City of Beaufort should be more transparent with projects

info@islandpacket.comDecember 10, 2013 

The city of Beaufort and its Redevelopment Commission chose a commendable company to help lead the redevelopment of the Beaufort Downtown Marina. Between them, the principals of the newly formed Historic Marina Partners LLC combine to bring solid credentials, local knowledge and an impressive development portfolio.

Nonetheless, prudence demands a critique of the dubious method used to select the city's partner.

Think of it this way: If you eat a candy bar before bedtime and go to sleep without brushing your teeth, you might not wake up with a cavity; make such behavior a habit, however, and you'll rot a molar soon enough.

The Redevelopment Commission set out early this year to gauge interest from developers and collect their ideas for the marina property. When the commission was asked to show the ideas it had received, it balked, citing an exemption from state disclosure laws afforded to public bodies during contract negotiations.

This marked a subtle shift in mission -- gauging interest is not the same thing as negotiating. This response also brought criticism from those concerned the commission would bind the city to a plan for the marina without public input.

Mayor Billy Keyserling tried to calm waters by asserting no actual contract negotiation was taking place and that the council would have to sign off on any partnership the commission recommended.

Despite the duplicity -- the commission claimed an exemption from public-records law, while the mayor essentially argued the prerequisite for that exemption does not exist -- the process has thus far unfolded much as Keyserling promised. Historic Marina Partners is signed to a memorandum of understanding, but not to any contract that describes, for instance, how the company will be paid.

Historic Marina Partners' Jim Chaffin and Steve Navarro immediately began soliciting public input, as required by the memorandum, which also stipulates that anything built on the marina property go through the city's usual approval process. For its part, the Redevelopment Commission has made public the names of the other four companies that vied for the work, along with the materials they submitted, despite chairman Jon Verity's earlier stance that he would release neither.

These are welcomed shows of good faith. Nonetheless, at least three causes for concern remain.

First, City Council was supposed to receive the Redevelopment Commission's recommendation before approving the memorandum. Instead, it did so before the commission took an open-session vote to endorse Historic Marina Partners. Keyserling said council members were apprised of the commission's consensus by Verity and city attorney Bill Harvey. But that's possible only if Verity and Harvey assumed -- and council acted on -- what they could not know for certain, or the commission broke the law by arriving at an acknowledged consensus during a closed session.

Second, Navarro and Verity had informal discussions about the property before the commission had even started its search for partners. Because a partnership that includes Navarro wound up with the commission's recommendation, skeptics might conclude this was the intended outcome all along and that other suitors never had a chance. We do not believe that to be the case here, however, such a notion festers under cover and is dispelled only by transparency that was too late in coming.

Third, before the marina property is leased or sold, the city will convey it to the Redevelopment Commission. The city has made its motivation explicit: The commission is unencumbered by many of the competitive-bidding requirements and other nuisances that would bind City Council.

Consider standard operating procedures that entail these concerns: wink-and-nod observance of law, private conversations about public property and a preference for expedience over safeguards.

Move the project from the Downtown Historic District to a place where the approval process is less stringent. Replace good faith with a bad actor. The dangers become clear.

Process matters. The city's needs to be transparent from start to finish, even if it produced a desirable result in this instance.

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