Marietta’s ambitious plan to redevelop aging neighborhoods is a worthy effort, but by keeping city taxpayers completely out the process, city officials are straining confidence that the process is being carried out fairly.
The city has been acquiring land within walking distance of the Marietta Square in hopes of attracting developers to renew old neighborhoods with mixed-income housing, small retail establishments and other urban-type amenities. Unfortunately it is conducting the process in total secrecy and in violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
Some council members and Mayor Bill Dunaway have defended the practice, claiming the closed-door process is necessary to get the best deals. But other local governments — including Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Fulton counties — routinely make land deals through private negotiations with owners while still providing information to taxpayers before money changes hands.
Dunaway has proposed a compromise in which the city would disclose, in advance, purchase of individual tracts that aren’t part of a larger acquisition plan. But it would not disclose deals when it feared that release of the purchase price would cause prices to rise for nearby tracts it also might want to acquire.
That’s not good enough.
State law is unambiguous — the purchase of property by a public agency must be carried out in public. State Attorney General Thurbert Baker has vigilantly guarded taxpayer participation in the process over the years. Two years ago, for example, he was instrumental in getting Gwinnett County to abandon a land-buying process similar to Marietta’s. Under Gwinnett’s new ordinance, it discloses, in advance, plans to buy property, why the land is needed and how it will pay for the purchase. The property’s exact location and price remain private during negotiations until the time comes to vote on it. Final votes to purchase are always conducted at public meetings.
In contrast, Marietta refuses to disclose negotiations or land deals during any step in the process. When asked by the Marietta Daily Journal when such deals would become publicly known, the city attorney said disclosure would occur when a news release is issued about the purchase.
Such a “we-know-what’s-best” attitude among elected public officials inevitably raises fears about insider deals and sweetheart contracts with friendly developers, and those suspicions could end up doing a lot more harm to Marietta’s redevelopment efforts than disclosure of purchase prices could.
The City Council is scheduled to discuss changing the land-purchasing process Sept. 10. If it refuses to do so, voters in Marietta should remember during next year’s municipal elections how they have been kept in the dark.
— Mike King, for the editorial board