To The Citizens of Lebanon . . . 'West Side Park' Task Force Experience
First of all, I would like to thank Mayor Bernie Ash for allowing me the honor of serving this city by having enough confidence to make me one of his three choices for the West Side Park "Task Force". I'm sure you have heard a little about the proposal already. I must admit I am feeling inadequate right now as if I might have let the Mayor down and the taxpayers of Lebanon. Ultimately it's the peoples desires that count regardless of my experience.
I came into the process enthused with an open mind to perform my civic duty. I did my due diligence. I met with the Mayor to have an understanding of the task at hand. I viewed the property being donated before our first meeting. I began to do research on the project and the entities involved in bringing the "Park" to fruition. Unfortunately I was becoming concerned at each reveal. I began to fear this was not such a great option for our city and we hadn't even begun the process. Please allow me to do what so many of us do with our close friends . . . vent our feelings of frustration. Don't get me wrong, I like many of these individuals involved but their sense of ethics I question.
I loved the fact that the land was adjacent to the proposed new Music City Star train stop, but other than that the land is not what most people would expect when envisioning a park. Most everyone has driven down Lebanon Road past the Hamilton Springs development. All of the land is beautiful! However, the actual land being considered for this 'Park' is really not suitable for that kind of use due to extreme topography. This nagging feeling began to trouble me on the front end. What was the real reason to even consider such an endeavor when the city already owns other land that is more accommodating for this type of project? Furthermore, these 15 acres of rolling hills are located towards the back of the development without acreage fronting Highway 70. In other words it 'feels' like an investment by the city benefiting citizens who reside within the Hamilton Springs development and not for all Lebanon citizens. Most concerning is the Hamilton Station residents rent their residences and don't even pay their fair share of taxes. Oh well, upwards and onward. I was quite sure I could get over my initial reaction.
I began to gather additional facts to be prepared for the first meeting. A Resolution had been adopted and passed unanimously by the sitting council under Mayor Craighead to commit to a loan of up to 5 million dollars. It would eventually become a loan with an amortization schedule over approximately 25 years. With the interest included this could make the debt well over 6 million if all of the money was drawn and used. The city had already committed $750,000 to a new road within the development to get to the 'Park'. Wow, we could possibly be up to 7 million when it is all said and done. This money will be enhancing the value of this private developer's project. My eyes were widening. Five million is really too much for a 'Park' and 3 million is too much for a 'Park' on that particular land in my view. No wonder the new Mayor, Bernie Ash had vetoed this just 30 minutes into his new administration. The plot had thickened but I realize this type of transaction is not totally uncommon. My antennas were up again however when I was told that the gentleman who is a partner in the development sits on the Council and actually voted for the improvement . . . on his own land! I said to myself, have they never heard of the word recuse here in Lebanon? Just to let you in on a secret, I am not a native. After more investigation, a tax write-off would also be available to the private developers of somewhere around $1.5 million based on the value of the land. Ok, my eyes were getting bigger and bigger, but I was forging on. The first meeting of our "Task Force" was set for Thursday, February 9, 2017 at 6pm. I was ready.
Upon arriving at City Hall we all introduced ourselves. The architectural firm designing the 'Park' would be presenting what I call the old dog and pony show. I've seen many of them. It starts with some survey that suggests what is good for us, or what we need. There were 8 Task Force members but several others in the room. The Parks Director, Public Works, Economic Development Director, and the Councilman from Ward 6 who was donating the land! What? These people were considered ex officio members on the Task Force. Well this is certainly going to be hard to speak openly in this meeting I thought. We waited for the 9th Task Force member to arrive who was about 30 minutes late. Our agenda was laid out and our Chairman was to be chosen. Low and behold, the lady who came in late was swiftly nominated as the Chairman. Later I was told this young lady was the Councilman donating the land's choice for the Task Force. How did that happen? It just seemed so well planned.
The presentation was given and our schedule was dictated to us without any consideration of our availability. We would have about 45 days in all to design this entire project. I kept thinking, what was the rush especially when we are talking 5 million dollars. At the end of the meeting there was one more eye opener. Actually an eye roll for me . . . the architectural firm chosen for this project by the city was the same firm working for the developers of Hamilton Springs. These words rang out in my ear when one of the firm's associates said, "Well I actually serve two masters, the Bells (the developers) and the city." Ok, now this was just the first meeting and I was getting a very sick feeling in my stomach. The words 'conflict of interest' was definitely coming to mind.
Once home after the initial meeting, I promptly emailed the Chairman and asked her to allow the 9 Task Force members to have alone time during the next meeting to talk privately without the city employees and without the ex-officio members. I was promptly told, no! NO!?! Was she kidding? She told me no? Ok, the gloves were coming off! After another meeting or two, there was a mass email invitation by one of our Task Force members affiliated with the local radio station. She wanted 3 volunteers to come on the radio. Well I've had lots of experience with that. I replied all with a yes that I would like to participate but not as swiftly as the Chair and the Vice Chair. Another email came rolling into my inbox from Mr. Bell, ex-officio member. He recommended the Chair and the Vice Chair do the interview. He clearly didn't want me to have the opportunity to speak out. It was never discussed again and I was definitely excluded. The dots were beginning to line up.
