Jacobs meeting with Reno City Council gets heated as accusations fly – Reno Gazette Journal

A Reno City Council vote on a proposed development agreement for a downtown project devolved into a heated exchange among some members of the council, with one councilwoman accusing the city manager of being in the developer’s pocket.
Jacobs Entertainment CEO Jeff Jacobs and lawyer Garrett Gordon showed up in front of the city council on Wednesday to seek approval for a proposed development agreement over the Reno Neon Line district. 
A majority of the council ultimately voted to let Reno City Manager Doug Thornley finalize the terms of the agreement, including coming up with benchmarks that Jacobs Entertainment must meet to qualify for fee deferrals and other credits for the project. The vote, however, ended up as the side attraction to more than two hours of presentation and discussion, parts of which were described by some council members as “theater,” “games” and “slanderous.”
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The discussion first took an unexpected turn when Councilwoman Jenny Brekhus questioned Thornley’s motives for reaching out to a motel owner to set up a meeting with Jacobs. The owner had been contacted multiple times by representatives of Jacobs about potentially selling her property despite turning down the offers multiple times, according to Brekhus.
It was a point that Brekhus would bring up multiple times over the course of the discussions.
“That’s concerning to me,” Brekhus said. “There’s a presumption to people that you’re on the path and the city’s adopted the district and we’re here to help Mr. Jacobs do his acquisitions and that might be advancing Mr. Jacobs’ interest over other people’s individual property rights.”
Brekhus’ allegations received pushback from the mayor and several council members who stood up for Thornley.
“The assumption from Councilwoman Brekhus is completely inappropriate,” said Mayor Hillary Schieve. “I want to make that very, very clear.”
Councilwoman Neoma Jardon, who noted that Thornley just celebrated his one-year anniversary with the city the previous day, praised the city manager for doing “an exemplary job” during his tenure. Thornley was simply doing what every good public servant does, which is to meet all parties in order to better understand an issue, Jardon said.
Jardon also criticized the tone that the meeting had taken at that point.
“It’s damaging to the community, it’s damaging to the organization and, frankly, it’s damaging to those who we want to invest money in the community … if they think they’re going to come before us and have gotchas and dirty bombs thrown at them,” Jardon said. “I think (meetings) can be done without the games.”
Councilman Devon Reese, a lawyer, was so concerned about the legal ramifications of the allegations against Thornley that he turned to Reno City Attorney Karl Hall for guidance. Reese accused Brekhus of attacking Thornley’s character.
“The claims raised by Councilwoman Brekhus border on being slanderous,” Reese said.
Hall advised the council to get back on the agenda and finish the vote instead.
Thornley was quick to deny Brekhus’ allegations the first time that she brought it up. Thornley also pointed out that he had already talked to Brekhus about the matter prior to the meeting.
“As I told you the other day, I did not ask (the property owner) to participate in any sort of sale,” Thornley said.
“I told her that there was a meeting — and I meet with all manner of people (so) I can have a handle on what they’re proposing and what’s going on. If she wanted questions answered on what their proposal was, there was an opportunity for her to do that. I’m not working as an agent for Jacobs to purchase property.”
Jacobs’ lawyer Gordon slammed Brekhus for alleging an improper relationship between his client and the city manager. 
“You’re mischaracterizing absolutely what transpired with public-private partnerships and trying to move development forward,” a heated Gordon said. “I don’t want you to mischaracterize the record because it’s not fair to the public.”
Gordon pointed out that Thornley regularly meets with other developers, including those behind projects such as Reno City Center and Copper Canyon to name a few.
Gordon also questioned the sincerity of Brekhus — a frequent critic of the project — when she proposed adding performance measures to get her on board with the development.
“For the record, we are always willing to sit down and work with you on your ideas. But I was at your (Neighborhood Advisory Board) last Monday and you clearly told NAB members that you were opposed to this concept and this development agreement,” Gordon said. 
“So it’s hard to sit down and work something out with you when at the same time you’re telling your NAB members that this is not a good agreement. But I am happy to sit down with you moving forward.”
In addition to Brekhus’ allegations against Thornley, a request by Councilwoman Naomi Duerr to delay the vote so she could get more information and also have the developer take part in a public workshop also added to the drama at the city council meeting.
“It’s clear to me that the public feels excluded from this process,” Duerr said. “Even I feel a bit excluded in terms of understanding the details.”
Gordon responded that there will be plenty of opportunities for public input once the developer discusses things like the tax increment financing or comes in front of the planning commission and city council to seek approvals for actual plans. Gordon added that the information Duerr was talking about was already made available to council members earlier this year.
Reese, meanwhile, pushed back on Duerr’s statement about the public being excluded in the process.
“As a representative democracy, the city council is a representative of the public,” Reese said. “To argue that it’s undemocratic that the public on an individual basis is not negotiating the contract seems anathema to me.”
Duerr would respond later in the meeting and decry the tone of the discussions.
“I feel very awkward,” Duerr said. “I’m feeling very defensive here.”
One thing several council members agreed with is that the 20-year period being requested by Jacobs to defer sewer tax credits was too long. Reese recommended shortening the period to five years, which a majority of city council members agreed with.
Reese also stressed that the council fully remains in the drivers’ seat of the negotiations, not the developer.
Reese made the comment in response to concerns from community members about the project. Of the 68 comments emailed to the city of Reno prior to the meeting, for example, 5 were in favor of Jacobs Entertainment, 57 were in opposition and 6 expressed concerns.
“I drive by (the Neon Line district) everyday and nothing’s been built,” Reese told Gordon. “And our constituents come to us and say well why hasn’t anything been built?”
“I don’t want your client to mistake my desire to see development over there with a belief that we have lost the power or the control over what will be built there,” Reese added. “This community wants to see cranes in the air and building going on.”
Jason Hidalgo covers business and technology for the Reno Gazette Journal, and also reviews the latest video games. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo. Like this content? Support local journalism with an RGJ digital subscription.

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