Bluffton must divulge details of secret land deal

We have high hopes that Bluffton Town Council, scheduled to discuss a mysterious land proposal today, will be forthcoming in what the deal entails.

So far, taxpayers know nothing more than the town, along with its development corporation and Beaufort County, are considering chipping in $1 million each to buy about 34 acres near Buckwalter Place in the hopes of attracting an unidentified business.

Beaufort County Council has already failed to discuss the deal in public and has refused to identify the business it is attempting to attract, to say why it is interested in bringing the business here and to explain how it benefits county residents.

There's been no public discussion of why this unknown business couldn't simply buy the property directly from its owner, Tom Zinn. For an unknown reason, taxpayers are poised to underwrite the project without being told the most basic information about it.

These public officials won't even give details about the land deal itself -- whether these government bodies are going to simply give the property to the undisclosed business as an incentive, sell it to the business at a reduced rate or make some other arrangement.

County Council members and Roberts Vaux, chairman of the Bluffton Public Development Corp., cite ongoing negotiations as the reason the information is withheld. That would be fine if this were two private companies working out a deal. But that kind of latitude is not given to towns and counties that are required to conduct the public's business in public.

We urge members of Bluffton Town Council to disclose project details when they meet today regardless of what their attorney, staff members or members of its economic development group -- none of whom are publicly-elected -- say about ongoing negotiations.

Just because a legal excuse exists does not mean it should be used, particularly by those who take transparency seriously.

We have no doubt that these public officials are pursuing the unidentified business because of a belief that it will increase the tax base, create high-paying jobs and spur future economic development.

Their intentions are likely good. But even worthy goals should be pursued in an open and accountable way, not hashed out behind closed doors. The project should be shelved if it requires such a large degree of secrecy.

We hope Bluffton Town Council will show today that they're public officials who represent the people of Bluffton, not business executives taking risks with their own money.