When the Albany City Council adjourned around midnight Monday, most councilmembers stayed around to chat, but Robert Lieber headed straight for the door.
It had just been another four-hour brawl and Lieber was once again at the center of it.
Councilmember Allan Maris had proposed limiting councilmembers, namely Lieber, from freely placing items on council agendas. The council rejected Maris’ proposals, but not before Maris accused Lieber of lying to the press and sending public e-mails distorting Maris’ position.
“Those letters were inappropriate, false and inflammatory,” Maris said.
Long meetings and heated debates are not the norm in Albany, where consensus has generally been the rule. In 2002 three current councilmembers cross-endorsed one another even though they were running for just two open seats.
But that was before Lieber joined the council at the end of last year and the Magna Corporation, owner of Golden Gate Fields, started lobbying to turn a large chunk of the Albany Waterfront into an 800,000-square-foot shopping mall.
“Everything that’s going on now with the council is about Rick Caruso’s development plans for the race track,” Lieber said.
With its local horse-racing business floundering, Magna has brought in Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso to develop the 45-acre parking lot surrounding Golden Gates Fields into an upscale, outdoor shopping mall.
Such a development is anathema to the local Sierra Club and Citizens for an Eastshore State Park. Those groups want nearly the entire property as the final piece to an eight-mile-long state park, and just like most Albany officials, they don’t expect Magna to keep its track around much longer. Magna, meanwhile, continues to insist that they have no intention of closing the track.
Golden Gates Field was for years a money-maker for Magna and a top sales tax producer for Albany. However, the declining popularity of horse racing and the rise of nearby casinos have taken a bite out of casino profits. And the introduction of off-track and computer betting have cut into Albany’s sales tax revenue, said Councilmember Farid Javendel.
Under Albany law, the proposed development at the site must be approved by city voters and Magna has begun a lobbying blitz. Led by Matt Middlebrook, the former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and now a top executive at the media relations firm of Fleischmann-Hilliard, Magna has been sponsoring informal tea sessions with residents to gather community input and drum up support for the development.
Middlebrook said that Caruso planned to unveil initial drawings of the development within 60 days and that the plans would take into account residents’ wish for open space.
“As we’ve been meeting with the community it’s clear that people are interested in having access to the waterfront,” he said. “We’re looking to mix in as much of that as we can.”
The five-member council is split on a waterfront mall. Lieber and Mayor Robert Good, both Sierra Club members, oppose a shopping center. Councilmembers Maris and Jewel Okawashi have expressed a willingness to consider Magna’s proposal. Javandel, also a Sierra Club member, favors a small development that could help pay for the city to take on additional park land.
Maris said that he supports “a realistic amount of park land while respecting the private property rights to the track owner.”
Good is planning a proposal calling for developing half of the site for single-family homes and the rest into park land.
Javandel said, “Revenue is important for a number of reasons. A new waterfront park will be a drain on city revenues. We have to have some development to cover those expenses.”
In June the council will ask property owners to pay an extra $145 per year to pay for building projects and social programs.
Lieber has taken the strongest stand in favor of the park.
“I really don’t want to see a mega-mall down there,” he said. “If we do this right it could be the jewel of Eastshore State Park.”
But in opposing the development, Lieber has made enemies on the council. At a June meeting he placed an item on the agenda calling for the council to review a private poll showing 60 percent of Albany residents opposed a waterfront mall.
Several of Lieber’s colleagues complained that they didn’t have a chance to review the poll, conducted by the Evans/McDonough Company of Oakland, until the start of the council meeting and they were unprepared to discuss the matter or deal with dozens of project supporters, who took aim at Lieber and the poll.
That meeting went past midnight, and the council had to hold off on several agenda items because of the late hour.
“The consensus [on the council] started breaking down visibly when the poll came along,” said Mayor Good. “It was just a little poll, but people got hysterical about it.”
Lieber has continued voicing his opposition to the development. At the following council meeting he proposed a resolution calling for the city to prevent any development on the Magna site until after it shut down the race track. The proposal died when no councilmember seconded it.
Maris responded with a proposal of his own. To prevent another episode like the debate over the waterfront poll, he proposed requiring councilmembers to announce future agenda items at the prior meeting. He also suggested that councilmembers be required to prepare detailed reports for their agenda items and allow councilmembers to carry over items that didn’t have adequate reports or weren’t noticed at the prior meeting.
“Lieber is a new councilmember with very little experience,” Maris said. “I’m just trying to improve the quality of his speech so it’s in an appropriate format for other councilmembers to consider.”
Maris said he was also angry with Lieber for a series of e-mails he sent suggesting that Maris was behind a more restrictive proposal that would have required a request from two councilmembers to put items on the agenda. Maris and City Manager Beth Pollard insist the proposal came from city staff, not Maris.
“I think the council is having trouble adjusting to a political situation where it isn’t a consensus,” said Lieber. “For years the council was all of one mind. The only reason that’s changing is that there are issues now like the waterfront that are getting new people involved.”
Javandel said that the Maris proposal, which he supported, was purely a time-management issue.
“I don’t think this is connected to the waterfront,” he said. “We’ve had trouble finishing our meetings lately and I want to make sure we do things in a timely manner.”
Javandel added that Lieber, “seems overly willing to view himself as the target of the council. It wasn’t the way I saw it.”
In Lieber’s defense, Mayor Good said, “There are some things I don’t like about Lieber, but he may be the only one on the council who knows what democracy is about. They’re trying to prevent unpopular items from getting on the agenda, but there is a contradiction between that and democracy.”
At Monday’s council meeting Javandel reintroduced Maris’ call to require councilmembers to give notice about agenda items at the prior meeting. It appeared it might pass until the public spoke against the proposal.
“You’re just tying your own hands,” said Bill Dann. “You don’t want to do this because of one meeting two months ago.”
Javandel then revised his proposal so that the councilmembers were asked to, but not required to, announce future agenda items at the prior meeting. The council passed it 4-1. Lieber, the lone dissenting vote, said later he voted no on political grounds, but didn’t think the resolution would make a big difference.
For the Albany City Council, the waterfont issue is far from over. Good said a staff report on revenues from the Magna property was scheduled to come before the council at its second meeting in September.
“Everyone and his dog will want to speak out that night,” he said.