The line between information and advocacy is a fine one. Tuesday’s discussion by the city council on the proposed hotel at Bridge View Center shows just how important it is.
Anyone who had watched the prior council discussion knew this one would be intense, and that the proposal itself was in doubt. Council members were clearly dissatisfied with the flow of information from city staff and they were concerned they were being asked to vote blind.
There were three key speakers Tuesday evening: City Planner Kevin Flanagan, Scott Hallgren of Bridge View Center, and Andy Wartenburg from the Convention and Visitors Bureau. The reactions of the council members to the speakers was revealing.
Council members clearly engaged when Hallgren and Wartenburg spoke. It was obvious to anyone watching closely they believed both were trying to present the information they needed to make a decision, and that they were trying to do so in a way that would avoid crossing over into cheerleading.
The engagement level dropped when Flanagan spoke. Part of that may well be due to the fact council members already had concerns about whether he was providing them with necessary information in a timely manner. But there was another element. It was clear council members viewed him as an advocate for the project, as opposed to an analyst for the city, and that status caused them to view the information he offered differently.
This isn’t the first time something along these lines has happened. The proposal for the Asbury apartments was initially voted down by council members. Afterward, they received additional information and voted to pursue the project. It didn’t wind up getting the grants it needed, but the council’s reversal suggests the detour into rejection was not a necessary step if it had gotten the necessary information in better order.
Flanagan’s enthusiasm for these projects is undeniable and, when directed properly, welcome. You would not want city staff to voice support for projects they don’t believe in, and there can be little question Flanagan believes in the benefit a hotel at Bridge View Center would bring.
We agree with him on that point. There is clear evidence a hotel would put Bridge View in the running for events that currently pass Ottumwa by. The hotel has been part of the discussion at various times for good reason; it’s a good concept.
And there is a need at times to play development cards close to the vest. That’s why there was a disclaimer on Sharon Stroh’s presentation for the Ottumwa Economic Development Corp., noting the organization “is cautious about releasing information that could risk the long-term development of some projects.” For a private organization, such secrecy is is justifiable.
What all sides must understand with the hotel is that the city isn’t the same as a private organization. When council members vote, they do so on behalf of the people of Ottumwa. Withholding information from them, no matter how good the intent, is not appropriate. Further, the impression of having done so can be as damaging as the act itself.
The hotel’s future isn’t clear right now. The best way — the only way — that it can move forward is for the council members to have confidence they are getting all their questions answered and that the answers are based on the available information, not individual advocacy. Without that, this proposal will probably fail. Such a failure would make it more difficult for any future proposal to take hold.
Regardless of the fate of this hotel, it is in everyone’s interest that the council have confidence in the people who work for the city. And that means cheerleading will sometimes have to take a back seat to dispassionate data.
It may not be as much fun, but recognizing that line is vitally important.