City staff should take on departing contractor's work

info@islandpacket.comAugust 19, 2013 

For much of the past two years, contractors have worked to plan the city of Beaufort's next 100 years. Unfortunately, as their work nears completion, no one seems to have a plan for what happens after the contractors depart.

The city's Redevelopment Commission appears eager to fill the void that will be left when The Lawrence Group departs the city's Office of Civic Investment, probably in June 2014.

"I don't know that there would be any need for an Office of Civic Investment, per se," commission chairman Jon Verity said when asked what might come next. "... We have the authority to hire someone to work directly for the Redevelopment Commission, and that might be what we do."

The Redevelopment Commission deserves a seat at the planning table. But to put it at the head of that table would be to trade an odd arrangement for an unsettling one.

The Lawrence Group was brought in to help overhaul the city's Civic Master Plan and create a form-based zoning code. There's nothing unusual in that -- municipal governments hire planning consultants all the time. However, it is unusual for a city to consolidate several departments into one office and hand the keys to the consultants.

That's what the city did in 2011, when it combined planning, zoning and code-enforcement departments to form the Office of Civic Investment, then staffed it largely with employees of the Virginia-based architecture and engineering firm.

Many perceive the office to be run by secretive outsiders -- intent upon foisting new-fangled ideas upon people who didn't ask for them, tempered only by the public's push-back.

That perception may or may not be fair. Time will be the best judge of The Lawrence Group's work: Did it produce a lasting impact pleasing to most of Beaufort's residents and respectful of them all?

But its legacy will largely be determined by what happens after it leaves, and this is where Verity has it wrong: Beaufort will not cease to plan and zone, but even if it does, it still needs to enforce its codes.

There is a need for some of the work being done now in the Office of Civic Investment. The question is, who is best to manage that work?

A department that answers directly to the city manager, who in turn answers directly to City Council? Or an unelected board with diffuse responsibility but the power to sign contracts and confiscate property -- powers that won't necessarily be checked by council?

The Redevelopment Commission's refusal to release public documents related to possible redevelopment of the Beaufort Downtown Marina gives a hint of the accountability and transparency we can expect if more power is vested in the commission.

The charitable interpretation is that the commission started an idea-gathering exercise, then failed to fully inform the public when that search morphed into some sort of negotiation. The commission argues that the negotiation is exempt from public-record laws that otherwise would force it to make public what it insists upon keeping secret.

The less charitable view is that the commission simply came up with an excuse to behave as a private developer might.

Either way, those who thought it inappropriate for a contractor to so heavily influence core government functions won't likely see the Redevelopment Commission as a better boss.

The city must decide who will assume responsibility for the functions of the Office of Civic Investment. Given what we've seen so far, that responsibility should stay with city staff.

The Island Packet is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service