Clandestine negotiations not passing the “smell test”

tFor the past several weeks, I have been pondering the surprise response New Albany Mayor Tim Kent gave to interviewers when asked about improvement projects the city might consider, were he to be reelected, or should consider were the budget available. The project about which many readers and I were surprised involved the already in progress negotiations (according to Kent) with a local landowner  for six acres of land upon which to construct new public utilities offices and a police station.

Wow! That’s a large project which has never, according to the newspaper’s records of covering and reporting the New Albany Board of Aldermen’s meetings, been mentioned in public, nor considered to a point that any negotiations to acquire property would be authorized. While no one would argue that the current police station is less than desirable in almost every way, the same citizens would probably also agree that moving the police department and public utilities out of Historic Downtown New Albany is no where near in keeping with the past and on-going efforts of all of our associations, merchants and individuals who are interested in keeping our city intact and convenient for residents and visitors alike.

You would think, should this project have been meant to be discussed in public (and obviously it was not…and there are reasons for that, read on) some mention or suggestion probably would have come up about the possibilities of remodeling the current police department building and about ways to expand City Hall to keep all of the City’s business departments in the downtown area. So, I went back and I did not find any discussions that have taken place on this issue. It must have been discussed somewhere, but apparently not in the legally prescribed public venue of a Board of Alderman’s meeting.

While thinking about this sudden and previously not discussed project designed to move our police department and public utilities out of downtown, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to find out where these six acres might be and how far along the negotiations have gone and with whom they were being conducted.

According to more than one source from whom one could count on getting reliable information, it is reported that our mayor has already entered into negotiations with a local landowner/developer to acquire six acres in the southwestern part of the city. These same sources suggest that there has been some discussion of trading normally not permitted city services or maintenance of private properties in exchange for the acreage.

First of all, any such arrangements would need to pass the “smell test,” by being fully revealed in proper discussions by the Board of Aldermen in front of any citizens who want to attend. These discussions should be subject to public comment and be reported by the media to inform those citizens who could not attend. The suggestion of swapping normally not permitted city services and/or maintenance on properties not owned by the city for six acres, already has a funny smell, sort of like we’ve smelled it before in situations past.

Before even getting around to the “smell test,” it would be interesting to hear what the downtown merchants and citizens in general think about spreading our city offices out around the city and abandoning downtown. It is no secret there has been a lot of effort and energy expended to build up and maintain the downtown part of our city as a drawing card for tourism and to be convenient to residents when they need to deal with our city offices. Why would anyone want to change it? Obviously, not many people would, so it could be determined that the clandestine negotiations are partially designed to keep citizens from knowing what’s going on until a deal is done.

It is also rumored that there are those who have recommended moving out of the current City Hall building, citing limited space for a growing city government. Again, such considerations should be discussed in a public meeting and citizens need to have input, particularly when we would be talking about moving the center of our city government out of the downtown area. Thus far, there is no information about any negotiations taking place for land for a new City Hall, at least so far.

As all the candidates city offices talk about projects that may be needed, all of them, and particularly the incumbents, should know that without a comprehensive plan for the future, the chances of  our city qualifying for some of the more enabling grants are slim and none – mostly none.

More important, however, is the legal imperative to discuss the public’s business in public and that the taxpayers expect any negotiations on their behalf to be above board and in their best interests.