By Phil Wright and Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

PENDLETON — Local developer Nate Brusselback wanted the Pendleton City Council to explain why it lacks a systematic approach to making development deals.

Instead, Mayor John Turner painted Brusselback as not as bright as his competitors.

Brusselback, and a contingent of supporters, filled seats Tuesday night in the council chambers. The developer addressed the council during the public comment period, lamenting city-cut deals with I&E Construction and Saj Jivanjee but not with him. Brusselback owns 154 apartments throughout town, including the recently completed 26-unit Pendleton Triangle, which he could not fill upon completion, prompting him to drop the rent from $1,495 a month to $1,395.

“None of our tenants were commuters; none of them work for the drone program, and only one lived in Pendleton previously,” he said.

His property tax bill is a tad more than $101,000, he said, and $23,000 of that is for the Pendleton Triangle, but the city gave tax breaks to his competitors, something Brusselback said he did not receive.

“You created a nice tax incentive for (I&E President) Karl Ivanov that protects him from a full tax on vacant units,” Brusselback told the council. “My property now will compete at a disadvantage forever against the city-subsidized projects.”

More to the point, he asked, “Why is it that this council doesn’t have a clear, concise, fair system that spells out what the rest of us can do to be included?”

Turner pointed out Brusselback never asked City Manager Robb Corbett for a deal, which Ivanov and Jivanjee did. Brusselback said he spoke with the planning department and didn’t know to talk to Corbett. That did not carry much weight with the mayor.

“The other two,” Turner told Brusselback, “were smart enough to talk to the city manager.”

Turner has given the what-for to city critics more than once. Rick Rohde was on the receiving end during a council meeting in June 2017. Turner addressed Rohde for writing letters to the editor that accused the City Council of funding “private projects that benefit a few people within their circle of friends.” Rohde’s conduct was “morally and ethically irresponsible” because he could not back up his accusation, Turner said, and he warned he would remind Rohde and the council “of your dishonest, disingenuous and dishonorable conduct of every meeting I chair.”

The challenge had a chilling effect on Rohde for a while, but he shared his thoughts about Turner’s snap at Brusselback.

“I thought it was downright rude,” he said.

Turner on Wednesday afternoon had his own assessment of his words to Brusselback.

“I probably just lost my temper a little bit,” he said. “Nate is a businessman, and he’s more concerned about his individual business than the future of Pendleton,” Turner said.

The city has plenty of evidence to show all levels of housing need, he continued, but Brusselback just does not want competition. However, he does want the city to cut him a deal after he was in a rush to build, Turner said, while others negotiated on the front end.

Councilor Dale Primmer said Wednesday that Turner’s shot may not have helped the city nor council’s reputation among detractors, but he is no fan of barbed exchanges in the public comment section. He said that time should be for people to address the council, make statements and express their views.

“It’s public comment, not public debate,” he said.

Despite pushback from Turner, Councilor Scott Fairley found the idea of a standardized housing incentive program intriguing and worthy of more discussion, he said in an interview after the meeting.

Fairley said the challenge was determining what kind of incentives the city would offer. Previous deals, Fairley said, aren’t necessarily replicable because they revolved around leveraging city-owned land.

In 2013, the city sold 7 acres of land adjacent to Olney Cemetery for a housing development that would become Pendleton Heights in addition to fronting some of the infrastructure costs.

Five years later, the council agreed to donate 9 acres of Westgate property to I&E Construction of Clackamas to build a housing project and threw in a property tax discount based on vacancy rates.

But Fairley also said the council needed to take a look at how much longer it wanted to be directly involved in the housing business.

The local housing industry was stagnant when the city made an incentive deal with Pendleton Heights developer Saj Jivanjee, but times have changed.

After several rounds of haggling with the City Council, Jivanjee is planning to start construction on a 100-unit apartment complex that will complement the 32 townhouses he has already built. In exchange for its incentives, I&E intends to build more than 200 apartments.

No law requires public bodies to allow time for public comments, but governing bodies usually do set aside time for comments not related to agenda items. The Pendleton School Board, for example, sometimes hears from concerned or even irate community members, but board members rarely engage in discussions with those members.

Turner said that is something he may take to the council for consideration, but he continued to assert the city needs to be flexible when it comes to housing deals and take each issue on a case-by-case basis.