Editorial: Troubling sign for campus

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Upping a bond request by $84 million would be a big bomb to drop on a group of unsuspecting elected officials in public. But meeting in secret with select officials to share such a request, as David Murdock reportedly did last week, sets off a dangerous reaction all its own.

Alarm. Suspicion. Doubt.

Murdock has won the region’s gratitude by engineering a plan to build a sprawling biotechnology center in Kannapolis, the N.C. Research Campus. Where an outdated textile behemoth once stood, a cutting-edge research center is rising from the ground. But now Murdock has put Kannapolis City Council and Cabarrus County Commission members in an awkward position. First, according to reports, he has decided the amount of money the project needs through tax increment financing bonds is more than double his November estimate of $76 million — $160 million. Then he broke the news to elected officials by meeting with them privately in small groups at Pity’s Sake Lodge.

This should cause discomfort for even the most enthusiastic supporters of the Research Campus. Few could dream of being as successful in the business world as Murdock, whose name is usually preceded by such phrases as “California billionaire” and “owner of Dole Foods.” But when Murdock talks to public officials about spending taxpayers’ money, he should respect the spirit of the state’s Open Meetings Law, just like anyone else. Forewarning a commission chairman or mayor is one thing; inviting small groups of more sympathetic officials to meet in a succession of private meetings — while excluding the others — is something else. Technically, the letter of the law has been met. But this is an obvious ploy to avoid discussing this matter in full detail in public and to apply some powers of persuasion.

Which brings up the question: Why? What’s afoot here that Murdock needs to keep from the public?

Expediency may be all Murdock wants — getting a $160 million bond OK’d and in action as soon as possible. But government financing for a project cannot be acquired with the same speed and privacy as a bank loan. Given a choice between expediency and openness, public officials are bound by law to choose openness. Murdock has co-opted several officials into an alliance that excludes the public, however. That’s no way to win public support for something with a taxpayers’ pricetag of $160 million.

Kudos to Cabarrus County Manager John Day, who saw what was taking shape — a meeting with only part of the county commission — and declined to participate.

Murdock’s spokesperson has not responded to calls from area newspapers for comment, so his side of the story is not available. Murdock may feel he owes the public no explanation; powerful people seldom do. But for a public that believes in the integrity of this project and wants to move forward with it, this is a disconcerting sign.