Editorial: Local government secrecy grows

  • Posted: Sunday, September 8, 2013 1:08 a.m.

The way Rowan County commissioners voted Monday to enter the bidding process on the Salisbury Mall was revealing in its secrecy — secrecy that citizens should not tolerate.

The board came out of a closed session and voted to spend $25,000 as a deposit on an economic development project. The motion did not identify the project, and board members contacted by the Post immediately after the meeting declined to be specific. Though the public had a clear right under state law to know where $25,000 of taxpayer funds were going, the Jim Sides-led board refused to say.

Only after the Post reported that the $25,000 allocation was to pay the auction fee on Salisbury Mall did County Manager Gary Page and Vice Chairman Craig Pierce acknowledge the fact. (Chairman Sides stopped returning calls from the Post months ago.)

Thus commissioners set the stage for what might be the county’s ownership of the Salisbury Mall. They say they don’t have a plan for what to put there. But would they tell anyone before the sale if they did? When the chairman has an ironclad three-man majority to vote his way, little gets aired in public until it’s a done deal.

Unfortunately, 2013 might go in the history books as one of the worst for government transparency in Rowan County, with Sides leading the way. But he is not alone:

• The school budget mediation process has enabled two full boards — the county commission and the school board — to spend untold hours behind closed doors negotiating the allocation of county funds to the public schools. Citizens have no access to information about what has been offered, turned down or even discussed.

• The Board of Education kept its search for a new superintendent under wraps until the board voted to hire Dr. Lynn Moody. She appears well qualified, but a more open process would have shared the names of finalists with the public so citizens could have a say.

• The city of Salisbury mysteriously pulled its application to the Local Government Commission to finance a central office for the schools. City officials made vague references to potential lawsuits but offered no evidence.

All this is legal, mind you, but hardly transparent.

The county’s involvement in mall bidding could be a constructive move. With such a significant piece of property available for a low price, local government should be sure to have a seat at the table, says Bill Wagoner, former chairman of the Economic Development Commission. The city successfully helped turn the old Towne Creek Mall into the thriving area it is today, with Comfort Suites, Starbucks and a host of chain restaurants. “[S]ignificant, communitywide threats or opportunities require participation by equally significant and capable parties, e.g. representative government,” Wagoner says.

Unfortunately, commissioners have mentioned no such high-minded goals. Publicly, they’ve talked about warehouse space and county offices. Privately, who knows? Voters should speak up and demand elected officials discuss ideas and plans more openly. A cloak of secrecy is thwarting citizen participation.

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