Beaufort must be ready to turn page on planning

Because changing horses in the middle of a stream can be a good way to drown, the city of Beaufort and its Redevelopment Commission did the prudent thing by renewing its contract with The Lawrence Group.

Now, the city needs to be as committed to putting that relationship out to pasture as it is to the planning concepts the firm was hired to help develop.

The Lawrence Group has worked with the city since 2008. It had a two-year contract that ended in July, with annual estimated costs to the city of about $660,000. The new contract runs through June 2014 and is worth $525,000, an amount that cannot be exceeded without written authorization from city manager Scott Dadson.

Redevelopment Commission chairman Jon Verity said the group was the only realistic choice for the new contract because of its extensive involvement with ongoing projects -- developing Beaufort's form-based code (to replace traditional zoning), and completing its master plan and Boundary Street renovations.

Verity is absolutely correct.

He added it would have been difficult for the city to hire employees to match the capabilities of The Lawrence Group. Be that as it may, the city must undertake that task soon, no matter how difficult. Although it is not unusual for a municipality to call in a consultant to help with planning and zoning, it is unusual for the consulting firm to become a de facto arm of government.

Craig Lewis is not only a principal of The Lawrence Group, which describes itself as "a building design, development and project delivery firm headquartered in St. Louis, Mo.," but is also the director of the city of Beaufort's Office of Civic Investment.

That arrangement raises questions about public governance. Also, Lewis's concession that his firm has not been as "diligent" as it should be in tracking its expenses raises very practical ones.

Verity sees the next few years as a transition period, in which plans drafted with consultants' help are brought to life by a yet-to-be-hired, full-time planning staff.

Our only quibble with Verity's vision is the timeframe: There's no good reason to delay the transition beyond the length of the new contract with The Lawrence Group. The sooner municipal functions move in-house, under more direct city control, the better.

This is not to say that The Lawrence Group has done anything untoward or that public employees will be inherently better at managing multi-million-dollar grants or more prudent in their exercise of eminent domain -- tasks the city probably will soon be engaged in.

But it is recognition that municipal government alone is authorized to act in the interest of the public and is directly accountable to it.