Passions ran high last night at the February ANC meeting as the commission addressed the deal between the city and the Maret School concerning the Jelleff fields. Constituencies from across the board were represented by speakers throughout the entire two hours spent talking about it. Huge kudos go to Chairman Ron Lewis for managing the contentious and difficult discussion. While it was the most dramatic ANC meeting GM has ever attended, the tenor of the discussions was civil and (for the most part) orderly.
Here’s an audio recording of the Jelleff discussion:
The Case for the Deal
The discussion started off with a brief statement from acting Director of Parks and Recreation, Jesús Aguirre. Aguirre began describing how great it was that the city purchased the land from the Boys and Girls club. He then casually transitioned into a discussion of the deal with Maret. But cutting to the chase: Aguirre has only been acting Director for two months. He had little to do with this process and, frankly, added little to the proceedings last night other than to acknowledge that the process was not ideal.
The responsibility to defend the deal fell primarily to Maret School Head Marjo Talbott. Talbott rested her defense on three main points:
This deal is substantively good for the city and the residents
This argument asserts that with a brand new field, the city is gaining so much more than it is losing to Maret’s exclusive-use hours. In GM’s opinion, there is a decent amount of merit to this point. The fields will endure rain, sleet, and snow significantly better than they do now. This will enable groups or individuals to use the fields at times when it would currently be unusable.
Additionally, Talbott asserted that Maret will only use 10% of the daylight hours. This is a tad disingenuous. Nobody is clamoring for field space at sunrise. The real issue is that limited band of peak hours when all the other fields in the city are being used. Maret has a ten year fixed reservation on a huge chunk of those peak hours for Jelleff.
Also, Talbott acknowledged that astroturf fields are only good for 10 years or so, but argued that only the carpet needs to be replaced. The community will continue to own a workable foundation, which according to her is the bulk of the expense. She was unable to quantify what percentage of the $2.5 million they may spend would represent capital improvements that would last longer than 10 years, but her point is fair nonetheless.
In all honesty, GM is still not sure whether this is a good or a bad deal for the city. And that’s the point. A broken process could produce an optimal result, but we’ll never know for sure.
The process was public
Talbott also asserted that this was a public process. To analyze this, GM has to walk you through the true story of this deal as it was revealed last night: Several years ago when the Boys and Girls club was first considering selling Jelleff, it sent out an RFP to interested parties to come forward with a possible lease arrangement that would obviate the need to sell the land. Maret was among several entities that submitted a proposal. They were selected by the Boys and Girls club as the preferred party to enter a three-way agreement with the city and the club.
About this time the city, led by Councilmember Jack Evans, decided that instead it would like to buy the property itself. Legislation was approved to buy three Boys and Girls clubs for $20 million. Rather than issue an RFP for the field and/or the gym, DPR simply moved ahead with negotiations with Maret on similar terms that were in their original proposal to the Boys and Girls club.
In Talbott’s view, other parties knew about this negotiation and could have stepped forward if they had their own proposal.
In all honesty, if this is Maret’s idea of a public and open process, GM seriously questions their civics curriculum. The RFP issued by the Boys and Girls club is completely irrelevant. The city could not simply operate under a third-party’s RFP and consider that acceptable. The fact remains that this deal was the result of back-room discussions. While some parties had an inkling that Maret was in discussions with DPR, that in no ways eliminates the necessity to engage in an open and public contracting process.
Maret acted in good faith and will continue to be good citizens
Talbott also argued that Maret has acted in good faith and will continue to be good citizens willing to work with the community. While Talbott made the unfortunate argument that those objecting to the process are merely angry at the result, from everything GM has seen so far, he can say with some confidence that, for the most part, Maret has acted in good faith and appears genuinely committed to cooperating with parties like Stoddert going forward. So, point to Maret.
The Case Against the Deal
Several groups spoke out either concerned about the deal or simply against it. First up was Stoddert Soccer. Nick Keenan essentially argued that so long as there are lights on the field, this is a good deal for Stoddert. But if lights are not built, this is probably a bad deal for Stoddert. In GM’s opinion, lights are a remote and distant dream. After years of fighting, they may finally get some sort of lights built but they will not be adequate for serious night-time play.
Marshall Bykofsky spoke forcefully against the deal on behalf of the Friends of Jelleff. He argued two veins, both that the process was bad and that the deal was bad. He argued that they did not know before it was too late to participate in any discussion. Their group is also concerned about the future of the gym, which is not subject to the agreement. They would like to see a new addition to the building but no additions will be able to be built since Maret won’t grant access to allow construction vehicle across the field during their hours. Talbott generously promised that in ten years they’ll be fully able to build then.
Finally, Peter Harding of the British School spoke. The British School now is the main user of Jelleff. They use the gym and fields during the school day and use the field after-school. Under the current plan they will be bumped from the after-school part of that schedule. Harding made it clear that the British School had deep pockets and would have submitted a bid if given a chance, which he claimed they were not. They are Exhibit A for the proposition that by following a back-door process, we’ll never know whether the city could have gotten a better deal from someone else.
It’s safe to say that the vast majority of the crowd was against the deal and wanted it scotched. (Two parents spoke in favor for the deal, but whispers around GM indicated that they both had or have children at Maret.)
GM himself weighed in. Although he wants to be clear, when he said deals like this are the very currency of corruption, he wasn’t saying that the parties involved in this deal are corrupt but rather that allowing deals like this to go forward allows corruption to fester. Insisting on a public and open process, no matter the parties involved, cuts off the corrupt from their source of “currency.” It is a basic, basic tenant of good government.
GM’s ANC rep Charlie Eason (in whose district Jelleff lies) kicked off the debate proposing a motion objecting to the process and asking forcefully that DPR and Maret void the agreement and start over again with a public RFP process. Commissioner Lewis offered an alternative that would essentially give up the fight to void the contract and instead strongly encouraged Maret and DPR to operate in a public and cooperative process going forward. After some reasoned and respectful back and forth, Charlie’s motion won the day. It was passed seven to zero.
What does that mean? GM doesn’t know. Aguirre asserted at the beginning of the meeting that the contracts were not voidable by DPR and Talbott indicated that Maret had no intention to void the contract. But there is still a chance that the Council could review this contract and void it. Eason offered, for example, that DPR’s authority to even enter into this contract may not have existed.
But on another level, insisting on redoing this contract is simply the right thing to do. If we shrug off back-room deals like this, then we simply don’t deserve good government. But GM doesn’t believe that’s true. We deserve better. While the effort to void the contract and start over with a public process may be futile, last night the ANC made a stand for good government.
The Rest of the Meeting
Jelleff wasn’t the only topic on the agenda last night, but GM is way too tired to write anything but bullets at this point:
- Like P St. in the East Village, 34th St. in the West Village will be losing its traffic lights.
- ABRA is considering issuing two new liquor licenses for Georgetown to address the 15 or so licenses that are held but aren’t being used.
- Farmers and Fishers sells a sandwich consisting of two grilled cheeses wrapped around a hamburger. GM’s cholesterol just jumped 30 points simply from writing that sentence.