Well, OK, maybe he hasn't gone that far yet. But Mayor Heartwell has been pushing for the sale of Indian Trails, a city-owned golf course at the corner of Kalamazoo Avenue and 28th Street. Had this solon of sanctimony been less of a bungler at his chosen trade of politics, he might have figured out that the denizens of River City would have gone for scrapping the elephantine sculpture next to City Hall long before putting the for-sale sign on the great green expanse of Indian Trails.
Of course, Heartwell wasn't completely alone in this. In a unanimous vote at last week's meeting, the Grand Rapids City Commission agreed to take a look-see at selling Indian Trails to developers. They OK'd the process to seek buyers for the public golf course. I can't see why that in itself should raise the hackles of those who doubt a sale is in the best interest of our community (including yours truly). After all, there is very little owned by the city government that in principle should never be considered a prospect for sale or privatization. As valuable a green space on a congested commercial corridor as Indian Trails is, it's not as though last week's vote were akin to the U.S. Congress proposing the sale of the Washington Monument.
That said, it is curious that the idea of selling the Indian Trails golf course came before the City Commission for any sort of vote at all. The idea was not prompted by any routine government process of reviewing public assets for possible sale. So the prompting must have come from the outside -- i.e., a private party lobbying a city official to put Indian Trails on the auction block. Again, I can't see why this is a problem. There is nothing nefarious in private citizens petitioning public officials to take some sort of action. In fact, that's a right enshrined in the First Amendment.
However, when the petitioning is done behind closed doors where the disinfecting sunlight of public disclosure is shut out, this is a problem. Second Ward City Commissioner Rick Tormala handled a similar situation properly a few months ago when he proposed that the city government consider selling a group of municipal parking facilities downtown to a private party. In doing so, Tormala disclosed who approached him about doing so. No secrets. No one working behind the scenes to gain an advantage at public expense.
Contrast this to how Mayor Heartwell and City Manager Kurt Kimball operated as pitchmen for the now-vanished "Mystery Developer" who wanted to buy the City Island public works. As government officials they signed agreements to keep the developer's name and his plans secret from the public while carrying his water through City Hall. Even if Boss Logie would not have been so foolish as to put his signature on a back-room deal, clearly Heartwell and Kimball stayed true to his legacy of putting the city government in the service of favored dealmakers instead of residents and taxpayers.
And now we have the Indian Trails imbroglio. For more than a year Third Ward City Commissioner Jim White, known friend of developers, has pushed for the sale of the public golf course, yet the public is no wiser as to why he wants this to happen. Why is White so hot on selling Indian Trails? Moreover, why is Heartwell on board? This would seem an odd position for him, a self-styled progressive to the point of obnoxiousness, especially with his bleating on environmental issues (e.g., urban green spaces). Yet Heartwell is in lock-step with White, as evidenced by this statement he e-mailed to key city officials ahead of last week's vote:
"You know what a green advocate I am, so this decision isn't easy for me either. If, when the proposals come in, we find that no development proposal is attractive enough to warrant selling this property, then we won't. But I, for one, want to see what the development community proposes. Commissioner White has been a persistent advocate for using City assets to advance an economic vitality agenda. This is one that may work. Let's give it a chance."
As it turns out, Tormala had been counseling Heartwell and his fellow comissioners to listen carefully to the public before going down any path too far -- and this statement of Heartwell's was in response to Tormala's urge for caution. But Heartwell, knowing that White had not canvassed his constituents in the Third Ward, where Indian Trails is located, instead wanted to ensure that the "development community" got the city government's ear. When all was said and done, Heartwell and White won the vote last week to open the bidding for the public golf course without any public hearing on the matter. While the other city commissioners made a mistake to agree to this in the absence of any public disclosure from White or Heartwell as to the identity of the private parties lobbying for the sale of Indian Trails (or in lieu of that, a public hearing that would tend to flush them or their shills out into the open), they have plenty of opportunity to rectify this.
And they need to do so. As already noted above, there is no reason why the City Commission should not in principle consider the sale of a public asset like the Indian Trails golf course to private parties. Just as fast-tracking the bidding process, as White desires, should be a no-go because it facilitates back-room dealmaking, noisy opposition (such as L.A.W.'s is likely to be) to any sale of the property should not curtail a process of public deliberation over it. Public matters must be decided publicly, especially when they are controversial like the sale of Indian Trails. To ensure this, our city commissioners need to get this process back on the open government track and follow the example Tormala set with the proposal to sell the city's parking ramps. It's long past time to deep-six the Boss Logie back-room arm-twisting way of doing business -- and perhaps Heartwell and White too if they insist upon carrying on that noxious tradition.