We thought the annual celebration of “Sunshine Week,” in which newspapers and other media outlets focus on the need for government transparency in serving the public, might be an appropriate time to highlight some recent examples where governments have not been doing a very good job on that.
Haw River: preferential land sale?
In Haw River, for instance, earlier this month, the town council decided to sell some town-owned acreage to the company that is restoring the Granite Mill.
Our concern, which we raised in the form of repeated questions to the town and its attorney, was how the municipality could unilaterally decide to sell public land without any sort of bid process.
Almost always, when public agencies are going to sell surplus property – whether in the form of land, vehicles, computers, etc. – public notice is given and an “auction,” or “upset bid” process is instituted that allows the public at large to make an offer.
Typically, in the case of land, the town can accept a bid, but there is an “upset bid” time period during which another buyer can step forward offering a higher price. (There are statutory requirements for how much time, and how much higher the price must be each round.)
Instead, the town government in Haw River simply decided that they wanted to “support” the Granite Mill project and, without any competitive bidding whatsoever, bestowed the land owned by the town along East Main Street to the company.
The town and its attorney claim that the town is able to take this unorthodox procedure because the sale was done in the name of “economic development.”
It still looks like preferential treatment – by whatever self-serving justification is employed.
The price for the land was $27,000. Was that a fair price? We don’t know, and, more importantly, Haw River taxpayers don’t know, because no one else was given the opportunity to purchase the .8-acre lots.
Now, we realize that the small town is excited by the project which stands to boost the town’s population and property tax values.
But it simply doesn’t look right to unilaterally come to terms with one bidder – to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps no one else would have been interested. But perhaps someone might have been interested at this, or even some higher, price. Taxpayers in Haw River are the real losers by their officials’ overly enthusiastic response to the Granite Mill developer.
Whitsett: filling a vacancy that no one knew even existed
But they’re not alone. Small towns are often viewed as more “casual,” and less sticklers for details and formalities, but we still think there should be standards of good, solid government and transparency.
When the town council of Whitsett met in February, the town had its usual five-member board. In the intervening month, one councilman, Jaime King, moved out of town, creating a vacancy on the council.
One would have thought that would have provided an opportunity for the remaining members of the council to alert their fellow citizens of the vacancy and solicit interest for an appointment to fill out the remaining term of the departed councilman.
Instead, when the town council convened at its meeting last week, there appeared to be a pre-arranged decision to appoint Craig York to take King’s place.
Now, we have no grievance with Mr. York, but we do not think his colleagues who were elected by their fellow townspeople followed a very sound procedure in installing him with absolutely no notice to the town that there even was a vacancy that needed to be filled, much less whether anyone else might be interested in serving.
Now, as is often the case in small towns, maybe the council members considered themselves lucky to find someone – heretofore a member of the planning board – to serve on the town council at all.
But it seems to us that the citizens of Whitsett were short-changed by their council’s presumptive decision to make an appointment with absolutely no notice to their residents that there even was a vacancy to be filled.
Public records are an important tool for newspapers and for citizens to be able to keep a watch on their local governments.
Even small towns can be bullies, as we think Gibsonville recently demonstrated.
The fact that this bullying came to light is thanks to the state’s Public Records Law that requires public officials to make available documents for public inspection.
This newspaper has used the Public Records Law on many occasions to find out what’s going on – often that officials don’t want us to know is going on.
In this case, we had initially been very impressed with town manager Ben Baxley’s promptness in furnishing documents that the newspaper requested in connection with the town’s solicitation of bids to serve as the town’s new attorney.
This newspaper’s publisher had informed the town’s mayor and board of aldermen that state law now requires public bodies who are hiring contractors, such as a private attorney contracted to do work for a municipality, in an open session, rather than a closed session.
The board ignored the newsman’s warning and went into a 10-minute closed session nonetheless. Open meetings violations are another ripe area for discussion, but we’ll save that for another day.
But after we reported in one edition about the solicitations for a new attorney – and the fact that only one attorney, Bob Giles, the attorney the aldermen ultimately hired, had applied – we learned that Baxley had omitted one important public document.
Whether the omission was a deliberate one or inadvertent, we do not know. What we do know is that once we obtained the missing document, we saw that it made reference to the fact that one reason Gibsonville’s town manager so wanted the discussion to be in private was his oblique reference to possible condemnation litigation.”
Strange, we thought. There’s been no previous discussion about a potential condemnation ever mentioned during a Gibsonville board of aldermen meeting that we could remember – and our reporter covers every semi-monthly meeting of the town board.
So we followed up with another public records request which revealed that the town was threatening Thomas and Janice Tickle, who live at the corner of Highways NC 61 and US 70, who hadn’t yet capitulated to the town’s demand for an easement to install water and sewer lines.
Apparently, the Tickles either changed their minds, got a better price than the town had first offered, or just got tired of, literally, “fighting city hall.” They settled by selling the town the slice of land they wanted for $19,589.40.
But we think residents in Gibsonville and other towns deserve to know how their town government treats its citizens.
In each of these examples, our concern is that “the people” to whom they are supposed to be beholden should know what is being done in their name.