City officials knew about the most important happening in their contentious effort to turn Port Washington lakefront land into a commercial building site for three weeks before it was revealed in this newspaper, but said not a word about it to the public.
The fact that Christopher Long had informed the city government in late August that he was abandoning his attempt to buy a marina parking lot for an entertainment complex called the Blues Factory was information the public had a right to know.
Instead of sharing the information about this remarkable turn of events with the citizens of Port Washington—who, after all, are the owners of the marina land—the mayor, aldermen, city administrator and city attorney kept it as their secret.
The public finally learned about it in last week’s Ozaukee Press. It was Christopher Long, not city officials, who informed the Press he had withdrawn from the project.
In a Sept. 13 email to this newspaper, Long not only confirmed he was giving up his quest, he revealed more information about the shaky status of the Blues Factory than had anyone in the city government when he wrote he was pulling out because “there remains a gap that must be bridged” in securing financing for the project.
The decision casts significant doubt on the viability of the proposed development. Highly respected as a Madison-area community project consultant, Long was the driving force of the development he named the Blues Factory. He conceived the idea of a Paramount Music-themed complex and was its primary planner and most articulate and persuasive advocate. If he couldn’t convince investors and lenders to commit to the project, it begs the question—who could?
It is understandable that for officials who have touted the Blues Factory as a surefire generator of “catalytic” economic development, Long’s withdrawal based on the inability to find financing to qualify for a generous taxpayer subsidy to buy a prime piece of public lakefront land is embarrassing. Embarrassment, however, is not a valid excuse for secrecy.
Nor is it grounds for holding closed Common Council sessions to discuss the Blues Factory. The withholding of information about Long’s departure was in keeping with the city government’s modus operandi of revealing as little as possible to the public. To date, the council has held nine closed sessions concerning the development.
This frequency of closed meetings, rarely seen in any Wisconsin municipality, flouts the ethic embodied in the Wisconsin Open Meetings Law as set forth in the statute’s very first paragraph, which holds that “it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is compatible with the conduct of governmental business. The denial of public access generally is contrary to the public interest, and only in an exceptional case may access be denied.”
In justifying excluding the public, officials have repeatedly cited an exemption to the open meetings law when “competitive or bargaining reasons require a closed session.”
The Open Meetings Law compliance guideline for officials written by former Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen warns against exploiting the broad language of the exemption in the manner evident in the Port Washington city hall. “Mere inconvenience, delay, embarrassment, frustration or even speculation as to the probability of success would be an insufficient basis to close a meeting,” Van Hollen wrote.
During the period in which city officials, but not the public, were aware that Long had given up on the Blues Factory, Port Washington developer Gertjan van den Broek was somehow persuaded to take the lead in the development. Van den Broek had been associated with the Blues Factory as a Port Washington connection to the project, but was not active in its planning or promotion. Last week he was granted a privilege not available to his fellow taxpayers—entrée to the most recent closed council session, where it was decided to extend the deadline to provide proof of financing indefinitely.
The persistence of the council, egged on by the development’s cheerleader in chief, Mayor Tom Mlada, in pushing to sell lakefront land for the Blues Factory against a wave of public opposition has clearly undermined confidence in the city government, an unfortunate state of affairs made worse by keeping the people of Port Washington in the dark about key details of the project.
More of the same is all but guaranteed by the city officials’ initial response to the departure of the development’s creator, which has been to dig in deeper. The response that would serve the community far better would be for the aldermen of the Common Council to rise above that obdurate mindset and put an end to city participation in the Blues Factory venture—and do it openly in full public view.