Couple files FOIA, sends letter regarding actions of Missoula council member
(Missoula Current) A family business in Missoula has retained legal counsel to represent their claims that a member of City Council acted in a “libelous and unethical” manner as the city reviewed and considered their proposed downtown apartment project.
Matt Sullivan, who owns MC Real Estate Development with his wife, spent the past year working to get their planned 26-unit apartment project through review.
Now represented by Datsopulos, McDonald & Lind, the family alleges that Ward 3 council member Daniel Carlino took a number of steps to interfere with their project, including an attempt to block the granting of a small easement and publicly spreading false information about the project and the family business.
“Our client’s overall observation is that Mr. Carlino’s dogged opposition is almost always paired with public statements that are demonstrably false … all of which seriously threaten the viability of our client’s project and their valuable reputation,” the law firm wrote in a letter to the City Attorney's Office.
The Sullivans purchased the Front Street property in 2018 with plans to remove two dilapidated structures and replace them with 26 apartments in a project valued at $6.5 million.
During the initial hearing last year, Sullivan was moved to address the City Council over comments made by Carlino. During the hearing process, several members of City Council also suggested that Carlino was being “disingenuous” and creating an “us versus them” scenario in how he went about opposing the development.
Carlino's opposition continued into last month as the Missoula Redevelopment Agency considered granting the project tax increment financing to make public improvements in the public right of way.
During the meeting, Carlino referred to Sullivan as a “capitalist” and criticized his political position on a bill that was before the Legislature. The latter comments drew blowback from MRA, suggesting it was illegal for a city official to approve or deny a request based upon political affiliation.
Carlino also fought the project on social media and made a number of false comments “to garner more public opposition” to the project, according to the law firm.
“Mr. Carlino has in the media, in City Council meetings, and now at the Montana state Legislature, publicly misstated facts about our client’s project,” the law firm wrote. “Mr. Carlino has tried to use his authority as a Council member to stymie their project while supporting other similar projects.”
Carlino stands by his actions
The law firm also notes that Carlino is personal friends with several of Sullivan's former tenants. The claims go on to say that Carlino “is unable, unwilling, or both, to distinguish between his public duty and private interests” when it comes to the Front Street project.
“The manner in which he (Carlino) has conducted himself relative to our client’s project violates public trust,” the firm alleges. “It appears Mr. Carlino is more interested in carrying out his own biased personal agenda rather than carrying out his duties for the benefit of the people of the state.”
When asked for comment, Carlino on Wednesday said he stands by his actions and his opposition of the project.
“I stand by my decision to oppose the use of over a quarter-million dollars of tax increment funds towards the Front Street luxury apartment project that Matt Sullivan is developing,” Carlino said. “Rather than using taxpayer funds to help gentrify Missoula, I believe we should use those funds to invest in our community instead.”
Carlino also has taken issue with Sullivan's position on a bill that was before the Legislature this year. On Wednesday, he maintained that criticism.
“Landlords who fight against bills that would help tenants’ rights are a part of the problem,” Carlino said. “While Sullivan sees Missoula renters as a source of profit, I know that Missoula renters deserve better.”
Carlino has consistently referred to Sullivan's project as “gentrification,” though Sullivan said it paints a false picture of what he plans to build and how he runs his business.
The Front Street property is currently occupied by two dilapidated homes nearly a century old. The Sullivan's have rented them a short-term basis for the past few years as they developed their plans for the apartment project.
Sullivan said it's one thing for an elected official to cast a vote against something, but it's a different issue when the same official goes out of his way to block a project using a false narrative and disparaging remarks.
“Why are we being singled out and discriminated against?" Sullivan said on Thursday. “I saw a recent article with Carlino posing with the governor on a similar project on Reserve. I've heard him talk about the need for multi-family housing. So what is it and why is it that Carlino is targeting us, our business, me personally and this project personally when he's not doing it across the board?”
Seeking emails and correspondence
The letter outlining the Sullivans' concerns was sent to the City Attorney's Office, the Office of the Mayor and all 12 member of the Missoula City Council.
The law firm representing the couple also filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the city seeking all records, correspondence and social media posts Carlino made relating to the Front Street development.
“Generally, personal email accounts of government employees are not subject to disclosure. But the exception is if an employee uses his or her personal email(s) account for government business. Any email sent to or from Mr. Carlino’s personal account(s) that pertains to government business is subject to disclosure.”
The request was submitted on May 2 and so far, Sullivan said, the city hasn't responded.
“We're very concerned about that. What else is going on in private that we don't know about?”