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A citizens conversation with Nicita

Guest column by Tom Geil

Like many other Oregon City residents I am confused by some of the latest political wavering here in our city. So I interviewed Commissioner Jim Nicita to try to discover just who he is. He did not ask for this interview nor did he suggest any questions for this interview.

Geil: Jim, you are the subject of a recall here in Oregon City, and the public needs to know who you are and what you stand for, from your perspective. These are standard interview questions that I have adapted and developed to get to the core of who you are and why you should retain your office as commissioner of Oregon City. Jim, let's begin by telling us a little about yourself - your background, degree and expertise?

Nicita: In 2001 I came to Oregon from Michigan. I have urban planning and law degrees, and was an active historic preservationist back in Michigan. So when it came time to buy my home, Oregon City was a natural fit for me. Within a few months of my buying my house here in 2007, I joined the Oregon City Historic Review Board. Both on the HRB and on City Commission I have helped strengthen our historic preservation codes.

Geil: Jim, what prompted you to run for Oregon City Commissioner in the first place?

Nicita: I have always been public-service oriented, so trying for elected office was already on my mind. Then in 2008, a brawl broke out in front of my house, and when I called 9-1-1, I felt the response time was much too slow. I started to learn about the history of growth we had in town without having corresponding growth of our police department.

Improved police services therefore became my top issue when I ran in 2008. It was also Rocky Smith's top issue. Having two such candidates win that year helped provide the political support to make the changes that have led to greatly increased morale in the department and several new police hired. It was very nice of Commissioner Smith to acknowledge my efforts in the publicity spot we did.

Geil: Jim, since you first won office, it appears that you have been the center of controversy, attacks from those who would oppose what you stand for. Some have said that you are probably one of the more intelligent commissioners we've had in years because not only do you read all the documentation, you actually understand it. While others would say that your questioning and proposals are disruptive to the business side of Oregon City progress. Could you elaborate on this stark difference in how citizens view you?

Nicita: Open and transparent government are really important to me. I even have a Freedom of Information Act appeals court case back in Michigan named after me, 'Nicita v. Detroit.' I also do a lot of pro-bono, public-interest law. These values have carried over into my service as a city commissioner. I think I am a good guardian of the public interest, for example on matters like spending urban renewal money or putting taxpayers at risk through urban renewal debt. This is one way citizens see me.

On the other hand, some wealthy and powerful interests, both inside and outside of our community, who see personal profit in urban renewal money or debt, or other taxpayer subsidies, I don't think have appreciated my critique of some proposals as too risky to the public interest.

During this recall campaign, many of these interests have attacked my fiscal conservatism as being 'anti-jobs.' My response is that to create jobs, a project has to pencil.

Geil: Jim, a lot of the current controversy revolves around The Rivers. You are one of five city commissioners, and one of ten urban renewal commissioners. As citizens might know, it takes a majority to make decisions. Why are these attacks, and in particular, this recall, focused on you?

Nicita: This question relates to the previous question. First, in a big win for open government and transparency, I successfully lobbied my fellow urban renewal commissioners to vote to make transcripts and audio of our negotiating sessions on The Rivers public record. They are now posted at keepnicita.com under the tab 'Transparency and the Rivers.'

The disclosed record reveals some significant points. For example, contrary to the earlier rosy scenarios of 'jaw-dropping' revenue The Rivers would create for other downtown redevelopment, when we got into the brass tacks of negotiating, The Rivers appeared to be a dicey project financially: the developer first proposed that all of the income of the entire urban renewal district go just to paying off the taxpayer-guaranteed urban renewal bonds for The Rivers. Not just me, but the entire 10-member commission, rejected this.

The record also reveals our staff and counsel warning us against possibly inflating the landowner's purchase price through urban renewal. On their advice therefore we - not just me - demanded to see up front a sales contract between the landowner and the developer. They couldn't come to an agreement. Why? The disclosed record offers a possible answer: after the breakdown in negotiations the landowner revealed to the city manager that he was asking $14 million for the landfill. The county assessor currently has it valued at slightly above $2 million. Perhaps staff and our attorney were spot on.

It seems that the developer, who benefits from accelerated depreciation for shopping malls in the federal tax code; the landowner; and immediately adjacent property owners; would benefit in the short run on The Rivers.

On the other hand, it did not seem to me that The Rivers would have provided the promised 'flood' of new tax increment revenue for the urban renewal district, and might not even pay off the urban renewal bonds for the project itself, thus posing a risk over decades of leaving the urban renewal agency - the taxpayers - on the hook.

I was critical of The Rivers project, as a candidate, and as a commissioner. Despite this recall effort, organized primarily by one of the surrounding property owners, former mayor Dan Fowler, I stand by my critique.

Geil: What does this recall mean to you and your policies?

Nicita: This recall effort might be a case study for future high school and college students: will a community recall a City Commissioner for being really faithful to his campaign promises.

I have been very loyal to the citizens of Oregon City by adhering to the campaign promises I made, including my criticism of The Rivers proposal. If I survive the recall, I will continue to be faithful to those promises.

Geil: Should you survive this recall, what are your future plans for your positions on the Oregon City Commission?

Nicita: We have the opportunity to move ahead on an economic development policy that is forward-looking, recognizes the economic realities of today's world, is locally self-reliant, takes advantage of Oregon City's unique strengths, and is guided by maximum participation and input. Highlights might include:

Taking advantage of Oregon City's location between the Portland metro area and the rural areas of Clackamas County and the Willamette Valley to become a center of value-added food processing for small and medium-sized farmers.

Create an 'economic gardening' program to help existing businesses grow and create sustainable jobs. Our new economic development manager has a specialty and track record in this field.

Ask the citizens what they want to see for the Blue Heron mill site and the north end of downtown, and then other areas in the city. The urban renewal commission has budgeted funds for such 'visioning.'

Allow citizens the right to vote on urban renewal. A majority of Oregon City voters just joined the rest of Clackamas County voters in passing a measure requiring voter approval of urban renewal. Similarly the city of Beaverton has just successfully completed an extensive visioning process for its urban renewal area, and then allowed a vote on the resulting plan, including its financing. The voters passed the measure. We can do the same for our citizens.

Geil: In closing, Jim, is there something I have missed that you believe is important for the citizens of Oregon City to be aware of regarding you and your concepts?

Nicita: The most withering criticism of me in this recall campaign relates to jobs and economic development. I think that criticism is wrong, unfair, and contrary to the evidence. Most particularly, I played a key role in the City Commission's creation and funding of the position of economic development manager for Oregon City. I took a leadership role in adding the creation of the position to the Oregon City Commission's City's Goals and Objectives during its work session in February 2009. The video of that meeting is on the website keepnicita.com

In addition, I made an effort to raise support in the community for making the hire, for example by writing an opinion piece in this newspaper, The Oregon City News, in July of that year.

This fall the city undertook a competitive national search for a new economic development manager. We received approximately 80 resumes from around the country. We hired a talented candidate who will be working on a vast array of economic development and job opportunities. I am proud of the role I played in the entire process.