A Sweeney was quietly chatting with candidates
November 3, 2009
By the middle of October it was evident that the City Hall election could be won or lost by what the candidates said about a single development proposal.
It had long been expected that the Sweeney family’s idea to put Treasure on the slopes of Park City Mountain Resort overlooking Old Town would be a crucial issue in this year’s campaign, but it reached a critical mass in the waning weeks of the political season, solidifying itself as the most contentious development dispute inside Park City since the project that would be built as Empire Pass was approved by city officials in the late 1990s.
The Treasure opposition movement mobilized in September and October with greater urgency than it had displayed over the years of the City Hall discussions about the project. One of the important candidate events was dedicated almost exclusively to the topic, and the electorate appeared to closely watch what was said about Treasure.
But amid the rancor of the campaign, one of the three Sweeney brothers leading the family’s efforts before City Hall quietly was spending time behind the scenes lobbying the majority of the candidates for the two Park City Council seats that were on Tuesday’s ballot.
The discussions have not been widely publicized, but they offered the Sweeneys a chance for one-on-one meetings with the people who could eventually cast the decisive votes on Treasure, a project that encompasses 200 hotel rooms and 100 condominiums spread through approximately a dozen buildings. The buildings would be as tall as 13 stories, some of the tallest ever built in Park City. A convention center and commercial space would also be situated in Treasure under the family’s proposal.
Mike Sweeney, the brother whose role has included acting as an emissary between the family and Main Street, met separately with City Council candidates Alex Butwinski, Cindy Matsumoto and John Stafsholt starting in mid-October, the candidates and Sweeney said in interviews. The three City Council candidates describe the meetings as chats about the project, with Sweeney explaining his side’s position that Treasure would greatly benefit Park City’s tourism-driven economy.
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"He’s telling his side of the Treasure saga. He has a compelling story to tell," said Butwinski, who met with Sweeney over coffee at the developer’s invitation. "It was a very good sales presentation."
Stafsholt, the City Council candidate most critical of the Treasure blueprints, said he recently spent four hours with Sweeney talking about the project, listening to him describe the financial windfall to Main Street the family envisions if Treasure is built. Matsumoto, meanwhile, said Sweeney spoke in similar terms as he talked about the benefits that Treasure could bring to Main Street.
Sweeney did not meet with the fourth City Council candidate, Mark Blue, or the two mayoral candidates, incumbent Dana Williams and challenger Brad Olch.
The lobbying comes at a crucial time for the Sweeneys. The family’s talks with the Planning Commission appear on the verge of stalling for what would be the second time over the past five years. The Sweeneys, though, seem to be reluctant to make wholesale changes to the project at this point, meaning that the family might press for a vote by the Planning Commission sometime during the early part of the next City Council term.
Many expect that any decision by the Planning Commission will then be brought to the City Council through an appeal or a rarely used procedural move that allows the elected officials to reconsider a decision by the lower panel.
By that time, two of the candidates on Tuesday’s ballot will be seated members of the City Council. Once they are sworn into office, in early January, discussions like those recently held between the candidates and Sweeney would have ethical repercussions. City Councilors normally do not engage in outside talks about projects under consideration by the Planning Commission, an effort to retain their neutrality should they be called on to cast a later vote like they could in the case of Treasure.
Sweeney, who once served as the leader of the Main Street merchants only to step down to devote more time to Treasure, said he wanted to talk with the candidates as the project became the pivotal issue of the campaign. Carrying a laptop computer loaded with a Treasure presentation to the three meetings, he said he described the size of the buildings and provided other details. The building size has been one of the sticking points with project opponents.
Through the campaign, Sweeney said, Treasure opponents have not accurately portrayed the project, mentioning as an example disagreements between his side and the critics about the nature of the square footage of the proposal. There are also differing readings of an overall approval granted to the Sweeneys in the 1980s that is the basis of the current talks between the family and City Hall, he said.
"What they’re hearing elsewhere, in my mind, is a whole bunch of rumors, innuendoes," Sweeney said.