Redevelopment board wields too much authority

The Beaufort Redevelopment Commission breached no law and broke no rule when it approved a $700,000 contract for consulting services without taking competitive bids last month.

And that is precisely the problem, or at least the potential problem.

Designed to help the commission put Beaufort's 2009 comprehensive plan into action, a contract was awarded to The Lawrence Group -- the same architectural, interior design and planning firm the city paid about $100,000 to draft the plan. It marked the first major allocation by the reconstituted commission.

If this is how business is to be done now in the city of Beaufort, it is obvious that a lot of public money can be bestowed upon private interests by unelected officials who are allowed to bypass conventional controls.

The city manager says that the city must shed these restraints to jolt its redevelopment effort. And this is what City Council members say they had in mind when they voted to remove themselves from the nine-person commission last year, reasoning they could not provide the energy, entrepreneurship and expertise redevelopment demands.

The people in place now seem to recognize the responsibility this arrangement entails. Just the same, these commissioners -- not all of whom even live within city limits -- will not serve forever. Neither will the City Council members now seated (members who pledge careful oversight of the commission even as they beg off of it.)

Keep in mind the commission can:

  • Take private property for public use through eminent domain.
  • Sell, exchange or transfer property.
  • Incur debt.
  • Enter partnerships with developers.
  • Be sued.
  • And it has its own revenue stream. (Remember, the downtown parking system was turned over to the commission, too.)

    Nervous yet?

    That state law allows such an arrangement and that other municipalities use it, too, does not diminish the concern. We can only hope the people who serve on this commission and the council members who appoint them can exercise the personal rectitude and sense of duty needed to replace systemic restraints.

    Unfortunately, history suggests situations lacking in accountability and transparency seldom encourage these traits.