Public, Private…It’s all the same.

For over a year, I have been critical of Fayetteville’s downtown development deal with Prince Charles Holdings because it uses public tax dollars to benefit one corporation. I’m in favor of public money being used for public facilities (like baseball stadiums). I don’t support using public money to build parking decks for private companies. If you’ve read this blog, you’re aware of that by now.

The lines between public and private interests are crucial and go to the heart of what our government should be about, at all levels. In fact it’s written in in the parchment of our state constitution, which bars cities from using tax dollars for private purposes:

ARTICLE V – FINANCE
Sec. 2. State and local taxation.

(1) Power of taxation. The power of taxation shall be exercised in a just and equitable manner, for public purposes only, and shall never be surrendered, suspended, or contracted away.

The constitution also prevents special treatment:

N.C. Const., Art. I, Sec. 32. Exclusive emoluments. No person or set of persons is entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community but in consideration of public services.

Why did our Founders include these provisions? Quite frankly, they were tired of the King of England giving economic favors to those in his favor. A government “of the people” had to live up to its name.

Conflicts of Interest

We tend to take these principles for granted until they start to break down. One such breakdown involving Fayetteville’s downtown development deal was described in the cover story in the News and Observer today. The title speaks for itself:

N&O reporter Dan Kane goes into great detail about the formation of Fayetteville’s downtown development project. If you want to know why we have a baseball stadium next to the Prince Charles Hotel with no parking, it’s worth reading.

Kane uncovers a pattern: Employees at the UNC School of Government (a public institution) created a program called the Development Finance Initiative (also public) to help advise cities and towns in economic development matters. These same employees, after giving said advice, created private companies to make money off of said advice in projects throughout the state.

It’s a clear conflict of interest.

Fayetteville “Waives” Conflict without Public Disclosure

When you have a conflict of interest, you need to do something about it. The law lets both parties “waive” the conflict if they choose to.

In 2015, the Fayetteville City Manager waived one particular conflict of interest on behalf of you and every taxpayer in the City of Fayetteville:

Click here for a link to the full document.

Do you remember hearing a peep about this in any public meeting or in local press? Probably not, and there is a good reason for that: most of this was done behind closed doors, in closed sessions.

Mayoral Leadership?

Mayor Colvin was questioned about the PCH deal in Dan Kane’s story and appeared to play both sides of the foul line:

Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin said in an interview he supports the project for helping to energize the downtown and build the tax base. But he wants to make sure it is fiscally sound. He was first elected to the council in 2013 and became mayor four years later.

He also said it would help him and other Fayetteville officials if UNC would release more information from the audit so they could understand the conflicts.

I’m confused, Mr. Mayor. There was a clear conflict of interest between public and private actors and your City Manager waived it. While you weren’t Mayor at the time, you were on the City Council and you were chairman of the baseball committee.

And your “baseball committee” talked about a lot more than just baseball:

Kane’s article ended its “Fayetteville” discussion with another quote from Mayor Colvin:

“If there’s any kind of assumption that anything was incorrect, I think the city needs to be able to show fully how it operated in a transparent way without conflict, and so the only way you can do that is to have a report that is forthcoming and not full of redactions that take out critical information,” he said.

Let me break this one down:

  1. There is no assumption. This whole thing was incorrect from the beginning.
  2. The City can’t show it operated in a transparent way because it didn’t. It has acted behind closed doors in all things related to this deal for the past five years.
  3. We don’t need a report from UNC. We need one from City Hall. You can sign it at the bottom.

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