‘The public doesn’t need to worry’

Oscar Goodman is planning a surprise party for downtown boosters and the valley’s professional sports fanatics. The Las Vegas mayor is preparing to meet with developers who are interested in building a state-of-the-art, multipurpose arena that could replace UNLV’s aging Thomas & Mack Center and one day serve as a home for a relocated National Basketball Association or National Hockey League franchise.

No fewer than six big-money groups have delivered letters to City Hall confirming their interest in submitting a proposal. Some of the groups have experience in arena projects or have relationships with pro sports leagues. The City Council eventually will identify a single preferred developer and work with that group to make the project happen.

No doubt the proposals will be whoppers, worth perhaps billions of dollars and including other kinds of developments around the arena. And, no doubt, at least some of the proposals will ask city government for something in return — discounted land, property tax and/or sales tax breaks, maybe even direct taxpayer subsidies to fund construction costs.

With these kinds of public resources in play, citizens have a vested interest in knowing what choices are floating around City Hall, which locations are being considered for such a hub of humanity and which group has the best credentials to actually get something built.

That’s where the surprise comes in. The city government has no intention of letting the public screen all the proposals. Instead, a recommending committee consisting of Mayor Goodman, Clark County Commissioner (and former City Councilman) Lawrence Weekly, Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority President Rossi Ralenkotter and three other people will review the proposals, privately interview the groups pitching them and forward a recommendation to the City Council. The council could take action on that recommendation as early as July 18.

City Manager Doug Selby assures city residents what they don’t know won’t hurt them. They should simply react to the council’s forthcoming decision as they would if their best friends jumped out from behind a couch to shout “Happy Birthday!”

“We’re doing what we consider to be in the best interest of the city to get the best proposals we can get,” Mr. Selby said of keeping taxpayers in the dark. “If we start disclosing everything prior to the selection process, it could compromise the selection process.”

Added Mr. Goodman: “The public doesn’t need to worry. Trust us.”

But time and again the past three years, this City Council has abused the trust of voters. It absolved a downtown casino operator of its obligation to build a parking garage, giving the company millions of dollars worth of land once owned by taxpayers for next to nothing.

It worked feverishly to lift a deed restriction on other land once owned by the public to let developer Bill Walters construct homes next to a sewage treatment plant. The action, which was reversed because of public outrage, would have allowed Mr. Walters to acquire residential property from taxpayers for pennies on the dollar.

And just this month, the council sold city land to former Councilman Michael McDonald at a big discount so he can develop housing for low-income senior citizens. Notice a trend here?

Let’s not forget that three former Clark County commissioners are sitting in prison on corruption convictions, and that others could one day join them.

Fool taxpayers once, shame on the city. Fool them four times, shame on the taxpayers.

Mr. Selby eventually acknowledged that keeping these proposals secret is more about preserving the self-esteem of officials and bureaucrats than it is about getting the best deal for the city.

“If we weren’t second-guessed every time we do something, we might be more inclined to release them,” he said. “But we’re criticized, unfairly, I think, because a reporter sees it differently than the elected body.”

Is Mr. Selby kidding? The city gets caught giving away the keys to the store, and the egos on the 10th floor of City Hall are so bruised that they can’t possibly practice open government?

“The nature of the public process is to be second-guessed,” said Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association. “You don’t create trust by closing the process. You create trust by opening the process.”

Exactly. The city’s arena selection committee should release all the proposals to the public, not just the one it recommends to the City Council. And the council should set aside a few weeks for the public to comment on all the proposals before formally picking a partner.

After all, in the city’s request for proposals dated April 20, prospective developers are reminded on Page 4 that “in general, documents that are submitted as part of the RFP will become public records, and will be subject to public disclosure.”

The prospect of having a 20,000-seat arena downtown is too important to the taxpaying public to exclude them from the decision-making process.

Mayor Goodman deserves the confidence of Las Vegas residents in attempting to broker an arena deal. But blind trust? No elected official in Nevada deserves that much.

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