Secrecy in government fails public, democracy

Four years ago, Kristen Brown ran for mayor on a platform that, among other things, called for greater transparency of local government. She cited the secretive operations of Columbus Downtown Inc. — then the private arm of the public Columbus Redevelopment Commission — as a primary example of the problem.

While Brown has added transparency the past few years with video broadcasts of public meetings at City Hall, recent private meetings regarding the development of the former Walesboro airport property suggest that Mayor Brown may have quickly forgotten what she campaigned against.

The subject matter of these private meetings dating back to February — not in violation of the state’s Open Door Law because they did not include a quorum of the participating government bodies — relates to the city’s lack of shovel-ready land for new or expanding businesses, which limits the ability to attract economic investment in the community.

For most of the year, city leaders have been discussing the idea of developing about 700 acres at the city-owned Walesboro property as a remedy. It has great economic and job implications for Columbus.

The idea was discussed publicly and, on April 27, the city issued a request for proposals to developers. Only one company, Hageman Group of Indianapolis, responded by the June deadline.

Unbeknownst to the public — or any of the seven elected city council members — was that Brown and a handful of others had been meeting privately to discuss a backup plan for developing the property. That group included Columbus Redevelopment Commission member Dave Wright, aviation board president Caleb Tennis, aviation board member Dennis Tibbetts and city redevelopment consultant Doug Pacheco.

Tennis revealed at a joint redevelopment commission and aviation board meeting Sept. 17 that the bid of about $8,500 an acre submitted by Hageman was well below the $19,500 appraised value of the land, and far below the $28,000 an acre manufacturer Faurecia paid for 36 acres of it in May.

Instead of rejecting the offer immediately prior to its Sept. 15 expiration date, Tennis said aviation officials began considering whether the city would be better off developing the land itself to maintain control of the process.

The private meetings also included representatives of engineering firms who might have an interest in providing economic development and planning services for the property going forward, Pacheco told the boards.

What’s problematic isn’t that some city officials wanted a backup plan, but the manner in which it was pursued.

Discussions of the Walesboro development plans are best suited in the public arena, as were those for redevelopment of the Crump Theatre and the proposed amphitheater in Mill Race Park.

Also when Hageman’s proposal was deemed insufficient, the city should have rejected it and returned Hageman’s $600,000 earnest money rather than keep the money in a safe at the airport and keep the company in the dark — not to mention the council’s liaisons to both the redevelopment and aviation commissions, and the mayor-elect.

Considering the trouble the city has had in acting as landlord for restaurants in the downtown entertainment district, that’s a role better left to companies with an expertise in property management.

And if the city does take on development of the 700-acre Walesboro property itself, its two redevelopment staffers may not even be available to help. Consultant Pacheco submitted his resignation to the mayor Sept. 8 to take a full-time sales job, and will work on a limited basis the final three months of his contract — information also kept from other members of the redevelopment commission. And Redevelopment Commission Director Heather Pope has been on leave for a month, with no timetable for her return.

Brown previously dismantled CDI to keep government operations in the public eye. These closed-door Walesboro airport property meetings are a stinging reminder that the city’s business ought to be discussed in the open. Taxpayers expect and deserve for it to be done that way.