A Deal in the Dark
Without transparency the government can get away with anything it wants. For anyone who has been paying attention to me over the years you will find that one of my core beliefs is that we MUST have a transparent government. It is crucial for we - the people, the governed - to hold our elected and unelected officials accountable. Yes, there are times when national security or individual privacy concerns demand some degree of secrecy, but most actions carried out by the government don't fall in that justifiable region where withholding information from public review is warranted.
Since October, the City of Newark - and perhaps Licking County as a whole - has been mired in a controversy over Mayor Hall's decision to remove the Gazebo from the Square literally in the dark of night. As you likely know, the Council reportedly learned of the Mayor's decision - which was secured via an arrangement he made with County Commissioner Bubb - by way of the newspaper less than a week before the deconstruction of the structure began. For about a month and a half, the Mayor was absent from Council meetings and refused to respond to citizen emails or phone calls. This left the members of City Council - particularly those sharing the Mayor's political label - to defend themselves against the near-universal condemnation of this decision of which they had no part.
It was only when Council met on the eve of Election Night - when seven of the members were up for re-election, four of whom actually had a competitive election - that the Mayor decided to show up. After hearing the demands for answers in person for the first time in a setting that he could not ignore, Hall responded to the pleas for answers with a lengthy and testy rant about how he had been called names by citizens via the phone, how citizens were supposedly feeling safer again on the square (which he seemingly tried to link to the absence of the Gazebo, despite the fact that its final months of existence had been behind a fence), and asserted that the Gazebo had to go because it was a security issue (a claim the Administration also likes to attach to their decision to remove the handful of picnic tables which used to permit dining and family time on the Square).
He - and others in his team - also repeatedly claim that "no public dollars were used" to remove the Gazebo. That is, except for the use of police manpower in overseeing such, but I digress. This compelled a number of citizens concerned - you know, for the sake of preserving good government - with transparency to begin requesting documentation to tell us - the people, you know, the people for whom our government officials work - how exactly this government action was paid for. At that point, some in the City started saying that an anonymous donor provided the funds. Well, why? For what purpose would some - purportedly wealthy - private citizen feel compelled to help remove a structure beloved by many (if not most) of the City and County's residents while bearing the entirety of the costs?
None of the pleas for a paper trail were answered by the City or County as each claimed that there was no such record. Then, at the end of the year 2017, we had what seemed like a breakthrough. A member of Council started floating around a proposed amendment to the 2018 budget to set aside some of the funds to build a new Gazebo (or, perhaps, to rebuild the one removed). They reached out to members of the Gazebo activist group in the hopes that those activists would put pressure on the other members of council to support this measure. When it became clear that NONE of the other members were willing to support this proposal, anger grew within a number of us. I was especially outraged by the thought that no one seemed willing to even give the idea a secondary motion so as to permit a full council vote on it.
That's when I spoke out at the December 18th meeting. I was upset that I had to feel compelled to speak on this on my son's birthday. Yes, I know, it is just a gazebo, but that was NEVER the point of this. The point - as I alluded to earlier - is the transparency or lack thereof. Decisions are being made in the dark and devoid of public input when it is not justified. I raised my voice in my remarks before council, in my condemnation of the naked partisanship that I saw as well as the total lack of accountability. I lambasted the decisions about the square's future as well as with respect to the city's development for its apparent singular focus on representing the interests of the few. Others, again, demanded action and answers.
In the aftermath of this contentious meeting, it was mentioned by a member of the Administration that a private donor paid for this only in terms of offering the services of their construction company with a request that they be repaid by the County when the gazebo is rebuilt in the East End. So, now, with yet another change to the story we were left chasing this invisible goose. None of us were satisfied with that answer, because it appeared like another attempt at silencing our dissent. Then, a few weeks ago, someone approached me saying that they had some information pertaining to what happened.
Now, before I go on, I have to note that I have struggled with how to share the information I was given. I take pride in my reputation as someone that a number of citizens trust, and feel that said reputation reflects well on my loved ones. I hate rumors, and feel that the conspiracy theories they create when it involves the government does more harm than good. So, I take NOTHING lightly in sharing the information I received.
Ok, the person who approached me is a reputable individual who would have had access to the truth. Let's just say that this source - who requested their anonymity, because it could jeopardize them should it become known that they were my source - is not some random unknown schmo off the streets.
What they revealed is that our pursuit of a paper trail and some mysterious private donor was fruitless because there was NEVER a private donor; therefore, there was NO paper trail. In fact, the Mayor and Commissioner Bubb - again, according to this source - discussed this one day. Both the Mayor and Bubb wanted the Gazebo gone, but they knew that public support for their goal of its removal was likely to be lacking. Realizing the likely controversy which would surround a debate about funding this aspired removal by the City and/or the County, the two of them considered an alternative route.
They reportedly assessed that there was at least one contractor in the area with an interest in profiting from some of the upcoming projects in the area. So, they decided to ask this contractor for a favor in exchange for at least one of those lucrative projects. Obviously, this contractor could received a no-bid contract, but the other option for this quid pro quo was to alert them ahead of time what the lowest bid would be if such had to be contested. There you have it.
What should happen now? If this is true, and I honestly believe it is because of how reliable I know my source to be, then a recall of the Mayor and the resignation of his partner in the County Administration is crucial. However, given that I do not have press credentials and that I am a biased source in the traditional sense we need something more concrete. The Mayor's word and the testimony before the court of public opinion are no longer sufficient. We need a thorough investigation, from an outside, independent, and undeniably credible source.
We need answers. We need transparency. Accountability is essential for good government. All of us deserve better. Period.