Bolton: Columbia City Council robs citizens of right to know on Bull Street

Associate EditorFebruary 5, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— WHAT IF YOUR financial planner and CPA told you they had a great deal for you that would require a hefty investment up front with the promise of big dividends down the road, but they couldn’t provide details about the project you would be spending your money on?

And what if those entrusted with your money went to a meeting to learn details that would supposedly justify the deal but told you to wait outside while they met in secret, only to come out and tell you they couldn’t tell you anything because they’d signed an agreement not to?

No one would handle their personal affairs that way. So why is Columbia City Council handling the public’s business in that manner as it works toward deciding how — and if — it will pay the lion’s share to construct a $35 million to $42 million minor league baseball stadium at the proposed development on the old State Hospital site on Bull Street? It’s also trying to figure out how to pay for the tens of millions it has committed to spending on roads, water, sewer and — if the developer meets certain benchmarks — two parking garages.

If a majority of the seven-member body agrees to a baseball deal, the city will end up investing more than $90 million (who knows what the ceiling is?) on the Bull Street project.

Make no mistake: The city should invest in the Bull Street development, although it is going further than it should, particularly if it indeed becomes the major backer of a ballpark. This project, if successful, could have a tremendous economic ripple affect across the Midlands. Developer Bob Hughes is more than capable; he’s done wonders in Greenville.

But City Council hasn’t handled this project well, and a closed-door meeting with Mr. Hughes on Tuesday does nothing to allay the fears of reasonable people who simply want to make sure that the public’s interest is protected. Voters are looking to the council they elected and entrusted with the responsibility to set policy and make taxing and spending decisions to do just that: look out for citizens and taxpayers.

I believe City Council members think they’re doing what’s best to ensure Bull Street is a success. But their actions mimic that of the accountant and CPA who would invest a client’s money without telling him what he’s getting into.

Look no further than Tuesday’s closed-door meeting to understand what I’m saying. The council met with Mr. Hughes out of taxpayers’ view to allow him to share specifics about his construction plans in an effort to convince members to spend the public’s money at Bull Street. Some council members signed a confidentiality agreement pledging they would not disclose what they heard. Council members Leona Plaugh and Moe Baddourah refused to sign the agreement and left before the presentation.

As the people’s elected representatives, City Council members didn’t just give up their personal rights; they robbed the public of its right know. If the people’s representatives can’t talk, the city is silent. Essentially, council members heard information that might affect the city’s finances, but citizens have no idea what those details are and won’t know unless a private developer decides to reveal them.

It’s bad enough that the council, like so many other public bodies, sometimes goes behind closed doors to talk about items that shouldn’t be secret. But when members go behind closed doors and then sign a confidentiality agreement not to disclose what they’ve heard, despite the fact that it could determine how they vote on public matters, that’s outlandish.

After having the development agreement promising tens of millions for infrastructure forced upon them in a rushed vote, Columbians now are being asked to risk even more money with few details about what’s going to be built at Bull Street to justify the investment. That would make any investor antsy.

Isn’t it time for Columbia’s residents to see some evidence of solid commitments to build something on the site other than a publicly funded ballpark, publicly funded water, sewer and roads and publicly funded parking garages?

I appreciate that Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine — who hasn’t decided whether to support the funding package being drawn up for the project, including the ballpark — disclosed that what Mr. Hughes shared helped her understand better whether to commit more public money to the project.

But City Council needs to help the public understand.

It would be nice if Mr. Hughes or retailers or others he’s lured or is luring to Bull Street would share that news with the public. It would provide residents with something tangible to go on. But that’s not Mr. Hughes’ role. He’s a businessman, and ultimately he’s trying to make a profit. I don’t fault him for asking the council for tens of millions of dollars, whether it’s for infrastructure or a ballpark, to help jump-start Bull Street. Nor do I fault him for asking the seven-member body to meet behind closed doors and to sign an agreement swearing silence.

But I do fault the council, whose job it is to represent the people and not Mr. Hughes. What if the council had said no to a closed-door meeting? What if it had demanded that the developer share details with his real partners in this public-private endeavor — taxpayers?

Given what the city stands to gain at a successful Bull Street, Columbians should be celebrating at this point. That doesn’t mean that everyone will agree on every element of the project or on every commitment City Council makes. But the council should do the public’s business in the open and exercise due diligence — including taking time to deliberate, study and inform the public. Failing to do those things can even rub people who support the development the wrong way. Why cause unnecessary angst?

Lest we forget, there are some who still have a bad taste in their mouths from the way the council rushed to approve the development agreement last July. Some council members insisted the rush job was necessary to ensure that Mr. Hughes didn’t walk away. But Mr. Hughes would say later that he didn’t ask for a deadline. Even today, Columbians still don’t know why there was such a hurry.

Of course, there’s no reason for taxpayers to know such things, is there? I mean, all they’re doing is footing the bill.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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