By John Peters
June 8, 2014
Thursday’s Mount Airy Board of Commissioners meeting gave reason for residents to be encouraged.
There is also great reason to be concerned.
It was encouraging to see the Municipal Services District expansion ultimately included only those property owners who welcomed the move, and no one was forced into the tax district.
It was also encouraging to see an open, candid discussion on the issue between the commissioners, representatives of Mount Airy Downtown Inc. (the MSD governing body), and members of the public. It was at times a bit chaotic, a little confusing, but it was open, frank, honest government in which a compromise was reached that seemed to satisfy the key stakeholders.
That discussion should have happened months ago, but the Board of Commissioners insisted on hiding — we believe illegally — behind closed doors when considering the MSD expansion.
Now for the worry spurred by the meeting.
In her opening invocation Commissioner Shirley Brinkley prayed that discussion of the MSD expansion, that community consideration and media coverage (which meant The Mount Airy News, since we’re the only media that covers the commission) center on fact when discussing the expansion.
We could not agree more. And here are the facts that we find alarming.
Several property owners in the proposed expansion asked to be excluded from the forcible annexation. To her credit, Brinkley, in her remarks Thursday, tried to accommodate those requests. She wanted to exclude Carter Bank and Trust, and she said she wanted to accede to Gene Clark’s request his property likewise be excluded.
However, she said there was some property in the proposed expansion, at the very end of the Franklin Street proposal, that she considered “…ugly … an eyesore,” and that property, she was determined, was going to be included in the MSD so that the city could bring more pressure to bear on the property owners.
Problem was, Gene Clark’s property had to serve as a land bridge to make the MSD expansion to the “ugly” property legal. And Brinkley was very clear — if getting that “ugly” property meant forcing someone else to be roped into the MSD, then so be it.
Fellow commissioner Jon Cawley took exception to her comments, and astutely pointed out this is the very type of sentiment that has generated fear among the city’s residents.
In much of the discussion revolving around the city’s recent creation of a redevelopment commission, the MSD expansion, and the secret (and we believe illegal) purchase of the Spencer complex, property owners feared this new, unelected redevelopment commission would be able to declare a site “blighted” and use all sorts of coercion, even the threat of eminent domain, to force conformation to some as yet undefined aesthetic standard.
Those fears, he said, are already being realized with a city commissioner going after property owners, even at the detriment of other land owners.
To her credit, Brinkley backtracked and apologized for her comments. We believe her apology was sincere, but we also believe her earlier sentiments were sincere as well. She expressed them in no uncertain terms, and they were prepared, written sentiments, not something she said off the cuff without fully thinking it through.
A second fact that emerged Thursday night is that, contrary to what MSD and city officials have claimed, there has been an ulterior motive in all of these discussions, a hidden agenda in the MSD expansion.
Cawley shone a light on this as well Thursday when he revealed that several members of the MSD came to the city — again, in a closed, and we believe illegal, meeting — with an initial plan that the MSD would borrow money from the city to purchase the former Spencer’s property, with the expanded MSD district generating enough tax money to pay off the loan.
This plan fell apart when officials learned the MSD cannot legally sell property, but it illustrates clearly there has been an ulterior motive, a calculated, planned hidden agenda, in the MSD expansion.
Among all the nebulous promises of helping those property owners to “reach their potential,” the true reason for the expansion emerged Thursday — to generate more tax dollars for the MSD so it could pay for buying the Spencer’s property.
Those are the facts. Anyone who doubts this need only read the minutes of the Thursday, June 5 board of commissioners meeting.
There was a time not long ago when the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, as a body and as individual politicians, had our trust and respect. The board was perhaps the one we trusted most of all among the governmental agencies we routinely cover.
That’s gone now. We suspect many — perhaps a majority — of city residents would express those same sentiments. We don’t know that this board can ever regain that level of faith and trust, but we have a few suggestions that would represent steps in the right direction:
— Immediately disband the redevelopment commission and repeal the vote that allows for the city to have such a body.
— Admit the multiple closed sessions held over the past several months during which the redevelopment commission, municipal services expansion, and purchase of the former Spencer’s property were held, were illegal, or at the very least, unethical and wrong.
— Pledge that from now forward, closed sessions will not be held because of some creative interpretation of the state code regarding open meetings, but only held when state code requires it, or when legitimate, competitive negotiations are going on with a prospective new business.
Take these steps, and maybe, if open and honest government returns to Mount Airy over an extended period, some of that lost faith and trust will be restored.