Open House night came on March 30th. I was cheerful and stationed myself at the door to greet folks; I gave them an overview of the evening and also passed out stickers to put on the proposed park elements they liked best. During one of the previous meetings I made sure the kids were to be given different colored stickers so we could differentiate between tax paying adults and children just looking at pretty pictures. Now we had between 85 and 100 people attend. We all agreed it was a good turnout especially with bad weather. However, I've never seen so many cousins, aunts, uncles, bosses and friends of city employees and the people on the Task Force. Where I come from, the phrase that might be used to describe this was "the fix was in". Of course they were in favor of the 'Park' and consequently all for the one element I had questioned at a previous meeting . . . the Amphitheatre. Good thing we did utilize the two colors of sticker's concept because the kids wanted a zoo, hotel, underwater shark swimming and Sea World. Ok, this was turning out to be a real thorough study of what should be included in this 'Park'. Most importantly, I had totally been shot down when requesting to have costs revealed to the public for each of these elements. Have you ever imagined buying a car without knowing the price? Well not too worry I was told, we were given a ballpark figure of around 3.9 million dollars for the design proposed thus far. We were told we were under budget so there is nothing to complain about. We will have to include the fee for the architectural firm on top of the final design however. They will receive 7.5% of the cost of what they design, which would more than likely come to around 400k in the end. No one has talked too much about that. But not a bad paycheck when you appear to be getting paid twice on the same project from two sources.
Two more meetings were originally scheduled after the open house. Thank God, this is almost over. But wait an email has come through and the last meeting has been cancelled before the final plan goes to the Council for approval. Wow, are we going to get more time to work on this? Has someone finally come to their senses? I had repeatedly requested during the meetings to wait and see what the new train stop will look like before proceeding with the design. But since so much dirt work will have to be performed it will be a bit ambiguous as to whose budget that is really coming out of if all of this is going on at the same time. Maybe I am just becoming paranoid at this point but it's the only reason I can think of as to why we are in such a hurry. We've waited two years for the station to be built in this location. What's wrong with waiting to finalize plans for this park? Let's get it right!
I attended the next scheduled meeting on April 6th. The revised plan was presented and oddly enough the splash pool was recommended to be eliminated by none other than the Chair due to ongoing maintenance costs. Wow, some objective discussion for once. A lot of talk then ensued around the amphitheater. Performers suggested were cloggers, young swing dancers, but then also name acts like Tracy Lawrence and Gretchen Wilson were tossed out there. Well, I can assure you, name attractions are going to have power and stage requirements. This discussion was definitely what I would describe as 'Amateur Night in Dixie.' No one in the room had any idea what we were building this for or who was going to perform in it; but no worries that we were going to saddle the public with paying a quarter of a million dollars for it. Again, this plan needs more time to formulate to say the least. At this point I had a migraine and it was getting worse. All of a sudden there was some kind of vote to send certain items back for further design. I voted yes, anything to get this exercise of futility over. But that is when it happened, the Task Force was dismissed. We were done . . . . . . Completely done. Councilman Rob Cesternino came in and thanked us for our service. What happened? Did I vote for this? Did I just go on record saying I was for spending all this money on some trails, a dog park, a playground, and some kind of stage? I had to get home because I was completely nauseated.
The next day I was feeling better but angered, hoodwinked. I was going to do some more research and talk to the other Task Force members who were very suspect of this process as well. More information was revealed that maybe other Councilmen were being prompted to vote for this 'Park' with promises for things pushed through in their district. Please look up the meaning of quid pro quo. Regardless of new information that pointed in that direction, I was out of options except to go straight to the people. So here I am, apologizing. I don't think I was competent enough to serve the people of this city. I tried. I was simply out maneuvered. And I guess I'm here if only to set the record straight; to go on record and say I am in favor of a Park. I really don't care if it is on the West side of town or where it is. I just want it to be well thought out. My daddy always said, "Haste makes waste".
The week had finally arrived for the official presentation from the culmination of all our hard work together. The Task Force was told from the beginning, back in February this would be on the agenda of the regularly scheduled Council meeting dated Tuesday, April 18, 2018. This meeting gives all citizens the opportunity to speak on the subject before the vote. However, in keeping with the 'shady' methods that I have described throughout this process the West Side Park was never officially placed on the Agenda. Rob Cesternino and Rick Bell decided on Monday at a council workshop, they would override the Mayor, suspend the rules and utilize a little known procedure to push this vote through, the 'Drop-in Ordinance'. What in the hell is that? Well, here is where it gets good. The Tuesday Council meeting began. The agenda was printed and also read to the public by the Mayor. No mention of course of the 'Park'. The Chairperson and her minions were there to circumvent anything I might say. The Citizens Communication period began and three of us bravely stood up to give our last plea before the Council to limit the funds to 2 million dollars for the park and dispute for the record that we voted for this Master Plan approval. One of the Task Force members questioned the Ward 6 Councilor, Mr. Bell if he was preparing to recuse himself from the vote. He eventually stated that because he was only indirectly benefiting from this vote, that yes he WOULD vote. Did he say indirectly? Sir, may I remind you that you still own this land. You are receiving a tax benefit. The city is enhancing your development with public funds. Can you say political suicide? For God sake, please just recuse already! It's important to note that Mr. Bell possibly doesn't understand this simple gesture because he has never run for the seat he is sitting in. He has never received a vote from anyone. He was appointed by the former Mayor that started all of this mess. Or maybe he is just arrogant enough to throw this vote right back in our faces. He must feel protected somehow. However, he may understand the ramifications of this night somewhere in the future about two years from now. Anyway back to the meeting. The 'Ordinance' is presented at the end of the night. The roll call vote is taken and it is passes unanimously 6-0. Over and done, just the way they had planned for all these months. WOW!!! I was right all along. Now what? Well, I call on you the people, all of the people of the City of Lebanon. Get involved. Call your Councilman. Ask them NOT to spend allocated 5 million dollars on the West Side Park - the Bell Park. Ask them to do the right thing for all taxpayers. Suggest terminating the original Resolution and spread the funds around on other green spaces throughout the city with possible greenways that connect them all. Let's dial it back . . . and think this thing through, thoroughly. Stay tuned.
Respectfully Submitted - Traci Peel