Tara Stout was addressing the Annapolis City Council again, trying to jump-start an affordable housing project called The Willows. Why, she asked, was her project stuck in planning limbo when one tied to the mayor zipped through the city’s famously creaky approval process?

When her three minutes were up, a gentle buzzer went off and Mayor Gavin Buckley cut her off. She asked for more time, saying she’d given away precious seconds to chide the mayor for listening to an aide instead of her. Buckley said no.

Alderman DaJuan Gay interrupted, asking the city attorney to overrule the mayor’s decision.

“Mr. city attorney, I appeal the ruling of the chair,” he said.

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That’s when Buckley uttered words that, in all likelihood, had never before been heard in the city’s historic council chambers.

“OK, Alderman Gay, you’re wasted.”

“No, I’m not,” Gay responded.

“You are,” Buckley almost whispered.

Gay: “No. It’s inappropriate for you to say that.”

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Buckley: “You know you are.”

For the next few minutes at the March 25 meeting, the two sparred over the alderman’s state of mind, and whether the mayor was out of line. Gay repeatedly said “point of order,” unsuccessfully trying to get City Attorney Michael Lyles to rule the mayor had violated city law — or at least the rules of decorum.

Buckley eventually apologized — he said the apology was only to get the meeting moving — and Gay ended the exchange by saying he wanted it on the record that the mayor and city attorney had broken rules. In the coming days, he filed an ethics complaint against the mayor, then withdrew it.

Was the council member under the influence?

“No, no, not at all,” Gay said.

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In a video of the meeting, Gay appears to slur some words and bungle others. Then there was his repeating of the phrase, “Point of order.” He told others he’d taken cough medicine before the meeting, and said Thursday he was angry when the meeting started. The mayor’s comment made things worse.

“That was just me trying to get the attention of the city attorney,” Gay said.

Alderman Brooks Schandelmeier, who sits next to Gay during meetings and is a consistent ally, does not believe his colleague was “wasted.”

“I know he takes the job very seriously,” he said. “He cares about the issues.”

Like almost everything else here, though, there was far more involved than just the words. This was a clash about power and youth, and how the two youngest members are fighting for their place on the council.

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The issue that Gay cares about most is affordable housing and the shortage of it. Legislation that he and Schandelmeier submitted would lift many zoning rules to spur new, small-scale construction. It just doesn’t have the votes to pass. A resolution halting any changes until comprehensive rezoning is completed was said to have been mistakenly placed on the agenda, although Gay suspects it was intentional.

Mayor Gavin Buckley accused Alderman DaJuan Gay of being intoxicated at a meeting. The alderman denies it. (Rick Hutzell)

That’s what Gay said he was focused on when he arrived at the council meeting late. He asked Tom Smith, the city planning director, to explain to his housing committee why the project at 161 West St. won city approval in six months. The mayor’s business partners got approval for a restaurant building with apartments on the top floors intended for wealthy people seeking a pied-à-terre in the Annapolis arts district.

The implication, both by Gay and Stout, was that somehow this project got special treatment or that, worse, approval for housing is harder to come by when it’s intended for anyone who isn’t rich.

“This is something I’ve been discussing at great lengths,” Gay said. “I think everyone knew I was not trying to make a spectacle for the mayor’s project.”

Buckley stands by his assertion that Gay was intoxicated and had been before. But he said the outburst was more about Gay’s failure to accomplish his goals. He said the alderman confronts other council members and frequently demands department heads appear before his committee.

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“This is typically the thing that happens,” said Buckley, who was elected mayor in 2017. “He displaces his aggression and takes it out on me. They just don’t have the votes. So he makes a case where there is no case and grandstands.”

The mayor said he made no effort to influence the approval of plans for 161 West St., and neither Gay nor Schandelmeier believes that he did. The council doesn’t vote on planning approvals.

Buckley and his partners bought the property in 2001 after the city used part of it for a parking garage and sold the rest. They redeveloped three buildings as restaurants and other commercial spaces. But the fourth burned before it could be renovated and the lot has been empty since then. Buckley and his longtime business partner, Jody Danek, won approval for a slightly larger version of the project in 2004 but financing fell apart. Five years later, they asked to extend the approval, but the project never broke ground.

Schandelmeier said that when it was submitted in October, the proposal featured a lot of things the city wanted. It will fill in a gap on the street, rely on the parking garage behind it rather than take up street spaces, and add housing over commercial space.

Stout, who started the meeting with her comments, went to the council frustrated by the approval process. The Willows remains in limbo while the city works out its Adequate Public Facilities law. A county judge ruled last year that the city can’t waive per capita requirements for police officers spelled out in the law. Until a fix is approved, the city has stopped giving the go-ahead for major projects.

Stout wants to know how 161 West St. got approved and was heartened when Gay said he wanted answers as well.

There don’t appear to be any irregularities in the online file for the project, but there was one change that is notable. In a November letter to city planner Kevin Scott, Police Chief Ed Jackson wrote that 161 West St. did not meet the requirements for additional police protection under the APF law. The final approval granted last month, however, doesn’t contain that letter. Instead, it includes one from Jackson that grants a go-ahead.

The first letter was based on a mistake in the planning department, a city spokesperson said. A planner asked Jackson for a determination under the APF law. But it doesn’t apply to projects under 10,000 square feet — including 161 West St.

When the mistake was caught, the spokesperson said, the planning department asked for a second letter.

While not evidence of corruption, the episode is an example of the long history of frustration in Annapolis with the planning process.

Diane Butler, a member of the city Planning Commission, believes city planners grant too much latitude to developers because the city is afraid to get sued. She said that attitude set in a decade ago and has continued through a succession of planning directors and city attorneys.

She cited the South Annapolis Yacht Centre, where the initial language of the approval included public water access that got watered down somewhere before it was finalized in 2017. She still believes the city could fight for it in court, but hasn’t had the political will.

“The mayor did run on the promise of improving the planning process,” she said. “And that just hasn’t happened.”

Perhaps more though, what happened on the council is an example of a generational shift.

There’s no law against being under the influence of alcohol or intoxicated at council meetings, and drinks afterward are common for some members. The council did adopt a “code of civility” in February. It requires members to be polite, not call each other names and treat each other with respect. Clashes between the youngest members, Gay and Schandelmeier, and their older colleagues were part of the motivation.

Gay believes those disputes are about the different experiences and priorities of people in their 20s and 30s, and those in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Only one council member didn’t vote for the code.

DaJuan Gay.

rick.hutzell@thebaltimorebanner.com

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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