MAD, Redevelopment Commission out of control?

The Mount Airy Redevelopment Commission, born in controversy and now apparently making a play to set its own agenda, apart from the city government, should be disbanded.

We don’t make that statement lightly. While The Mount Airy News has been opposed to the organization’s existence from the start, that opposition has been more about how it was formed and the ultimate direction we feared it might go, rather than any sort of philosophical difference with the existence of the commission itself. While we had hoped the organization would prove us wrong, our early fears and warnings, and those of many city residents, seem to be coming true.

To illustrate what we mean, let’s look at a few facts regarding how the city brought the group the existence and its work since then.

– The organization had its beginnings when a select group of local business leaders began a series of secret meetings with city commissioners in February 2014. Those meetings took place over a series of weeks, during which those individuals convinced the city Board of Commissioners to secretly purchase the former Spencer’s textile mill property and form a redevelopment commission.

We have consulted with some of the best, well-versed legal minds in the Southeast in matters of open meetings and public action regarding property purchases, and they agree these meetings, as well as the purchase of the Spencer’s property, were clearly illegal according to North Carolina state code.

– Shortly after the city’s May 2014 purchase of the Spencer’s property, the Mount Airy News filed a Freedom of Information request for certain records regarding those meetings, board of commissioners meetings, and the purchase. That request was filed with then-Mayor Deborah Cochran, City Manager Barbara Jones and City Attorney Hugh Campbell. The city did acknowledge receiving the request, but has not supplied even the first document, nor an acceptable reason for not fulfilling the request.

While The Mount Airy News strongly considered legal action to compel the city to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, we did not pursue legal remedies largely for two reasons: First, had we done so and the city lost the suit, neither the mayor, city manager, commissioners, nor city attorney would have felt any repercussions from such action, only city taxpayers — the very people we are attempting to serve — would be the ones footing the bill. Second, there was a limited time frame in which those documents could be used to seek a court order to overturn the purchase of the property. Once the city stalled past that date, the documents were of little value.

– The News, along with a number of individuals in the public, expressed fear that the Redevelopment Commission would be made up of people who did not answer to the voting public, but instead would be swayed by special interest groups, or that people serving on this board would simply pursue their own agendas with little regard for individual property owners. We asked that the city Board of Commissioners appoint its own members as the full Redevelopment Commission.

The Board of Commissioners did appoint two of its members to the seven-member redevelopment board, Jon Cawley and Steve Yokeley. Cawley has been a refreshing voice in the wilderness on that body, trying to keep the organization on track with what the city has asked it to do while also respecting private property interests. Yokeley — serving the dual role of city commissioner and interim mayor — unfortunately has become a rubber stamp cheerleader, voicing support for virtually anything the redevelopment group wants to do.

– The Redevelopment Commission was given a narrow and specific set of instructions by the city commissioners — to declare the area of the former Spencer’s property — and only that property — as blighted and put together a redevelopment plan for the property.

The Redevelopment Commission ignored these instructions and has formulated a plan that takes in a number of other properties, including ongoing businesses, and potentially harmed these businesses and the property values by labeling them as “blighted,” “dilapidated,” and other terms meant to, we suspect, meet some federal guidelines that could ultimately allow the Commission to force property owners to change their businesses — or seize the property if the owners refuse. The commission never discussed their plans, or even shared their findings, with the affected property owners.

– Redevelopment Commission members, along with Mount Airy Downtown (which seems to be pulling the strings for the Commission) has engaged in a systematic effort to discredit those who disagree with the group’s desires. Rather than respect differing opinions and discuss the merits of any disagreements, redevelopment commission members and supporters resort to ad hominem arguments attacking the person rather than the subject, often labeling those who disagree as “closed minded,” “ignorant,” or “against development.”

– Most disturbing, it now appears leadership in Mount Airy Downtown, again the organization that seems to be running the Redevelopment Commission, is financing, at least in part, the election efforts of city commission candidates who are supportive of the Redevelopment Commission.

In other words, if the Redevelopment Commission can’t get what it wants, it’s essentially trying to finance a coup that would install a city government that would give the redevelopment board free reign.

The only way to stop a bad situation from growing much worse — possibly beyond any reasonable person’s control — is to disband the commission and repeal the city ordinance allowing for its existence.

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