In the opening moments of the March 16 City Council public hearing about a proposed Love’s Truck Stop, council members voted to bar council member Michael Schlesinger from participating, siding with Love’s attorneys, who had asked that Schlesinger recuse himself from the hearing.
Schlesinger, who lives near the proposed site, on Interstate 40 near Exit 154, refused to remove himself – as Love’s attorneys had asked in a recusal motion – until the council voted 4-2 to prohibit him from participating.
He was an active opponent of the plan when it first surfaced two years ago and ran for an at-large seat on the City Council in 2013, motivated partly by his opposition to the truck stop.
In reasserting the February motion for recusal, which means that Schlesinger would excuse himself from the case because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality, Love’s Attorney Clifton Homesley said Schlesinger’s participation in the site plan review would be improper.
“He has a stated financial interest in the outcome of this matter, including earlier public statements indicating that the property value of his home would fall if the truck stop is permitted,” Homesley said.
But Schelsinger said he had not made up his mind about the site plan. In November, City Attorney Ed Gaines had determined that the site plan hearing was quasi-judicial in nature, so that council members should not discuss their opinions of the plan with anyone, including their fellow councilmen.
“How could I have a fixed opinion on the site plan when I have not previously had the opportunity to discuss the specifics of the plan with anyone prior to the hearing?” Schlesinger asked. “I’ve got nothing against truck stops. I’ve been to many and, in fact, think Love’s has some very good ones. But tonight’s hearing is strictly about the site plan which has been proposed.”
Bobby Sullivan, one of the attorneys representing the residents opposed to the truck stop, noted that Schlesinger’s comments opposing the truck stop came before he was elected to the City Council. He also noted that the March 16 hearing was strictly limited to addressing the site plan, not the broader question about whether a truck stop was permitted under the zoning on the site.
Councilman Roy West gave a list of reasons why he thought Schlesinger should stay. “I think Love’s attorneys don’t want him up here because he has far more knowledge on the issue than 90 percent of the people in this room,” he said.
But when it came time to vote, West and Councilman Mike Johnson were the only members voting to allow Schlesinger to participate. With a majority of the council voting for recusal, Schlesinger left the chambers.
At that point, Mayor Costi Kutteh said he had spoken with absent Councilman Jarrod Phifer earlier in the evening and that Phifer said he would be late. Kutteh said that, in his opinion, Phifer should not participate in the hearing if he wasn’t there at the beginning, and all the attorneys agreed.
The remainder of the four-hour opening session was dominated by lengthy testimony from three civil engineers, appearing as witnesses on behalf of Love’s.
The hearing was halted about 11 p.m. by Kutteh and will continue at 6:30 p.m. March 23. Still to be heard are witnesses for the opposition and comments from adjoining property owners, after which the council will begin its deliberations.
The controversy over the proposed truck stop started in 2013, when the city’s Board of Adjustment decided that a ruling by Planning Commissioner David Currier to allow truck stops as a use in the property’s zoning, known as B-4, was correct.
That ruling was reversed on appeal by state Superior Court Judge David Lee on technical grounds. The Board of Adjustment conducted a new hearing in 2014, coming to the same conclusion as the Board of Adjustment. That decision was also appealed and is awaiting a hearing in Superior Court.
Dave Vieser is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Dave? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.