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Open or shut case?
Fort Wayne Reader
Fort Wayne Mayor Graham Richard, the subject of this week’s Fort Wayne Reader cover story, leaves office on a high note. Progress continues on downtown’s Harrison Square hotel/retail/condo/baseball stadium development; the new Regional Public Safety Academy is near completion at the renovated Southtown Centre; and with the election of Democrat Tom Henry, initiatives like Renaissance Pointe (a 350-home neighborhood rejuvenation just southeast of downtown) and others are expected to move ahead.
However, Richard’s final days are not without controversy, and it’s a complaint that has dogged the two-term mayor from almost the start of his tenure. Recently, the Richard Administration rejected media requests for public documents concerning soil testing at the OmniSource property just north of downtown. The 29-acre site is north of the St. Mary’s River and runs alongside its banks between North Harrison and Clinton streets. The property, part of the proposed North River Project, is a prime piece of downtown real estate due to its potential for mixed-use development. The city paid OmniSource $25,000 for an option to buy the property, and formed a task force to explore possible uses for the land. The option expires December 31st.
But questions remain about possible soil contamination at the site. Reportedly, tests have been done, but the city refuses to release the results prompting some of the same charges of secrecy and concealment that tarnished the image of Harrison Square in the minds of some voters. The estimated purchase price for the property is $4.3-million. However, if the site is contaminated, the cost of clean-up could far exceed that amount - and if this is a take-it-or-leave-it deal, taxpayers might have to foot the bill for remediation.
Richard took office in 2000 with promises of running an “open administration” where public and media requests for information were concerned. However, not long into his first term, the Richard Administration shut the door by denying public records requests pertaining to high-interest issues including negotiations to settle the Franke Park parking lot dispute, and initial efforts to find private developers to buy and renovate the failing Southtown Mall. The city’s reasons for denying these requests might have been legitimate exemptions to the state Open Records law, but they gave the impression of a less than completely open administration.
In this time of public frustration and skepticism, the Henry Administration will no doubt face early tests of its commitment to openness when it comes to the public’s right to know. From the North River/OmniSource soil tests to continued development at Harrison Square, Henry will either open up or shut up.