PRESS EDITORIAL: City Hall secrets

Openness in government is such a fundamental tenet of the American democracy, so commonly demanded by the people and promised by elected representatives, that it has come to be described by a single word: Transparency.

Transparency was mocked at the Port Washington City Hall last week in an exercise so contrary to a basic understanding of how representative government is supposed to function that it left some citizens incredulous and embarrassed for their city.

Mayor Ted Neitzke summoned aldermen to a special meeting of the Common Council on May 3 for the purpose of listening to a presentation by a lobbyist paid to influence the city to support an anonymous developer.

“Discussion regarding south side development” was the single item on the agenda. A skeptic couldn’t be blamed for thinking the wording was intentionally vague to avoid the inconvenience of members of the public showing up at the meeting to observe the city’s dealings with the mysterious developer.

What transpired was not a discussion but a sales pitch. And the subject was not a south side development (several developments are underway or planned in the southern part of the city). It was the south side development, the controversial move by an unnamed investor to prevent the creation of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve, for which planning and fundraising have been going on for years, and turn the land into a residential subdivision.

The mayor’s show went on in the council chamber without a mention of the developer’s name. His identity remains a secret as far as the public and the public’s elected representatives on the Common Council are concerned, but it’s not a secret to everyone.

It turns out the mayor and City Administrator Tony Brown are in on the secret. It was revealed at the council meeting that they met with the developer, but are not talking about who it is. The investor’s hired advocate, lobbyist Scott Meyer, went so far as to say that Neitzke and Brown had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Neitzke firmly denied this, and granting that a mayor is generally more credible than a lobbyist, it is safe to assume that he and the administrator merely promised—cross their hearts—to keep the secret.

Either way, such contempt for transparency has no legitimate place in the process of serving the public. Even if it could be separated from the nature preserve issue, the notion that it is all right for city officials to facilitate the business plan of an investor who hides his identity as he seeks to profit from developing land in the city deserves no respect.

Promoting that notion at a special meeting called by the city’s chief executive was an affront to council members and the citizens they represent. Ald. Paul Neumyer recognized that when he told an Ozaukee Press reporter after the meeting, “Anything we do, we have to be upfront.”

The stealth development maneuver, of course, cannot be separated from the nature preserve issue. It falls in line with the blocking by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, under suspicious circumstances, of a stewardship grant approved for Cedar Gorge by the DNR, and the rejection of an Ozaukee County grant for the preserve when the votes of three Port Washington representatives on the County Board, encouraged by Neitzke, prevented the required two-thirds majority.

In his spiel on behalf of the secret investor/developer, the lobbyist dangled the lure of a windfall of revenue for the city when the housing development on the Cedar Gorge is added to the tax base.

Playing the tax-base card is a weak rationale for denying the public the benefits of the nature preserve. The City of Port Washington doesn’t need to be greedy about its taxable valuation, which is growing steadily thanks to surging commercial and residential development.

What’s more, city officials should not underestimate the value Port taxpayers, as well as those of other Ozaukee communities, will find and appreciate in the 131 acres of forests and Lake Michigan bluffs and beaches that would be protected from development for their enjoyment and that of future generations.

That value is confirmed by robust public support for the preserve and the encouraging response to fundraising that is still expected to make Cedar Gorge Clay Bluffs Nature Preserve a reality.

As for the would-be developer, his name won’t matter if the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust raises the funds to buy the land and create the preserve.

On the other hand, the lack of transparency that now hides his identity will not be so easily forgotten.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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