Columbia mayor: Housing development petitions are reckless, should be invalidated

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 | 5:32 p.m. CDT; updated 1:30 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 7, 2014

COLUMBIA — Columbia Mayor Bob McDavid wants city staff to invalidate the petition put forth by residents trying to repeal Opus Development Co.'s agreement with the city to build a 256-bed apartment building downtown because it lacked the correct language.

"I think the health of the city demands that I ask the staff to issue in some way, if you can, an invalidation of this petition," McDavid said at the close of Monday's City Council meeting.

City Counselor Nancy Thompson, reached by phone Tuesday morning, had no comment on any matter relating to pending litigation by Opus , including whether the language in the petition was legal.

According to Section 129 of the city charter, a petition must include the exact text of the ordinance it's repealing, which the residents' petition doesn't have.

Thompson and City Clerk Sheela Amin declined to comment on whether petitioners would have the 14 days allotted in the city charter to fix an invalid petition.

Jeremy Root, spokesman for the group circulating the petition, said Monday night in a text: "Why should 3,600 citizens in Columbia have to sign the same repeal petition twice? The will of the people is clear."

Columbia lawyer Robert Hollis, who's representing Opus, gave the city a deadline of close of business Tuesday to rule the petition invalid or face legal action.

Opus President Dave Menke, in a statement released Tuesday morning, said: "We remain hopeful that the city will honor its commitment," adding that the firm was prepared to sue, "to recoup our losses and preserve Opus' legal rights."

Opus spokeswoman Erika Frederick said the company has until the end of May to buy the land needed for the project, on Locust Street between Seventh and Eighth streets, to remain on track to open in August 2015.

Opus has threatened to sue for up to $5 million if the city repeals the development agreement passed March 19.As part of the agreement, Opus would pay $450,000 above standard fees for improvements to sewer and water utilities in order to receive council permission for the project.

Residents filed a petition to repeal the project because they believed the process was too swift and lacked public input.

McDavid called the petition "reckless and irresponsible." If Opus prevailed in a lawsuit, he said, it could cripple the city financially. 

"A $5-million loss to our general fund would cripple some of our infrastructure needs," McDavid said. "I believe that the petition mischaracterized city council action, and I believe it created false pretenses to the people who signed it."

"As much as we're struggling to find three more police officers and fully fund our fire fighters, the thought of hiring attorneys to manage this litigation is intolerable to me," McDavid said.

He said the petition didn't properly inform signers that the city could face legal action if the petition were found valid. It's the responsibility of people circulating a petition to inform residents about the risks, he said during a Tuesday morning interview.

McDavid said litigation against the city could potentially lower the city's bond rating, which would mean the city would pay more interest on its debt.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said city staff had told the council of the issues and risks surrounding the petition and the potential lawsuit during a closed council meeting before the Monday's regular session.

Skala said lawyers look into the letter of the law, but he, as a politician, thinks about the spirit of the law and takes the will of the 3,600 people who signed into account.

"This is a very politically toxic environment to be making these kinds of decisions," he said.

Art Auer, director of elections at the Boone County Clerk's office, said early Tuesday afternoon that petition signatures were still being evaluated to see how many are registered voters. He said the process could be completed in the next few days.

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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Mike Martin April 22, 2014 | 9:42 p.m.

Our city leaders would do well to do some due diligence. I think we're on the third or 4th out-of-state developer with a sketchy past in as many years that City Hall can't seem to bend over backwards enough to accomodate.

"Prior to dumping Opus East into bankruptcy, the Opus insiders cherry-picked the most valuable assets and left hundreds of millions in unpaid claims," attorney Patrick Coffin explained in the WaPo article. "After shedding these obligations, the same group of people continue to do business today as The Opus Group."

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm April 23, 2014 | 10:28 a.m.

McDavid and Nauser were the only sane voices in this mess.

(Report Comment)
dan elliott April 23, 2014 | 12:00 p.m.

perhaps if the city would put the same effort in working with the people as they want to do with the developer the Mayor would not have a problem like this. the Mayor is giddy with development when he needs to see to the existing city before looking to developers.

(Report Comment)

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