By John Peters
May 16, 2014
These past couple of months have not been kind to the people of Mount Airy, given the quickly eroding trust between the city’s residents and its board of commissioners.
Thursday night may very well have been the final nail in that coffin.
In a story we reported on page 1 of Friday’s Mount Airy News, Gene Rees, a downtown business man and property owner, purchased the former Spencer’s textile property for $103,500. He said after the purchase he didn’t have any immediate plans for the facility and grounds.
Now it turns out much of Thursday’s auction, including Rees’ statement, were a sham. The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners secretly purchased the property, using Rees as an agent of the city to do the work.
Let us be clear: We have no problems with the city purchasing the property, although we think commercial development should be left in the hands of the private sector as opposed to using taxpayer money to compete with other private commercial developments. If the city wants to buy the property, then attempt to find a developer, or developers, who can buy and put the property to good, productive use, then great. That may very well have been the best end result at the auction.
We have significant problems with dishonesty and subterfuge, particularly by a public body elected to serve its constituents, not work against or trick them.
For months the board has been holding secret meetings, hiding behind the dubious “attorney-client privilege” clause of the state code the board believes allows such meetings.
Over those same months the city has taken some shady actions:
- The board decided — against almost universal protest from its residents — to establish an unelected redevelopment commission with the power to borrow and lend money, declare property blighted, and even seize property it declares blighted;
- The board moved forward with an expansion of the Municipal Services District, which has the authority to impose additional taxes on residents and businesses within the district — and while the district hasn’t officially been expanded, anyone who thinks the city commissioners hadn’t already made up their minds long before Thursday night’s public hearing is delusional;
- Kowtowed to a Charlotte developer who wanted a tract of land, just outside the city limits but within the municipal zoning control area, rezoned so he can make a truckload of cash off of local residents despite universal opposition to the request (a move that has since been challenged in court by a local resident.
The parade continued Thursday night when the board announced it had purchased the Spencer property, which is curious given that the board never discussed, let alone voted on, the move to purchase the property. At least not in open session. Neither did the board discuss, nor vote, on the proposal to hire a surrogate to secretly bid on the property on the city’s behalf, nor did it vote to allow the city manager to execute a contract to purchase the property.
Thursday night after the meeting city officials would not answer direct questions regarding the purchase and the clandestine votes, referring those questions to city attorney Hugh Campbell. The city attorney admitted the votes had, in fact, taken place behind closed doors, without the media or anyone in the public having the opportunity to watch their elected officials carry on the work of public government.
It seems evident now that the city commissioners decided long ago they would get the Spencer property by hook or by crook. If it couldn’t secretly engage the services of a private individual to buy the land at a cutthroat rate, it would simply have the redevelopment commission declare the property blighted and seize it.
And now, with the expanding Municipal Services District, the district will have additional landowners to tax, and it wouldn’t be a far cry to believe some of that extra tax money will find its way into helping develop the Spencer property.
For their part, city officials claim all the secrecy was done on behalf of the taxpayers, to ensure development of the Spencer’s property is done right, in a manner that benefits local residents and businesses.
Fine sounding words, except when they are accompanied by what seems to be dishonesty and deceit at every turn.
Most city voters will recall a time in the not-too-distant past when city government was made up of commissioners and managers who had no problems holding meetings behind closed doors or spending taxpayer money in questionable ways. They justified such arrogance by attempting to convince others that only those in government really understood what should be done, or simply by not caring about the average city resident. In essence, their attitude was “trust us, we know what’s good for you even if you don’t.”
Most of the present members of the commission came to office after Mount Airy voters grew weary of such shenanigans. Voters decided they wanted commissioners and city administrators who understood voters expected their government to be responsive to city residents, to be responsible and frugal with taxpayer money, and they wanted that government to be done in the open.
City residents wanted commissioners and city administration officials who would show basic, decent respect to city residents and treat them as equal partners in this thing we call government — and not treat them like mindless sheep to be herded and watched over or as enemies to be tricked and deceived.
So, the board and administration largely turned over to new people, individuals who showed their constituents the respect they deserved.
For a while.
Unfortunately, it seems these commissioners and city administration may have forgotten who they are, and worst of all, forgotten who elected them to office and why.