City planning endeavor gets off on wrong foot

If the Orwellian name of the city of Beaufort's new "Office of Civic Investment" doesn't give you pause, the manner in which it was unveiled should.

A Feb. 3 news release -- ambiguously describing a melding of consultants with the city's planning, zoning and code-enforcement departments -- was issued before City Council was apprised of its content or timing.

That forced a slight retreat by city manager Scott Dadson, a proponent of the changes and the consultants who helped shape them. He explained that city employees would work with the consultants, not for them, and that the council was not briefed beforehand because of an unintentional oversight.

The mishandling is unsettling enough -- at its most benign, the planners failed to plan.

But one wonders if the uninformed council was truly a mistake given subsequent events. Take, for example, communications consultant John Williams, who issued the release. He argued a few days later at a City Council retreat that the public and media should go through the chairman if they have questions for the Redevelopment Commission -- an appointed group that can wield eminent domain and incur debt and that will work hand-in-glove with The Lawrence Group and Metrocology to reshape the city.

"I think it's very important for us to have a consistent message," chairman Jon Verity said after the subject was discussed again at a separate commission retreat Friday.

Why? The proper function of a commission is to form consensus, not to project unanimity. Commission members shouldn't be cordoned off from the public. They ought to be free -- obligated, even -- to speak their mind whenever, wherever and with whomever they like. To suggest otherwise is to suggest either that commissioners are not competent to talk about the very matters they decide or that a commissioner's job is to shut up and take orders.

Which raises another question: Who, exactly, issues orders in Beaufort these days?

"I don't feel council is leading the city so much as staff is leading the city," Councilman Mike Sutton said at last week's council retreat.

Whether motivated by innocent exuberance or a desire to cement their plans before the public or its elected officials can tell them "no," the staff, its consultants and the Redevelopment Commission are out of line. Disclosure and accountability might slow "progress," but they also keep Beaufort from becoming someone's private sandbox.

The left hand doesn't seem to know what the right hand is up to, and this must stop before the feet take another step.