Disturbing implication by the city manager

Thursday night the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners split its vote, 3-2, in favor of a parking lot arrangement with AIS Buildings LLC, which owns property at 134 S. Renfro St., across from the Reeves Community Center.

As part of that agreement, the city foots the bill for some long-needed upgrades at the parking lot, at a cost to city taxpayers of $5,850. In exchange, the city gets a 10-year lease for Reeves patrons to be able to use the lot, free of charge.

Reeves patrons have been using that lot for years, when it was home of John Jackson Insurance. We’d dare say it was used more by folks visiting the Reeves Center than by customers going to see the insurance business. Thus, the bulk of the wear and tear on the lot, it seems to us, would have been done by city residents going to the center.

Thus, we find it a reasonable request by the new owners that the city pay for repaving the lot in exchange for another decade of free use by Reeves patrons.

There was some disagreement by the board members, as evidence by the 3-2 vote.

Jon Cawley and Shirley Brinkley cast the opposition votes, and Cawley in particular was concerned about precedent the city might be setting, given that many local businesses allow their lots to be used for downtown patrons parking for festivals, shopping, and other events.

That’s a valid concern, but we don’t believe the city will be legally obligated to start paving all private lots downtown. In this instance, customers were using this parking lot specifically to visit a city-owned facility, which is quite a bit different than downtown shoppers or festival attendees, or even those attending periodic sporting events, occasionally using private lots for parking.

What we found concerning, however, is the implication from City Manager Barbara Jones that this sort of business essentially should have been handled privately, out of public view, with the actual vote little more than a pro forma rubber stamp session.

Cawley was upset the board received information regarding the proposed contract the same night the agreement was presented to the board for approval. He suggested the board should have had received the information earlier, saying board members should have been able to ask questions, have input into what went into the agreement before it was drawn up.

Mayor David Rowe and Jones graciously took the blame for that, but then Jones made the statement we find problematic: “I could have called each one of you and talked to you about it.”

This is not how public business should be done — a city manager serving as a go-between, facilitating what amounts to a contract discussion among board members out of sight of the public. For all intents and purposes, that’s an illegal meeting.

We would like to think this board, of all public entities, understands the importance of keeping business and discussions in the public. While it has done much to rectify the situation, this board still carries the stain of the former Spencer’s fiasco, when the board met numerous times behind closed doors with local private business people, and then secretly — and we still maintain illegally — purchased that former property.

The story is well-known now — commissioners appointing what became an out-of-control Redevelopment Commission, then disbanding the commission; a bitter local election that had people lining up on this issue as the litmus test for candidates, supporters taking personal shots at those on the other side of the issue, and so forth and so on.

We’re not trying to dredge up those old ghosts, and debating a 10-year parking lot agreement doesn’t come anywhere close to the breech of public trust that grew out of the Spencer’s purchase.

But it all came from that — private, illicit meetings and a secret purchase —that soon spun out of control for the city board.

The principle here is the same: keep public business where it belongs, in the public.

This parking lot discussion took place exactly where it should have, in an open session of a city commissioner’s meeting. We would certainly like to think all matters the board is addressing are being handled the same.

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