City Councilor Ken Camera responded to questions and comments, and shared some previously unknown details of the lakefront parcel sale process, at Geneva Public Library on Wednesday during the first public meeting about the sale. The forum, organized by Camera (who was the only City Councilor in attendance), drew around 30 attendees from across the city.
The meeting opened with Camera offering a statement, which he began by saying that there was no intent on part of city officials to prevent the public from knowing about the sale; rather, they had been “bumbling through” the process. Camera stated that the City had still technically “followed the process” for a sale of public land, with the public hearing being approved at the June Council meeting, the “Request for Proposals” (RFP) being posted on the city’s website between July and September, the public hearing taking place at the July meeting, and the subsequent approval of the sale in November.
However, Camera said that the city had done a “really bad job of publicizing (the sale),” that there should have been a map displayed during the public hearing, and that overall it was a “badly done process.” Last Friday (the day that the story of the sale broke in the Finger Lakes Times) or possibly Saturday, Camera asked Council (via email) to hold a special public meeting to address residents’ concerns. After some on Council “pushed back,” Camera told Council that he wanted to change his vote.
The sale needed (and received) a supermajority of six votes and was approved at the November Council meeting; without Camera’s vote, the resolution would need to be revisted. After Camera stated that he wanted to change his vote, he said that Council “began to step back.”
Shortly thereafter, according to Camera, City Manager Matt Horn told Council via email that he felt that he “didn’t do a good job” with the process. After being advised by the City attorney that the process may have been flawed, Horn stated that the land sale process should be re-done.
How It Happened
Camera gave his description of how it all played out:
Earlier in the year, the City received an unsolicited proposal to purchase the land from local businessman David Bunnell. Bunnell offered to buy the land for $275,000, contingent upon the city taking responsibility for doing the appropriate testing and research to confirm that the parcel could be built upon. The proposal was rejected. Later, Bunnell resubmitted an offer, and this proposal was discussed by Council in executive session, and one Councilor suggested that the public hearing/RFP process should begin. It was decided that City staff would work on the sale process. The accepted proposal, which was approved at the November City Council meeting, had a final price tag of $200,000, with the city taking no responsibility for making sure the land was “clean” and ready to build, and with an additional stipulation allowing Bunnell 120 days to investigate the parcel and decide whether or not to finalize the purchase once it was approved by Council.
One notable piece of information was that the first phase of the plan was to build 14 ‘seasonal chalets’ on the property. The second phase would bring the total to 32 units, and those additional units would be condominiums “for seniors.” It was pointed out by Camera that this promise of housing for seniors might be seen as a cynical move by the developer to make the idea of condos more appealing, as senior housing is a hot political issue in the city at this time.
Camera admitted that he and other Councilors may have been “partly asleep at the switch,” as he wasn’t fully aware that the November vote would be the final vote until it was happening. He then offered his reasons for approving the sale:
- The sale would prevent a land swap with the State Park, which would give the City a strip of land along the shoreline, which would be very likely to attract developers.
- The City is “broke” and needs the money.
- Visitors staying at the rental locations would provide an economic boost for Geneva.
At this point, Camera said that options are being explored once the decision is made to ‘reset’ the process, including public hearings, a period for RFP submissions, and whether Bunnell’s RFP would need to be resubmitted.
To his credit, Councilor Camera displayed a very clear recognition that the public trust had been violated by the land sale process, and that this was a serious issue that needed to be rectified.
After a long discussion with attendees, who expressed anger and frustration at the lack of transparency, as well as their opinions on how the land could be more sensibly used, those in attendance appeared to agree that the sale should be completely stopped and the entire process restarted. If Council decides to revisit the sale at their December City Council meeting and the re-vote ends up with a supermajority in favor, the sale would go through. Therefore, it’s imperative that the sale be stopped completely and reset to the beginning.
Now is the time for Geneva citizens to speak up. Call and/or email your City Councilors and Mayor. Let them know that you support a complete reset of the sale process, with sufficient public feedback and an open and transparent solicitation of proposals. Let them know that you found the lack of transparency in the process to be unacceptable, and that you expect them to make this right. 30 people at a meeting is a good turnout, but it’s not enough (remember, the Mayor ignored a petition signed by 131 residents who asked for City Council public comment period to be restored to its original agenda location).
Click on the “Contact City Council” link at the top of the page for email addresses and phone numbers for all of City Council. I have added this link due to many complaints from attendees at the meeting who were unable to find email addresses for City Council on the City’s website (where users must click on a Councilor’s name to open a popup window, and then locate a tiny email symbol in the upper left corner of the popup.)
Attendees at the meeting expressed concerns mostly ranging from frustration to outrage. While I was unable to record direct quotes and names of all attendees, here is a sample of some points of discussion:
- After years of “develop or not develop” debate, the City needs to formulate a final, official concept plan for the lakefront.
- The majority of attendees (with the exception of one or two) voted in a show of hands to keep the lakefront green and free of development forever.
- It was suggested (and many in attendance agreed) that the City should simply stop mowing the property and gift it to the State Park, providing a buffer and extended habitat for wildlife in the adjacent wetland of the state park, where foxes, turtles, groundhogs, a multitude of birds, and others make their home(s) throughout the year.
- More City Councilors should have been at the meeting, rather than allowing Councilor Camera to do it alone.
- City residents should take at least some responsibility for the land sale fiasco, as more of us need to work together and stay vigilant in monitoring the activities of city officials and Council.
- Many attendees were angry that the land sale was discussed in City Council executive session (out of the public’s view), yet was poorly advertised to the public.
- Although Camera insisted that there was “no conspiracy” to prevent the public from knowing about the sale, some attendees still believed that there was a deliberate attempt to obscure the process from the public eye, if not by Council, then by city staff.
- Attendees were (obviously) angry at the overall lack of transparency, and wanted to look closely at why it happened, and how it can be prevented from happening again.
Keep an eye on Geneva Believer for more updates.