Voters with Facts
Posted: July 18, 2014
Voters with Facts, a group that was established by citizens who are concerned about the Confluence Project in downtown Eau Claire, announced this week that it was filing a complaint with the Eau Claire City Council for violating the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law. At first glance, I wasn't surprised that this particular organization would take action against the city in an effort to delay the $77.2 million project. On the other hand, after reading the group's complaint, it's obvious that the group doesn't trust the elected officials to conduct negotiations behind closed doors.
As a journalist, I am at times critical of how various governing bodies conduct business in closed session. After all, I am in the reporting business and I get concerned when elected officials talk about issues that affect taxpayers without citizen input. But, in my opinion, this ploy by Voters with Facts is simply misguided.
As a small business owner, I understand that some negotiations need to take place without reporters disseminating the information to the public until it's appropriate. In this particular case, Eau Claire city council members were discussing, in closed session, how it would negotiate with the developers of the Confluence Project. That seems reasonable to me.
Eau Claire City Attorney Steve Nick told me that the city has been very open about the money being put towards the Confluence Project and at no time has the city discussed anything in closed session that should have been dealt with in public.
"The city certainly takes the Open Meetings Law seriously. The developers have already agreed to a $21.9 million increment in improvements as a result of the project and are asking for another $5.9 million. We want to get the best deal for the city," said Nick.
According to the Voters with Facts complaint, the $5.9 million subsidy to build the privately-financed student housing component of the Confluence Project is a gift that should be discussed in an open meeting.
I disagree. The city council is trying to get the best deal for its citizens. The best way to determine how the city can get its best return on investment is to design a development agreement that sets up a timeline and framework as to when that development will occur and when the city will start to see residuals from its financial stake. That only makes sense to me.