Hair Balls obtained new e-mails this week that reveal an interesting detail about the controversial 380 agreement between the city and developer Michael Ainbinder: The application, which city ordinance says is essential to the process, doesn't exist.
The local group Responsible Urban Development for Houston filed an open records request on October 6 for, among other things, a copy of the application, but two weeks later, Tam Nguyen, an administrative assistant for the city, sent Responsible Urban Development's attorney, via e-mail, the following message:
We have been advised from Finance Department that for item #1 (Ainbinder application) there is not yet a completed application on file. There must be one before we begin to process this 380 process.
Except the 380 process had not only started, but had been completed by October. The City Council, almost unanimously, approved the 380 agreement for Ainbinder on September 22.
Shortly after that e-mail was sent, however, Nguyen sent another e-mail with completely different information to the organization:
Pursuant to your open records request attached, we recommend that you contact the City Secretary Office and Controller's Office for information requested in item number 1.
Colton Candler, a representative for Responsible Urban Development, believes that Nguyen's first e-mail was a mistake, that the city never intended to disclose that a completed 380 agreement from Ainbinder didn't exist.
"This whole thing has been done without too much concern for the residents, and that's our biggest concern," Candler says. "[The city says it] wants to do this responsibly and with transparency, but this kind of goes against that."
The group has since received word that the city is seeking a ruling from the state's Attorney General about the records request.
Basically, the city "believes responsive information is excepted from public disclosure..." (Here's the complete letter from the city.)
Jessica Michan, a representative for the mayor, told us that an application does exist, but that it's a draft that hasn't been finalized. That, of course, leads to some other questions, including, "Wait... what?!"
If Ainbinder's application and accompanying documents are simply drafts, what did City Council approve? Did council members even know these documents were drafts? And why, in the months leading up to the vote, wasn't this stuff finalized?
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Andy Icken, the city's Chief Development Officer, who could, theoretically, answer these questions is currently out of the country. Michan told us, however, that Tim Douglass, with the city's Economic Development Office, said that an application isn't even necessary until reimbursement payments begin.
That doesn't make sense, either, and seems to contradict Houston's 380 ordinance. Michan is trying to find someone to offer an explanation, but we still haven't heard back. Additional calls to the Ainbinder Company and Councilman Ed Gonzalez -- the Walmart is going in his district -- have not been returned.
When we hear something back, though, we'll be sure to sure to update.
Maybe there is some kind of legit explanation, but if a key part to the process hasn't been completed, or doesn't even exist, it would certainly add a whole lot of credence to the argument that the city gave Ainbinder special treatment and rushed the deal through, regardless of what the public thought.