Montrose City Manager Bill Bell.  File Photo.

Montrose City Manager Bill Bell. File Photo.

By Caitlin Switzer
MONTROSE–(July 1, 2014) A longstanding relationship between the city and the local economic development corporation was called into question at the most recent meeting of the Montrose City Council on June 17. The encounter resulted in hurt feelings on the part City Manager Bill Bell, who fired off an ultimatum to attendees via email shortly after the meeting was adjourned.
When representatives of the Montrose Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) appeared before City Council seeking a transfer of land for the expansion of the local Federal Express facility, what was anticipated as a routine matter expanded to a lengthy, as-yet-unresolved discussion. While the meeting’s agenda referred to the item as a land transfer of a parcel in the Montrose Airport industrial Park from City ownership to MEDC, additional considerations arose at the meeting itself when MEDC Executive Director Sandy Head asked Council to return multiple MEDC parcels to the organization.
Following an impassioned request by Montrose Attorney Dennis Devor for an executive session to discuss the matter, Council declined.
“This is not executive session material,” Mayor Bob Nicholson told Devor.
According to longtime resident Curt Robinson, who offered Council a history of MEDC and the parcels in question at the request of City Council member Rex Swanson, the land was purchased by MEDC for economic development many years ago. The parcels were placed under city ownership for property tax and insurance purposes, and some have been returned to MEDC over the years for the originally intended purpose of economic growth and expansion.
Head noted at the meeting that one of the lots was sold to the Pepsi distributorship in 2005 for an expansion similar to that planned by FedEx, and that past MEDC land transfer requests have not been debated in open council but approved by former city managers and readily finalized at Council meetings. Present City Manager Bill Bell stated at the meeting that past city managers had violated the City’s own code by doing so.
FedEx had received six potential sites through a site selection process, and chose the MEDC option in August of 2013 for its $2.2 million facility, because the site was shovel-ready, Head told Council. She added that MEDC worked with the company to provide the City of Montrose with a 20-foot walking easement.
“This is MEDC land, and your job is to help us make deals happen, and transfer the land,” she said, and noted the MEDC had chosen to seek the return of all parcels because, “we are feeling shaky about the partnership.”
Mayor Nicholson encouraged Head to provide Council with any documentation proving ownership of the land. Two witnesses who spoke at the meeting, Bill Patterson of TEI Rock Drills and real estate developer Tom Cheney, suggested that the City review its own records to verify ownership before returning the parcels.
That is exactly what the city intends to do, Nicholson commented after the meeting.
“The real issue is that there is no written agreement,” Nicholson told the Mirror. “It is hard to comment on something that is currently in discussion–we are still in discovery mode.”
In the end, Nicholson said, additional meetings will be needed to resolve the matter. Devor’s request for executive session was inappropriate in this case, he said.
“Dennis needs to realize that when you are discussing public assets and public money, you have to allow the public to have the information,” he said. “When it comes to public funding, you have to let the sun shine in.”
For his part, Bell shared his own feelings with a select group of individuals after the meeting in an email:
“Thank you all for attending tonight’s council meeting,” Bell wrote. “I would like to voice my disappointment related to the comments made during this council meeting related to my dedication to economic development here in Montrose. Whether you all truly understand it or not, I have been a dedicated supporter of the need for an economic development corporation in our community since I started working here three years ago. This has not always been an easy task, but I still have maintained this position even when unpopular.
“I highly respect those of you in attendance at tonight’s meeting for your community participation and support, and I have tried hard to develop healthy working relationships with you all. I truly hope that you don’t take to heart the comments that were made in an attempt to attack me for doing what is right and ethical. Unfortunately, I will never carry out unethical practices or violate my own City Code even if my predecessors were willing to do so.
“Unfortunately, due to the spiteful, misleading and hurtful nature and intent of Sandy’s comments tonight, I will be unable to work with MEDC as long as Sandy is part of this organization, and for that I do apologize,” wrote Bell.
City Council is scheduled to meet again July 1, at 6 p.m.