Opponents of Housing Authority of Columbus’ now defunct plans to build 100 apartments around the historic Liberty Theatre showed up in full force to a City Council meeting Tuesday.
The group voiced its concerns about the city’s handling of the project and reiterated their support for a 2003 master plan that called for mixed-use development around the theater.
Tollie Strode, a former member of the housing authority’s board of directors, said opponents of the agency's project are working on selecting a “champion” for the 2003 Liberty District Master Plan. He called on the city council to show its commitment to the plan by including a line item in the budget, passing an ordinance and appointing a state representative to help with the next phase of implementation.
Strode also called on the Housing Authority to represent the interest of its constituency and not politics.
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“The residents of BTW are important citizens in our community and deserve better than the appearance of being used to advance a political or business agenda,” he said.
Other speakers included Zeph Baker, Will Lawrence, Nadine Moore, and Strode’s wife, Gloria. Most were members of the Concerned Citizens Coalition, which led strong opposition to the housing authority’s plans to demolish BTW and build the apartments around the theater.
The project was scheduled to go the City Council Tuesday for a vote, but the housing authority backed out of the plans a little over a week ago due the community backlash.
In her comments, Gloria Strode sparked a lengthy debate about legal notices that appeared in the Ledger-Enquirer notifying the community about the public hearing that was to be held Tuesday for the project. The notices said that anyone wishing to speak in opposition who had made a contribution of $250 or more to a local official of the City of Columbus within the last two years had to complete a Disclosure of Contributions form.
Although it is state law, Strode and Councilors Jerry “Pops” Barnes and Judy Thomas said it was the first time they had seen the city enforce the requirement. Barnes said it seemed the city was trying to suppress opposition.
“I’ve never seen it in all my time on the council,” Barnes said. “Why is it in all the zoning cases that it was never brought up?”
City Attorney Clifton Fay and Planning Department Director Rick Jones told the group that it was standard procedure since 1988. And Tomlinson argued that city councilors also have to disclose financial interests on any property that they’re voting on for rezoning. She said she was concerned, based on Barnes' comments, that some councilors may have been voting on projects unaware that they had to disclose the information.
Thomas pointed out that state law requires elected officials to disclose their financial interests in a property, not campaign contributions. It is applicants and opponents of rezoning that have to reveal their contributions, and the city attorney agreed.
City Manager Isaiah Hugley agreed to notify the public about the disclosure requirements through CCG-TV ads and letters to residents within 300 feet of a property to avoid misunderstandings in the future.
Baker, who lost against Tomlinson in the 2010 mayoral race, criticized her and other city officials for their vigorous support of the housing authority project without input from stakeholders. He said it violated the public trust and obstructed the public process.