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Commercial input questioned at council meeting

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Who has the ear of city officials?

Springfield City Council member Craig Hosmer raised that question last night in a discussion of a measure that would amend the city code to eliminate the requirement of a security deposit by contractors when applying for a land disturbance permit.

Ron Petering, assistant director of environmental services for the city, introduced the measure to council during the governing body’s regular meeting Monday night. The bill would amend the Springfield City Code section on land disturbance activity.

Petering said the current requirement for contractors to post a security bond or letter of credit is time-consuming to administer and can delay the construction process by a week or more. The current process also requires contractors to tie up financial capital, Petering said.

The security requirement is replaced in the proposed bill by an alternative security mechanism similar to the city’s handling of other property-related nuisances, Petering said. The city can address erosion issues as a public nuisance and then take abatement action and seek reimbursement for expenses incurred.

According to the city’s website, a land disturbance permit is necessary for all sites disturbing an acre or more of land, or for smaller sites that are part of a larger development project. Fees range from $546 for sites of 1-5 acres to $728 for sites over 20 acres.

Petering told council enforcement occurs when management practices at a construction site allow mud to get on streets or tracked into streams, or at the end of construction when a site is ready to open but doesn’t have its ground cover restored yet.

Who advised city officials?
At issue for Hosmer is the origin of the measure. He asked Petering if the change was recommended and initiated by staff or by an outside entity, and Petering replied that the recommendation was an internal one. But, Petering said, “The review was probably based on feedback from outside.”

Hosmer asked which groups reviewed the proposed change, and Petering replied that it was a technical committee that included representatives from local design firms, the Springfield Contractors Association and the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s Growth & Development Advisory Council.

Hosmer took issue with the fact that the committee is part of the chamber, an organization that advocates for the interests of business. “And they’re making the recommendation that we change the security things to make it easier for businesses to do their projects,” he said.

Hosmer asked who met with the chamber, and Petering replied that the director did. Petering was referring to Director of Environmental Services Errin Kemper. Hosmer also inquired if the meeting took place at the chamber.

“And the growth and development committee? They support this?” Hosmer asked. “Did you take this proposal to any environmental groups or any public health groups? Who instructed you on who you were going to get review from?”

Hosmer’s concern was that only commercial stakeholders had the ear of city officials.

“My frustration at least is that sometimes we only go to groups that are the development groups,” Hosmer said. “We don’t go to neighborhood groups, we don’t go to environmental groups, we don’t get a good cross section of the community, and I think that’s fundamentally unfair to this community to not get the good broad section of what our public policy is going to be.”

Petering countered that when seeking feedback, it is mostly a matter of considering how broad to go to get effective feedback. “But your comments are well taken,” he said.

What public input should be disclosed?
Springfield City Manager Jason Gage reacted to Hosmer’s suggestion that the chamber’s Growth & Development Advisory Council is a special interest group, although he noted that it is a committee that the chamber has supported. “In essence, it’s their volunteer committee,” he said.

Hosmer said that merely by looking at the written bill, he would not have known that the chamber council had been involved in the process. When asked if he would want to receive a record of public input, Hosmer said, “If there’s an interest group that’s gotten first-hand knowledge, then yes.”

Gage asked if Hosmer would want to see that information for every item put in front of the council for which there is public engagement.

“If there’s a change in public policy that’s recommended and staff has gotten input and made changes at the recommendation of a different entity, then yes, I think we should see that,” Hosmer said, adding this should be the case for all council action, not just that related to the building community.

Councilmember Richard Ollis disagreed with Hosmer.

“I think we’re going to slow this thing down to an absolute crawl, and frankly, I’ll just tell you we have been criticized as a community for being difficult to deal with,” Ollis said. “I think this is a step in the right direction.”

He added this sort of measure can make Springfield a more desirable place for business.

Councilmember Andrew Lear was the first to express questions about the origin of the code revision and the possible elimination of the security deposit. Lear said, “If you’re holding someone’s money, you have the best leverage to get them to do what they need to do, and our track record with abatements and nuisances has not always been the best, so I’m a little concerned about that.”

Chamber officials were unavailable for comment by deadline.

The measure is scheduled for a council vote at the July 26 meeting.

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