Editorial: Columbia taxpayers should have known about warning against Bull Street agreement

09/27/2013 12:00 AM

09/26/2013 11:42 PM

IT’S TROUBLING that a warning from Columbia’s city attorney against the approval of a development agreement for the State Hospital property on Bull Street was hidden from the public.

There is no good explanation for why this information, contained in a letter to City Council from attorney Ken Gaines and Beaufort attorney Dave Tedder, was not disclosed during debate over this controversial issue.

Citizens have a right to know what public attorneys compensated via their tax dollars share with elected representatives. Openness is a key element of our democratic process. Without it, citizens can’t reach informed opinions on the most mundane issues, let alone controversial and critical matters.

This wasn’t a letter regarding an active or pending lawsuit; it was information from the city’s lawyer about whether to approve an agreement that the city must adhere to — and the public must fund. Citizens should know if their attorney is suggesting that certain elements must be present or removed to protect the public from excess exposure.

The letter from Mr. Gaines and Mr. Tedder was disclosed only after The State obtained a copy, well after the decisive July 9 vote, rushed through under the guise that developer Bob Hughes would walk away if it wasn’t taken by then.

Based on the letter from Mr. Gaines and Mr. Tedder, an expert of development agreements, Mr. Hughes got a very good deal. They wrote that most development agreements require the developer, not taxpayers, to pay for infrastructure.

Noting that the agreement “exposes the City of Columbia to significant legal and financial risks which could be detrimental to the City of Columbia,” the attorneys said the council should not approve the agreement as it stood. They suggested that definitive funding sources first be identified to pay for commitments the city was about to make.

The attorneys wrote that Mr. Hughes could easily reach benchmarks of 120,000 square feet in retail development and $75 million in investments, making the city “liable for funding more than $50 million in as little as three years.”

They were particularly concerned about two parking garages the city would have to finance once Mr. Hughes reached certain thresholds. The letter said the city would have to provide a garage after property “equivalent to a single Wal-Mart or Lowe’s shopping area” is developed. A second garage would be required once private investments reached $75 million.

While the attorneys said each garage likely will cost $24 million to $32 million, “We have not yet seen a plan that can provide these funds for the infrastructure the City is contracting to provide.”

Like these two attorneys, a number of others — this editorial board among them — questioned the wisdom in making financial commitments without definite funding sources. Attempts to get the council to slow down and give the agreement a thorough vetting went unheeded. The council pressed forward, approving the matter by a 4-2 vote.

This is yet another example of a public body hiding information from the public by claiming attorney-client privilege. Some governmental bodies use attorney-client privilege to skirt the Freedom of Information Act and hide not only legal advice that should be part of open debate but also other basic information. It’s important for the public to know what the attorney has to say about liability and exposure and other basic information so that citizens can make informed decisions about whether elected officials are wise in pursuing their chosen course.

How wise was it for City Council to forge ahead in this instance? More importantly, what else is it not telling the public?

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