Jan 25 2021

OPINION: A False Process for Arts Center Lease

In his letter (https://www.piedmontcivic.org/2021/01/10/opinion-a-false-choice-has-been-presented-for-arts-center-lease/) Steve Schiller labeled the current discussion of the 801 Magnolia Avenue building a “false choice” between “an art center and no art center.” I agree and attribute this false choice to a false process.  City staff, and not the City Council, appears to have made the decision to open 801 Magnolia lease negotiations with the Piedmont Center for the Arts (PCA):

“Given PCA’s investment in rehabilitating the City building at 801 Magnolia Avenue and its commitment to developing a viable gathering space, as well as its willingness to embrace changes to improve and expand benefits to the community, Staff believes it is appropriate for Council to consider PCA’s request to continue to operate an arts venue in this City facility”.  Staff Report, November 16, 2020

On its face, that sounds appropriate – staff recommending that City Council consider PCA’s request for a new lease.  However, staff appears to have instigated lease negotiations with PCA without direction from the Council.  I can find no notice of public or closed session meetings where this topic of the lease was agendized by staff to receive direction from the City Council.

This process puts the cart before the horse – the question of whether the 801 Magnolia  lease should be renewed should be addressed by the Council with negotiations proceeding as directed.  Instead, the lease was negotiated over the past months by staff and presented to the Council as a first reading of the lease ordinance, strictly limiting the questions from councilmembers and the public.  As currently drafted, the lease has substantial flaws that weaken the city’s access and use of this public facility.  (Piedmont Civic Association – Piedmont, California » Opinion: Four Major Flaws in Proposed Art Center Lease).

This process would have benefited so much from open public meetings at the Recreation Commission and the City Council.  As it stands, Piedmonters are being told that PCA will close if the lease is not renewed.  That is false and the fate of PCA is really in its own hands – PCA’s lease with the city expires June 3, 2021 with the option to proceed month-to-month after that.  PCA could operate indefinitely under those terms while the community engages in a public discussion of the use of the 801 Magnolia building.

For that to happen, Council needs to step in and give that direction and reject the second reading.   A second reading of the proposed lease is imminent and it is too late to make substantive improvements to the lease at a Council meeting.  Another oddity of this process is that the readings span the seating of a new council member.  Two council members had serious reservations about the process and lease terms at the first reading.  It would be appropriate for the new council member, not on Council at the first reading, to abstain from voting on a second reading and recommend staff hold public meetings at the Recreation Commission.

All council members can be reached by email at:   citycouncil@piedmont.ca.gov.

Garrett Keating, Former Council Member

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.

3 Responses to “OPINION: A False Process for Arts Center Lease”

  1. Many have expressed interest in exploring what other uses are possible for 801 Magnolia that can coexist with the art and culture programming. Furthermore the programming by the Art Center Board has become more limited than in past years. A public discussion is needed before City Council gives complete control of the building to a private group for $1. Instead City Hall negotiated a ten year lease (changed to seven) without a public hearing and many residents were denied an opportunity to enter the conversation until the first City Council hearing in November where City Hall anticipated a “done deal” with a single outcome. Indeed, in August the Art Center Board had been assured by Mayor R. McBain that they will have the votes to approve. That is a troubling public process with only one outcome allowed.

    As the lease converts to monthly in July, I suggest Council slow this down and reduce the divisiveness this process has created. Restart with a more open public discussion by referring to either the Recreation Commission or a Town Hall type meeting. Let’s find a way that the Art Center Building continues as a wonderful space for a variety of performance and art, and expands scheduling so that other performance groups, culture activities and community uses have access to 801 Magnolia.

  2. Hear, hear! I agree whole-heartedly with the call for improved transparency, community engagement and input and taxpayer accountability in this process. Whereas I value the arts programming that PCA has delivered over the past decade, the need for such an extreme taxpayer subsidy is no-longer apparent and, moreover, the lack of inclusiveness and reasonable access to a public facility by other deserving Piedmont public-benefit, 501c3 organizations is troubling.
    Thank you, our City Council representatives, for rejecting the 2nd reading of this lease proposal for 801 Magnolia Ave, and for requiring more robust public dialogue around the uses of this valuable public resource.

  3. Thank you Garrett! A public meeting and transparent discussion has been all we have been asking for and yet, this has been pushed ahead. The arts are critical and I know the facility can be used to support the arts and still have PCA involved without a complete transfer of all decisions, money, and accountability to PCA. The community needs to be involved.

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