'Santa Claus' makes stop at URA meeting

By Kelly Ducote, The Observer June 19, 2014 09:10 am

The La Grande Urban Renewal Agency experienced a sort of Christmas in June last night.

Local attorney Steve Joseph had words of criticism for the group — accompanied by a demonstration of how Joseph says the agency uses their "Santa Claus hats." During the public testimony portion of the URD budget hearing, Joseph put on a Santa hat and tossed money in the air. 

Joseph said people have been "snake-charmed" into supporting the URD and its allocation of money for projects. He sharply criticized the URA for considering a $500,000 request to help establish a grocery store downtown.

"You took an oath as a city councilor. You also serve in a dual role wearing your Santa Claus hat giving away taxpayer dollars you have diverted from the city's general fund," he said. "I'm asking you to fulfill your duty as a city councilor and to quit playing Santa Claus."

Joseph said $64 million had been diverted from the general fund for the URD. Agency member Gary Lillard agreed that funds are diverted from the general fund, but he and other agency members said that the URD is the only tool they have to help boost economic development.

The budget was adopted with a sole nay vote from Jerry Sebestyen.

Last night, the group also approved $80,000 in funding for Brickyard Bowling, a bowling alley to be established downtown. The funding also comes with up to $20,000 for right-of-way improvements.

During the city council meeting, the group adopted the approved budget, making only a minor change to accomodate a request from the Union County Safe Communities Coalition. They council allocated $4,4239 for the group to help cover costs for prevention of marijuana use among youth.

At the end of the meeting, Joseph had left the council chambers. City officials said the $100 would be donated to the Fourth of July events at Eastern Oregon University's Community Stadium. 

See more in Friday's edition of The Observer.