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Letter about Trump ties and a scramble for votes before Gulch hearing

A looming vote to consider up to $1.75 billion in public financing for downtown Atlanta’s Gulch has generated drama behind the scenes before today’s City Council meeting.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ office scrambled to fend off rumors over the weekend that President Donald Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner might be partners in the Gulch deal, after the NAACP and other groups circulated news reports about Gulch developer CIM Group and its business ties to the president and White House adviser.

And with the vote count uncertain, the mayor’s office recently sought a legal opinion to determine if a councilman recovering from a major medical procedure can vote by phone.

Combined, the matters and maneuvers by Bottoms over the weekend to win over council members created a stir as a potentially pivotal vote approaches.

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California-based CIM has proposed an up to $5 billion development between the Five Points MARTA station and Mercedes-Benz Stadium that would require extensive new infrastructure.

Critics of the Gulch plan fear the council is being rushed into a blockbuster incentive package that could cost taxpayers more than the city has projected, and they contend the deal’s benefits don’t justify the public costs.

Supporters say the financial risk is only on the developer, and tout the deal as a boon to both affordable housing and economic opportunity in the city.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms speaks during a ground breaking ceremony for the new Westside Park at the Bellwood Quarry in Atlanta, Thursday, September 6, 2018. Bottoms has urged City Council to approve a potential 10-figure public financing package for downtown’s Gulch. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

As past news reports of CIM’s ties to the Trump Organization and Kushner Companies circulated among City Hall officials over the weekend, Bottoms’ staff sought a letter from CIM to try to tamp down the situation.

In a letter dated Saturday obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CIM said it “has no current investments, partnerships or management agreements with Kushner Companies, the Trump Organization, or affiliates or family members of those organizations.”

“Kushner Companies, the Trump Organization, affiliates and family members of those organizations do not have and have never had any ownership interest in CIM Group,” the letter continued. “These parties did not and will not have any participation in CIM’s investment in the Gulch.”

The letter indicates CIM and Kushner Companies were partners in four projects in New York, but are no longer active partners in any deals.

CIM also owns the tower formerly known as the Trump SoHo in New York, which the firm took an interest in when the project ran into legal and financial trouble following the financial crisis.

Trump’s hotel management company no longer operates the hotel, which has been renamed.

RELATED CONTENT: GULCH PROJECT

Any connection to Trump is a potential nonstarter for left-leaning members of the council. On Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in 2017, Trump trashed Atlanta on Twitter and assailed U.S. Rep. John Lewis after Lewis said he didn’t see Trump as “a legitimate president,” and said he’d wouldn’t attend Trump’s inauguration.

Many of Trump’s policies, including on immigration, are wildly unpopular with the city’s Democratic Party base.

A late Sunday text message to a Bottoms spokesman was not immediately returned.

In a Sunday op-ed in the AJC, Bottoms called the Gulch deal, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to usher in a new era of economic vitality, infrastructure and inclusion for our city.”

Bottoms last week called on council to vote today at its 1 p.m. meeting, but it’s unclear if she has enough support. A council committee rebuffed the mayor last week in a largely symbolic vote to hold Gulch legislation.

A current and former council member, in weekend AJC op-eds of their own, urged City Hall to slow down.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong, right, chaired a work session Thursday to study the Gulch deal, an up to $5 billion project, which could include $2 billion in public financing. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Legal opinion sought

In a symbol of how tight a vote might be, Bottoms recently sought an opinion from Sam Olens, a former state attorney general, about whether Councilman Ivory Lee Young can vote via conference call.

Young, who represents English Avenue and Vine City, has been sidelined as he recovers from a serious medical condition. It is unlikely Young will attend Monday’s City Council meeting, an aide to Young told the AJC last week.

Legislation Young co-sponsored that’s tied to the Gulch project is not on Monday’s agenda, but if a majority of the council agreed to take up debate, the body could vote on the deal.

Some city officials have questioned whether potential conflicts between city code and state law regarding in-person council voting might leave the city open to a legal challenge.

Olens informed the mayor’s office and council that a member can vote remotely under the most recent revision to the Georgia Open Meetings Act, which governs public access to government proceedings.

In a statement Thursday, Bottoms’ office said Olens found that “if a member is prevented from attending in person, the discretion to participate via teleconference rests with the member — not the governing body.”

The 2012 revision of state law said, “so long as a quorum is present in person, a member may participate by teleconference if necessary due to reasons of health or absence from the jurisdiction so long as the other requirements of this chapter are met.”

The law goes on to say that “absent emergency conditions or the written opinion of a physician or other health professional that reasons of health prevent a member’s physical presence, no member shall participate by teleconference pursuant to this subsection more than twice in one calendar year.”

It’s unclear if Young will choose to participate in today’s meeting by phone. There are 15 district and citywide council members, meaning eight votes are required to pass the Gulch deal.

Council President Felicia Moore could be called upon to vote in the event of a tie.

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