Fred Maas likes to pass on a joke he heard years ago. Maybe you've heard it: What's the difference between a dead skunk in the road and a dead lawyer in the road? Answer: There are skid marks in front of the skunk. Maas, who chairs the Centre City Development Corporation Board of Directors, has been a lawyer and a lobbyist and is currently a developer, so he's able to swap out the profession of the dead person to suit whatever audience he needs to entertain at any given time.
Lately, the road kill is a developer.
The joke came up in a CityBeat interview with Maas this week about former CCDC President Nancy Graham and the trouble she's caused the agency—which administers redevelopment Downtown on the city's behalf—by neglecting to disclose financial dealings with two developers that had projects in the works (for more on this, please read Kelly Davis' story on this page).
We started the conversation with Maas by asking him to comment on a simple assertion: CCDC is embroiled in chaos today because Graham was a developer before taking the CCDC job.
“Honestly, that's one of the silliest things I've heard in this whole debate,” he said. “Fundamentally, we're talking about disclosures and candor, and I don't think you can make a conclusion that it's necessarily related to one's background.”
So, Maas is saying the trouble stems only from the fact that Graham was deceitful—that she happened to be a developer is irrelevant.
But it was through her tenure as a developer—in Florida, after a stint as mayor of West Palm Beach—that she acquired her future conflict of interest involving developers Lennar and The Related Companies.
Yes, Maas replied, but any captain of industry chosen for the post, such as a banker or the CEO of an insurance firm, would have potential conflicts of interest with Downtown developers. The key, he said, is to lay the names of those developers out on the table and steer clear of them. “People who are active and successful will always run the risk of having some sort of conflict, real or perceived,” Maas said.
Fair enough, but wouldn't choosing someone with a background in public administration, rather than someone from the private sector, avoid these conflicts altogether?
Funny we should mention that. Maas said he considered Lamont Ewell, the former San Diego city manager, a strong candidate for the job before Graham was hired (for her political acumen more than her experience as a developer, he noted). Of course, Ewell's name illustrates the fact that not everything is black and white. The dark cloud hovering over Ewell at the time gathered while he was a key administrator amid the city's employee pension scandal. He would have arrived with heavy baggage and been met with much public cynicism.
It all depends on the person, Maas said. A well-qualified candidate has a firm grasp on finance and real estate. CCDC also needs someone who can avoid being snookered by developers' lawyers, he said, and who knows their tricks better than other developers? Developers have the capacity to act in the public interest. For example, Maas said he'd have never joined the board if he had significant contacts Downtown. If Graham had just been honest and avoided negotiations with Lennar and Related, everything would be hunky-dory, he said.
Of course, developers aren't inherently evil, and we have no desire to clutch firmly on the wheel and speed up when we see them crossing the road (well, maybe a little). But, notwithstanding Maas' point about simple honesty, we argue that Graham's replacement should come from the public sector.
Our reason is this: In addition the increased likelihood of conflict with candidates from the private sector—we should note here that these people are on the honor system, and it took a journalist to uncover the Graham scandal—they're more likely to empathize with developers when it comes to bureaucratic entanglements. Even the most public-minded private-sector folks are bound to have become frustrated at some point by the seemingly endless red tape that's necessarily generated amid the public process.
Urban planning and development is the public's business, and people don't have time to always be checking to make sure it's being handled on the up-and-up. They need to trust the folks in charge. Certainly, that's a tall order, particularly in times when you have elected officials gassing on and on about making the process easier for growth to happen. We believe we stand a better chance of avoiding shenanigans with a public administrator in charge of Downtown development. That person can have a supporting team to help interpret the language and navigate through the pitfalls.
If CCDC emerges from this mess intact, it should do so under the helm of someone who doesn't think first like a developer.