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Sunshine and Sausage

March 21st, 2006 by dk

Happy Sunshine Week, from a place where it’s still too soon to say that.

Once a year, journalists and civil libertarians highlight the value of the second half of our “free and open” society. Laws require governments to do their business in public, to make available their records, to welcome in any who wish to see the sausage of regulation being made. It’s part of what Makes America Great.

Last week, Eugene saw one of its larger recent skirmishes over a parking garage to be built beside a new Whole Foods Market at the corner of 8th and Franklin. The fireworks burst brightest at a public forum, which was required by law to demonstrate that a no-bid contract for building the garage was in the best interest of the city. Sunshine and sausage.

Bonny Bettman referred to the evening as a “100 percent fact-free zone.” A hundred people stood up to express their opinion, but factual findings were rare. The hearing, required by “sunshine” laws, generated more heat than light.

We got a public demonstration, but was it the one the law requires?

In fairness, it’s hard to imagine what data could be hard enough to crack through the acrimony and distrust.

Distrust is undervalued in public discourse. Indeed, a healthy skepticism between elected officials and city staff motivates each to check the other. And sometimes the public gets to watch, thanks to sunshine.

But back to the parking garage. The questions were well stated. How much money will the government save with a no-bid contract? How much time will be saved? Does the Whole Foods development require it? Does it amount to a subsidy? If so, how much? Is parking really required for that part of town? Says who? Compared to what other needs?

With each side wary of the other and citizens limited to three minutes apiece, how can the answers be gathered, organized and presented?

Ta da! This is where journalists can shine!

The city’s downtown revitalization plan does mention a parking garage in that general area. And the plan did pass City Council with a unanimous vote. How do the former councilors who voted for it recall the discussions? Is this project what they envisioned?

The contractor who built the last city garage reports that the same garage today would cost over $10 million. How do the two projects compare in size and scope? What recent garages has that contractor built? What were the public bids for those projects?

The comparison was made to a parking garage currently being built in Bend. How many spaces will that project provide? What design parameters were included in the bid? Are the two projects comparable? Do Bend officials feel good about the deal, now that it’s underway? Would they do anything differently?

Our own Broadway Place has certain similarities to the Whole Foods project. The city built a garage that was “integrated” into the private development. The contract was bid out; a different contractor was chosen for the garage. What lessons were learned? Lew Bowers, now in Portland, oversaw the project for the city. He can talk frankly now. What’s his take? Hugh Prichard was point man on the private side and he’s mostly retired now. What does he think?

Many voiced concerns about how the entire project will affect downtown’s local merchants. Brian Obie is pouring millions into his 5th Street Public Market just two blocks away. He’s making this investment, all too aware of what’s being proposed nearby. He’s also a former mayor of Eugene. How does he feel about Whole Foods becoming his neighbor?

None of these people issued statements or attended the city council meeting. But they would share important information that the public deserves to have. Digging for that information requires enterprise reporting.

In situations like this one, a newspaper can arbitrate the public discourse. It needn’t become a “fact-free zone.” But digging doesn’t rely on sunshine. Sometimes only a flashlight will do.

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