?
Because you deserve to know how I think, and how I make decisions. I want to include you in this – as you have probably seen, I like to engage.
Leadership is about making the best decision you can with the situation in front of you, not the situation you wish for. That always requires balancing competing interests. It requires putting in the hours to understand the array of scientific reports, legal issues, and community impacts. I’m definitely “that guy,” curled up in bed with the briefing book, annoying my husband who just wants to go to sleep. I take this stuff very seriously so you don’t have to. I hope you’ll allow me to continue doing that work for you, and all of us.
Finally, I’ll address the last part of the question: Why take campaign contributions from the developers?
The answer is that this is the system we live in. I don’t get to make the laws on campaign finance. As long as contributions are how campaigns are funded, there will always be perceived conflicts of interest. Everybody who contributes gives money because they hope that elected officials will act a certain way. Many are simply supporting the person they think will act in the best interest of the community on whatever issue comes before them. There are donors on both sides of just about every big issue—opponents of Daybreak gave big contributions, too. Almost every large contribution to councilmembers comes from organizations that have some business before the city council. If you only take contributions where you agree with the givers’ interest you are setting yourself up to create conflicts. The only way to avoid conflicts of interest is to take all legal contributions. If you look at the C&E (Contributions and Expenses) reports of any candidate you are bound to find some contribution you don’t like, no matter what side of the political fence you’re on. I personally believe we need campaign finance reform or publicly financed campaigns. We certainly don’t need wealthy folks pretending to loan their campaigns money under the guise of neutrality—that would leave us with only wealthy folks being qualified to run for office.
Campaign contributions should never factor into our decisions. For me, contributions are used to share my campaign’s vision, and, especially during the pandemic, to share important community resources and information. I believe in public service and view this job as an act of service. Yes, I know everybody says that; it’s up to you to judge who you trust when they do. I hope I have or will earn your trust, and your support. Grace and peace to you all.