mtairynews.com

Secretive meetings cast doubt on city plans

By John Peters

March 4, 2014

We’re a little nervous.


We think you should be too.


Thursday night the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners will conduct a public hearing on the creation of a city redevelopment commission.


The name sounds nice — redevelopment commission.


And its purpose sounds equally lofty — to looked at blighted areas within the city and determine whether redevelopment is necessary and in the public interest.


Now really, in this day when tourism is a growing industry, when local economic development folks are doing all they can to entice new businesses to move to Mount Airy, when the Mount Airy Downtown Inc. committee is all jazzed up about working with state Main Street program, who can be against such an effort to redevelop parts of the city?


If that redevelopment comes through backroom deals, closed sessions, and is forcibly instituted by an unelected governing body, then count us as being against such a move.


And while it’s unclear exactly what the intent of the city commissioners are, we think the city is headed the wrong direction with this move.


This commission, if created by the city board of commissioners, will be able to determine if a property is considered blighted or not. And this new body will have sweeping authority, able to use the powers of eminent domain to seize property or force private property owners to clean up so-called blighted areas of the city.


We’re not just talking commercial centers either. Residential property would fall under the body’s authority.


We find this disturbing on so many levels, but three major issues immediately come to mind.


First, this is an unelected body, not directly responsible to voters, which will have this power. In essence, the city commissioners would be creating a new layer of government — one with significant local power — that would not be held accountable by the individuals who live and own property in Mount Airy.


This redevelopment commission would also be able to purchase property, do work on property owned by individuals then compel those individuals to pay for the work, even make loans, again, without being responsible for these actions to the voters of the city.


Second, City Attorney Hugh Campbell said the body would work closely with Mount Airy Downtown Inc., another unelected body whose membership is made up largely of individuals whose primary interest is in the commercial development of downtown — and in many cases, their own establishments.


In fact, that organization’s primary focus is on fostering the development of business — which is a good thing — but which can be done at the expense of individual property owners if not handled in a transparent, above-board manner. The potential even exists for larger property owners who hold more clout in the city to profit while smaller ones are hurt by such an organization.


Third — and maybe most disturbing — apparently the city commission has been discussing the formation of this new governing body for quite some time, holding discussions with Campbell and downtown leaders over the formation of the organization.


All behind closed doors with no public accountability.


The fact that while we, on several occasions, wrote on this page what a shining example of open, transparent government the city board of commissioners were, while those very commissioners basking in that praise were holding secretive talks about creating this new authority, makes us re-evaluate our belief in the city board.


And it most certainly makes us question the motives behind the creation of this so-called redevelopment commission and what is it the commissioners are trying to rush through without public scrutiny.