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Mayor Chided for Land Deal

By Dan Mckay
Journal Staff Writer
    There might be a revenue crunch, but there was no shortage of heated rhetoric at City Hall on Tuesday as Councilor Debbie O’Malley blasted Mayor Martin Chávez over the way he handled the purchase of a balloon-landing site at Vista del Norte and Osuna NE.
    She said the deal cut by Chavez to acquire 17 acres while leaving the developer with five acres for light development was “unethical” and a violation of the City Charter. She said the mayor ignored the council’s wishes and was acting more and more like a “little king.”
    For his part, the mayor said it was a good deal all around and that it was time for everyone to act like an adult.
    The council had approved two resolutions saying it wanted to acquire the 22-acre site for balloons and sports fields. The second resolutions aimed to move money for the purchase under council control, meaning the mayor’s administration couldn’t make the deal on its own.
    Chávez thwarted that attempt this week when he announced the $4.7 million purchase of 17 acres, leaving the other five available for development along Osuna.
    Council President Brad Winter said some councilors are looking into hiring outside legal counsel to determine whether the mayor overstepped his authority.
    “The purchase violates” the City Charter, O’Malley said. “It was unethical. It violates the will of the council.”
    The administration disagreed. The second council resolution hadn’t taken legal effect when the city committed to the land deal the week of June 9, said Ed Adams, the new chief administrative officer and top executive under Chávez.
    And the mayor said it would have been inappropriate for him to do what the council had sought — acquire all 22 acres — because five of the acres were near power lines, making them unsuitable for balloon landings.
    The city could run into legal questions if it uses money slated for balloon improvements on land that wasn’t for landings, Chávez said. The deal also saved the city money, he said.
    “At some point, someone has to be fiscally responsible and adult about this,” Chávez said. “Everybody got what they needed. This is good government.”
    The dispute is the latest twist in a struggle between the administration and council.
    O’Malley’s case rests on two resolutions approved by councilors. The first, adopted in April last year, set aside money to “fund the acquisition of the approximately 22-acre tract of land” near Vista del Norte and Osuna NE. It authorized the mayor to buy it.
    The administration negotiated with the landowner after the resolution was passed.
    But councilors felt the mayor wasn’t moving fast enough, among other concerns, so they unanimously adopted another resolution June 2. That one moved money for the purchase into a council fund and authorized the council president to enter into agreements for the land acquisition.
    The administration, meanwhile, “contractually committed” to the 17-acre deal the following week, Adams said. The second council bill hadn’t taken effect because the mayor still had 10 days to sign or veto it, he said.
    That time would have expired around June 12. The mayor neither signed nor vetoed the bill, so it was “enacted” June 16, according to city clerk’s records.
    O’Malley said the 10 days aren’t a “grace period.” The council already had voted to establish its policy on the site acquisition, she said, and the City Charter calls for the mayor to comply with resolutions of the city.
    “He just continues to push and push and push and act more and more like a little king,” O’Malley said. “We have to act in some way” to respond to the mayor.
    Chávez maintains that to do what the council wanted would have been “inappropriate” because some of the land couldn’t be used by balloons. Still, he said, he complied with the acquisition policies on the books.
    “I did exactly as I was directed,” Chávez said.
    Furthermore, he said, the city is dealing with a tight economy and a budget much smaller than last year’s. The deal he agreed to will provide development-related revenue to the city and save on acquisition costs, he said.
    The council’s second bill had legal problems, Chávez said, because the council president isn’t authorized to handle an executive function like acquiring land.
    Balloon Fiesta leaders appeared with the mayor at a news conference Tuesday to praise the acquisition of the 17 acres.