KEVIN LEININGER: Scrutiny of government is always a good thing, even if it looks political

Taxes generated by improvements to the Landing will help pay for new sidewalks, lights and other public infrastructure (Courtesy image)
Russ Jehl
Nancy Townsend
Kevin Leininger

It appears a long-simmering dispute between some City Council members and the board responsible for some of Fort Wayne’s most expensive and prominent redevelopment projects is about to heat up.

Council member Jason Arp, who has been questioning the accountability of the Redevelopment Commission since at least February 2017, is co-author of a resolution to be introduced Tuesday accusing the commission of failing to follow city laws requiring competitive bidding for professional service contracts exceeding $100,000. More to the point, the resolution asserts council’s authority to review such contracts and to terminate them should it choose to do so.

“The Redevelopment Commission is an unelected body that oversees tens of millions of dollars, so it’s incredibly important it be transparent and above reproach,” said the bill’s co-sponsor, Russ Jehl, R-2nd.

The six-member commission has been involved in some of the city’s most noteworthy projects in recent years, including Parkview Field, the Ash Brokerage headquarters, new downtown hotels, the Columbia Street Landing and Electric Works. Its director serves at the discretion of the mayor, who also appoints three members. City Council appoints two and the Fort Wayne Community Schools Board appoints a non-voting representative.

This being an election year, and with Mayor Tom Henry being a Democrat and City Council dominated by Republicans, some will dismiss the effort as partisan or as a response to an Allen Superior Court judge’s recent decision to throw out the pay-to-play ordinance council passed over Henry’s veto seeking to prevent large campaign donors from doing business with the city. But Jehl said Tuesday’s resolution has been in the works for months, and Arp’s misgivings are even older.

In February 2017, the 4th District Republican asked the state to review the finances of the city’s Redevelopment Department after an internal audit reported several bookkeeping and management concerns — including a $1.85 million real estate purchase that was not property listed in city records. The audit did not suggest any money was misappropriated.

Arp, a frequent critic of city economic development efforts, also said the commission had failed to provide council with timely information about use of the $2.5 million in Legacy funds council had just approved for the $32 million Landing project. Later that month, Arp joined the Redevelopment Commission as one of council’s representatives.

According to the resolution to be considered Tuesday, the Redevelopment Commission routinely approves contracts in excess of $100,000 and is subject to the “same laws, rules and ordinances . . . that apply to all other commissions or departments of the (city).”

Two written requests asking the commission to follow the sealed bid process or to explain why it is not subject to the law have gone unanswered, the resolution states.

Is the Arp-Jehl resolution a serious attempt to address a real problem? Is it just the latest example of a territorial dispute between a Republican legislative body and a Democratic executive? Is it an attempt to provide Republican mayoral candidate Tim Smith with a campaign issue? Smith, too, has suggested the city has been overly generous in some of its economic development incentives.

Jehl said he couldn’t name any no-bid contracts awarded by the commission, and Arp was unavailable for comment. Redevelopment Director Nancy Townsend said in a statement that the “Redevelopment Department and commission work to comply with all federal, state and local regulations in order to accomplish the goal of getting the best quality services for the lowest cost. We are accomplishing that goal with our current processes, which includes getting quotes for all professional services — those that are over $100,000 and those that are less than $100,000.”

But if the resolution’s necessity and motives will be subject to debate, its underlying principle is not: Government entities should be as open and transparent as possible, especially those that are not directly answerable to the people. As the elected body authorized to scrutinize and pass the city’s annual budget, council has every right to expect accountability and to take corrective action if necessary.

There are still plenty of big projects in the city’s pipeline, and their expected pre-election timing could also be construed as political. But because good government is good politics, worthwhile projects and fiscal transparency and accountability should be welcomed by everyone — regardless of which party benefits.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.