By Dennis Anderson
In the latest issue of an online only publication based out of Montrose, Jay Stooksberry had a story published concerning City of Delta Mayor Ron Austin. Stooksberry did his research, cited sources and wrote a novella concerning Austin’s spearheading of a proposed water park project in Delta.
We, the press, are often criticized for covering a story and slanting it toward opinion. The article filled with facts does lean the reader toward Stooksberry’s thoughts on Austin’s behavior. Nobody is accusing Stooksberry of being a member of the press, so he can write as he chooses and if someone chooses to publish his work then that’s their decision.
Here’s the gist of Austin’s actions that are coming into question in the article.
Delta citizen Scott Shaible proposed to the city council when Austin was mayor pro-tem that he be given permission to seek if a water park would be feasible for Delta. It wasn’t a voting matter but the council gave their blessing and off Shaible went. In the meantime, the Delta Urban Renewal Authority (DURA) had begun the process of attracting hotel developers. The two projects began to clash as well as Shaible and other DURA commissioners according Stooksberry’s story and coverage at the time by the DCI. Pat Sunderland, who reported on the meeting, described some of the dialog as heated. The heated dialog expanded to the audience as well.
Here’s where it gets sticky for Austin. Stooksberry sites an email from Austin to County Commissioner Don Suppes — who also sits on the DURA board — on May 15. Austin expresses concerns about what Delta City Manager David Torgler will be presenting to the DURA board on May 22 concerning the St. James land swap, the water park feasibility study and a proposed hotel.
“The problem I have is that with David’s ongoing talks with St. James, make it beyond difficult to proceed with the ‘private funded’ feasibility study for the same property,” Austin wrote. He also told Suppes in the email that he could share the email with the DURA board except maybe Tom (Huerkamp).
This email, to say the least, is highly irregular and as they say on television infomercials — but wait, there’s more.
Austin in another email that Stooksberry obtained — it doesn’t show to whom the email was sent but seems like it would be to the DURA board — takes lead on the project from Shaible. Here is a couple of quotes:
“Since its inception in February, I have been a strong supporter of the waterpark concept and believe that it has the potential to turn our city’s financial needs around. I do not want the work that Scott has done to slip away because of personality conflicts,” Austin wrote.
“Scott and I have discussed this and agreed that it is time for me to take the lead as the contact person going forward with the waterpark/hotel/riverfront activation project as a ‘complete package.’ However, I would not be involved in any prospective land discussions or developer negotiations with regard to the project.”
I sent this article to a friend who has experience in upper city management. His first words to me were, “This is weird.” It’s weird in his opinion because a sitting mayor or council member should never be involved with a privately funded project, they certainly shouldn’t take the lead.
Austin at the end of the email introduces Dan Martin, Market & Feasibility Advisors, LLC. And shares information about him and his firm who would be conducting a feasibility study and presenting to the board on May 29, 2018, via Skype.
But then it moves into a deeper sordid affair when Austin participates in a private fundraiser with the goal of raising $4,000 for the feasibility study. In the private invite Austin’s name appears at the bottom signed Ron Austin-mayor. Austin then claims he was acting as a private citizen.
Well, Mayor Austin, you can’t do that. The mayor hat never comes off and if private citizens want to venture into a waterpark investment, they need to have the wherewithal to do so without government officials involving themselves in fundraisers and taking the lead on the project. The optics on this are terrible.
Stooksberry takes readers down the path that the fundraiser was in violation of a city code preventing City of Delta representatives and employees from receiving gifts for favors. Austin was a proponent of the project from the beginning. He stated he looked at this as a great revenue source for the City of Delta. There is no evidence of impropriety but there is plenty of evidence of poor judgement and how small town politicians can easily lose sight of what their role is. It’s one thing to support a project whether it’s private or publicly driven. It’s quite another to take the lead. I don’t believe unless other evidence is presented or unearthed that Austin had anything to personally gain from the project.
Several times Stooksberry referred to the project concerning Austin as “his project.” That’s a bit misleading. It’s also a hyperbole to infer that Austin could be in violation of the city ordinance and then list the criminal penalties. It makes me wonder what Stooksberry’s, who lost his bid for City Council this past election, motivation is.
As far as Stooksberry’s bias or unbias is concerned he is a sitting commissioner on the City of Delta Planning Board. To publish an article questioning Austin’s role in the waterpark project, which died on the vine and all monies according to Stooksberry has been returned, is a conflict of interest. One can’t be involved with city government and write what is being presented as a news article and remain unbiased.
This is the difference between community journalists who are paid to do this sort of thing for a living and a freelance writer who picks and chooses when they want to write.
Dennis Anderson is group publisher for Wick Communications, Alaska and Colorado. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.