A variation of the same speech delivered by Dr. Padma Rao and B.K. Rao at every City Council meeting over the past six months, and the resulting tension that has been simmering every week, finally boiled over Monday night, Sept. 26 with shouts and threatened ejections from Council chambers.
The Raos protest the subdivision of the former Kendall College property into lots for single-family homes and alleys to serve those homes. Every week, the allegations are the same: Council has “sentenced over two dozen mature trees to their death.” The public did not have enough input. The alley is unsafe. And a conflict of interest exists between Holland and Knight, who once provided lobbying services to the City, and, according to a single letter from the developer’s counsel, Steve Friedland, might have been engaged by the developer to sue the City.
The Raos particularly target Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, who worked with the developer and the City extensively to reach a compromise on the project.
Ald. Fiske’s son works as an associate for Holland and Knight, one of the largest law firms in the nation. The Raos consistently make this point in arguing that a conflict of interest existed.
This night, however, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, interrupted Dr. Rao. “I have a lot of respect for Ald. Fiske and her family,” she said, “and it is not appropriate to degrade that family during citizen comment.”
“It is time to leave Ald. Fiske’s family out of the discussion,” added Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, speaking over Dr. Rao, who tried to continue her prepared remarks. The Mayor then asked Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar for a ruling as to whether a citizen can be silenced.
Dr. Rao refused to wait for comment from one she called “the Mayor’s little minion who pretends to be a lawyer.”
“That’s enough,” said Mayor Tisdahl, resorting to the gavel in an effort to restore order as Dr. Rao continued her angry comments. Ald. Fiske’s son is mentioned in the public records, in minutes, she insisted.
Mr. Farrar said that the Mayor controlled the meeting and therefore could silence a citizen for speaking about an alderman’s family. He then suggested that the Holland and Knight matter be referred to the City’s Board of Ethics. That should have been done in March, insisted Ms. Rao.
The Mayor said that if outbursts continued, she would have to ask Dr. Rao to leave chambers. Order eventually returned, Dr. Rao completed her comments. The Holland and Knight issue will be heard by the Board of Ethics.
“We need a ruling so it does not get brought up at every single meeting,” said the Mayor.
At call of the wards, the part of a City Council meeting wherein each alderman is allowed to speak on ward business, Ald. Fiske defended her actions in the Kendall matter. She has been working on the issue for seven years she said, citing the rezoning to R-1 (single-family homes) as a hard-won victory.
“I have given hours and hours to the two individuals who come to speak every week [the Raos],” she said. Her efforts with the developer and the City saved a number of trees on the site, including a 200-year-old oak that she now calls “my tree,” she said.
There are limits to how many trees can be saved on a private piece of property, though, Ald. Fiske added. A changed alley configuration and hour after hour of meetings saved as many trees as could be saved, she said. Finally, the alderman said, “I am extremely proud of my son.”