Saturday, April 30, 2005

Lincoln Mayor Coleen Seng

Mayor Coleen Seng (D) has a guest column on the opinion pages of today's Lincoln Journal Star. She is not directly involved in Tuesday's election, but it is in a real sense a referendum on her policies and her leadership. The council is closely divided by party with Republicans holding a 4-3 edge. The three seats up for grabs could widen that edge to 5-2, maintain the status quo, or reverse it to 4-3 for the Democrats. Two of the three seats were held by Republicans, and the GOP is guaranteed to win at least one of the three.

Mayor Seng writes:
"I meet regularly with Lincoln residents in their homes all over the city. I encourage them to invite their neighbors so I can hear directly from the people. The common themes I hear resonate as strongly today as they have for decades. High quality of life, good jobs, desirable neighborhoods, strong schools and a safe, clean, vibrant community.

Together, we can do so much to achieve our dreams. But lately, it seems bold ideas are met with cynicism and pessimism. For example, the critics met John Q. Hammons' proposal to build a new hotel with suspicion and antagonism -- until he did not submit a bid. Then, suddenly, they questioned why he changed his mind.

Some of this can be attributed to a very negative campaign season, which brings out the worst in those who insist on seeing the glass half empty. Naysayers do not help find solutions. In my experience, it is not the Lincoln way of doing things. I do not want suspicion or negative attitudes to turn investment away from Lincoln. I spoke to Hammons to encourage him to continue investing in Lincoln. He assured me he remains interested in Lincoln. He will look at alternative sites and continue exploring a possible public-private partnership on a new convention center."
This strikes us as more than a little whiny. The problem is Mayor Seng's idea of "bold ideas" is "public-private partnership" and a $75 million bond issue for "improving" non-essential streets and trails.

The "public-private partnership" apparently means using the power of the city and tax money for direct aid to private development. She proposed using eminent domain to force unwilling owners to sell their land to the city so that the city could sell it to Mr. Hammons. Of course this only makes sense if Mr. Hammons would pay less than if he buys it directly himself. So either the owners would receive less than true value for their property, or the city would be subsidizing the project with tax money, or both.

This proposal created a political firestorm that led to the council unanimously rejecting the use of eminent domain for the project. The mayor actually withdrew the eminent domain clause herself before the vote, when it became obvious how unpopular it was. Still, she doesn't seem to grasp why this blew up in her face.

Our conclusion as to why Mr. Hammons changed his mind about the hotel project is that without the subsidies it didn't make economic sense. Are we supposed to be disappointed about that? If Mayor Seng is upset that people reacted to the original proposal with "suspicion and antagonism," she would do well to consider how her own actions caused that reaction. If Mr. Hammons is upset about this, and we have no idea if he is, he should be aware that a completely private proposal for the same project would not have been contoversial at all.

UPDATE: In the comments, Kyle points out that the current makeup of the Lincoln City Council is 4-3 in favor of the Democrats rather than the Republicans as I stated above. I was working from memory on that, so he is most likely correct.

That means that Republicans winning 2 of the 3 seats would maintain the status quo. If both Democrats win, their council majority would shift to 5-2. If the Republicans sweep, it would shift to the council to 4-3 in their favor.

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