Editorial: Public business in private a bad idea

January 24, 2014 

The Lawrence Group apparently has a lot to learn about conducting business with public entities.

The consulting group held a series of meetings last week with a variety of interest groups to get feedback on a new unified development ordinance for the town of Zebulon. Those meetings are the first step in what will be a long, laborious process to create a document that will be the guiding light for development throughout the town.

But when a reporter for the Eastern Wake News showed up to attend one of those sessions, he was summarily shown the door. Planning director Mark Hetrick did the Lawrence Group’s dirty work, explaining to reporter Aaron Moody that the consultants were concerned that the presence of the media might inhibit other members of the public from voicing their true feelings.

To his credit, Town Manager Rick Hardin overruled the consultants, saying he saw no reason the media, just like any other member of the public, couldn’t attend the session. But by the time the reporter returned to the session, everyone was exchanging business cards and bidding each other farewell.

If the Lawrence Group really wants to get public feedback, we’re quite sure kicking the public out is the wrong way to go. Never mind that the ejection was illegal, the consultants should have realized that the one other member of the public present for that meeting probably didn’t represent a full sampling of the community group he represented.

Towns rely heavily on UDOs once they are created. A lot of work goes into its creation, not just by the consultants, but by town staff and citizen advisory groups. The UDO, though it is full of arcane, technical jargon, is important because is sets the development goals for the town for years to come. Should Zebulon try to grow to the north? Or to the west? Should the town set aside land for increased industrial operations? Should the town establish policies that encourage high-end development while discouraging smaller, starter homes and rental units? Does the town need more sidewalks? What about parks? All these questions and more are part of creating a good UDO.

The Lawrence Group has done good work in the past, notably in Wendell, where they created a town plan. That document preceded the creation of Wendell’s own UDO.

The Lawrence Group is a private entity and as such, are not beholden to the same public disclosure laws that governments must meet. But when they take on work for a public entity, the rules change. They are obligated to invite the public in. And that includes those who would report on their deliberations.

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