The City's purchase of several parcels on the outskirts of downtown Evansville leads to a back-and-forth between City Council President John Friend and the Winnecke Administration. Mayor's Office. The dispute has led to Councilman Friend calling for an ordinance to bring more transparency to local government while the Mayor's Office claims it already has a better, more practical plan in the works.
The 502 building on the outskirts of downtown Evansville hasn't had any attention in years but over the last few days, it's received plenty. City Council President John Friend has called for more transparency, claiming he was 'in the dark' about the Redevelopment Commission's purchase of several parcels of land between NW 3rd and 4th streets.
Steve Schaefer, Mayor Lloyd Winnecke's Chief of Staff, said the Administration has done all it can and points to the minutes of a February 19th Redevelopment Commission meeting and a March 10th City Council meeting.
According to the minutes from the February 19th Redevelopment Commission meeting, commissioners discussed authorizing three contracts for the purchase of the property. The minutes from that meeting were later included in the informational packet given to all city councilmembers prior to the March 10th council meeting, according to records. Councilman Friend received that information, according to the meeting minutes.
"It's a little disingenuous to say that there wasn't any transparency on the purchase of that property because clearly, they received the minutes," Schaefer said. "They're also aware through their appointees but also the council has liaisons to those departments." Schaefer later added that Councilwoman Connie Robinson and Councilwoman Stephanie Brinkerhoff-Riley are among those who serve as council liaisons to the Redevelopment Commission.
The Redevelopment Commission's purchase of the property was passed 4 to 0, according to city records. Two of those votes came from commission members who are appointed by the City Council. Friend said he received emails suggesting the Redevelopment Commission purchased the property at a price well above the appraised value, but Ed Hafer and the Mayor's Office say it's simply untrue.
In a statement to Eyewitness News Hafer said, "The Redevelopment Commission received appraisals from two professional appraisers. The average of those two appraisals is $473,000 and the Commission paid $459,000 ($14,000 below appraised value). The properties have been on the city's list of property acquisitions which was approved by City Council and the Area Plan Commission some time ago (2008 or before)."
Councilman Friend said news of the purchase came after the fact; he says this issue has come up in previous administrations. However, Schaefer said Councilman Friend had never contacted them with any questions or concerns about the purchase.
Councilman Friend is proposing an ordinance that would require all city board meetings to be video taped and posted online, noting that many board meetings take place at "odd times" that make it "inconvenient for the public to attend." Furthermore, Friend said those recordings would then be uploaded to YouTube, making it easily accessible to the public. However, Schaefer said the Mayor's Office began working on a similar plan eight months ago and was planning to request funding during the upcoming budget hearings. Schaefer said the Administration's plan has some slight but significant differences.
"The Mayor thought it would be a good idea to have the major boards and commissions that spend tax money be taped and archived on [WNIN's] website," Schaefer said. WNIN already has a contract with the city to broadcast City Council and County Commission meetings. "I believe in our conversations with WNIN, we'd possibly have live streaming. It's a much better solution because it eliminates the need for staff, equipment and making sure they are there at the meetings. Through Councilman Friend's proposal, on YouTube, you can't upload the whole meeting on there. You can only put a certain amount of time on. You'd have to break up the meeting in several parts through several videos."
Councilman friend says he's going to fast-track his own proposal and the City Council already has money in the budget to do it.
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