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Column: State audit no reason to demonize city’s efforts

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A state audit of actions taken by the Columbus Redevelopment Commission during the administration of former Mayor Fred Armstrong was harshly critical of the methods employed to realize the goals of the Vision 2020 effort to revitalize the downtown.

According to the state board, the commission failed to follow statutory processes, circumvented public bidding laws and lacked regular reporting and transparency.

Many of the excesses cited by the State Board of Accounts were called into question at the time they were employed. Those elements were repeatedly challenged by this newspaper and a number of residents, including current Mayor Kristen Brown, who turned criticism of the commission into a campaign platform during her successful run for mayor last year.

Brown deserves credit for actions taken since she assumed office to end the processes that had been used by the previous commission and its operating arm, Columbus Downtown Inc., the private nonprofit corporation created to acquire property, negotiate deals and sign leases on behalf of the commission. It has been a painfully long and complex process, but the result should be an important restoration of transparency to the way city government does business.

That said, it is also important that this corrective action not serve to demonize the public servants who, through the Redevelopment Commission, intended to and actually did revitalize the downtown.

Although the State Board of Accounts was harsh in its criticism of the highly restrictive processes both entities followed, there has never been any allegation that the individuals profited to any degree whatsoever.

In fact, many of the individuals involved, such as former Redevelopment Commission Chairman Tom Vujovich and other members of the organization, served in a voluntary capacity. In a number of instances, some individuals donated as much or more time to the redevelopment effort as they did to their own jobs.

It is apparent that the various individuals involved in the process took actions that had been deemed appropriate by their legal counsels. They were done with the best of intentions, with the goal being to improve the quality of life in Columbus. Even some of the more questionable methods employed, such as bypassing the public bidding procedure, were in an effort to get what was best for the city.

It was, however, a process that was deemed inappropriate by the State Board of Accounts and earlier by the voters of Columbus who, through their election of Brown, signaled a desire for greater transparency in how the city does its business.

Through her diligent efforts, it is highly unlikely that the city will return to such practices during her term of office, but it is important that this open approach to governing be passed on to future administrations and there not be any lapses into amnesia by future officials who might be emboldened to employ shortcuts in their dealings.

It is also important that the men and women who were instrumental in achieving the goal of revitalizing the downtown not be mis-characterized for doing what they deemed best for their community.

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