Friday, July 30, 2010

The Courts--The Public's Role

Councilman Fred Howe, working with local architect Raymond Herlong, has put forward another option to consider to meet future court needs. The plan calls for renovating and adding onto the Executive Plaza and renovating the existing Circuit Court building. As reported in the Free-Lance Star a work session on the proposal is being scheduled for the end of August. I have lost count of the number of work sessions and meetings Council has had on the courts issue.

What I do know is that to date the residents of Fredericksburg, who will ultimately have to foot the bill for whatever option is decided upon, has not been given a forum in which to express their thoughts on the project. Nor has the impact of this project on the City been adequately explained.

When the City embarked on another large capital project--the construction of two new schools--Council went to great lengths to explain to the public the need for the schools, the cost to city taxpayers, and the impact on future budgets and capital projects. They also sought public input.

This has not happened in the case of the courts project in part because a majority on the Council feel we are mandated to build new facilities by the local judiciary. I have posted links to previous blog posts on the subject of the courts project which shows that this is not the case. Also for the past year a moratorium has been in place against any court action. A moratorium Council refused to support.

But even if we were to accept the view that we are facing a court order does that justify not explaining to the public the impact this project will have on their tax rates, city services, schools, and other capital projects? Should city residents not have an opportunity to get answers to their questions and concerns? And should they not have the opportunity to voice their opinions on whether the city should move forward at the current pace?

At the Council meeting of November 24, 2009 Resolution 09-118, Approving a Concept for Courthouse Development and Authorizing the City Manager to Initiate Various Pre-Development Activities (D09-612), was discussed. It was to set the City timeline on moving the downtown fire station and using the existing site for a court complex.

I moved to defer taking action on the resolution until which time, "Council address the following with the public: financing, impact on operating budget and what the City can and cannot do with the courts project." The motion was seconded by Councilman Ellis but was defeated 4-2 with the Vice Mayor being absent. I voted against the resolution which passed on a 5-1 vote.

After the vote members of Council stated that the public would have opportunities to provide public comment as the process continued such as when funds were voted on and when plans were brought forward for approval. But what about a presentation to the public explaining the impact of the project on the city and residents?

Before another vote is taken by City Council on the courts project a public hearing and presentation should be made to explain the project's impact on the tax rate, its impact on future capital projects, additional operating costs, and its impact on other city services such as public safety and schools.

Also, those members of City Council who support moving the courts project forward need to explain why they support this project. If they believe the project is being forced on the city provide specifics as to why that is the case. What are the benefits to city residents in moving this project forward now?

Some members of Council have stated that moving forward on the courts is a, "moral obligation." They need to explain how this obligation compares to the city's obligations to schools, public safety, city services and other city needs.

City residents are facing significant tax increases during a major downturn in the economy. They should expect to have the opportunity to get answers to their questions and concerns in an open forum. Council members need to provide a detailed explanation on the long term costs of the project to the city, and their reasons for moving this project forward at this time.

How do you view the process Council has taken in moving the court project forward?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I concur with most of your opinions regarding the building of the new courts complex. That is however noting that I plan to become more educated on some of the history and details of the reasoning for moving the project forward as currently proposed. What worries me at least as much is the seemingly consistent piecemeal approach to the development of the city. Call it a lack of vision or wholistic thinking, but we are once again presenteed with a "blivit". That term needs no explanation to one with a military background. When this kind of thinking and justification is used for the distribution and layout of a municipality it usually means that there has been strategic acquisition of property over some period of time. In short, follow the money trail. Many of us peons think that the incredible potential of Fredericksburg continues to be squandered with small thinking and selfish self serving interests. I recently heard an ex official who has moved from the area exclaim, " We (Fredericksburg) needed a good housecleaning then and it seems even more evident now from where I stand." That was an unsolicited observation. Personally, I doubt we will see any change until the people running the show are changed. Modiglialan