Union Editorial: Secrecy and subterfuge isn’t well-serving the public process for ‘The Village ‘

While hindsight is 20/20, we could have told everyone involved with the proposed The Village student housing project at the outset that transparency was the best policy. It still is, even as the various stakeholders’ tendency toward secretiveness compromises the process of considering the project.

It began with the project’s backers a year ago in April. Their initial meeting at the D Street Neighborhood Center was publicized only by legally required snail mail circulars to adjacent property holders – though the project developers did email key individuals with the university and city, urging their attendance. But someone told the Union, and we hurriedly publicized the event.

About 50 people turned out that night, including uninvited members of adjacent neighborhood. Doing little to build trust on this initial meeting, the developers’ rep essentially told concerned residents that they hadn’t been expected and weren’t wanted there. He blamed the newspaper for “misconstruing” what was supposed to be a limited “neighborhood meeting,” even though their own official circular had called it a “community meeting.” Not an auspicious start.

The second set of shady shenanigans came when unknown but obviously well-organized opponents of the project circulated slick, anonymous flyers attempting to rally opposition. They got all huffy when a citizen asked who they were. (View their photos by scrolling down in this story).

The apparently contagious secrecy reflex next led HSU officials to tell the public that it had zero involvement with The Village while secretly – or so they thought – emailing back and forth with the developers about project details and advocacy.

That alone is rather disturbing in that it’s a throwback to fairly recent history, from which HSU apparently learned nothing. In 2013, another local educational institution facing controversy repeatedly lied to the public in similar fashion until sunshine intruded. A digression:

Faced with the scandal of a member of its Board of Trustees plagiarizing an Arcata High commencement address, the Northern Humboldt Union High School District’s (NHUHSD) governing board turned aside press inquiries on grounds that it hadn’t been able to meet over the summer. But the members had been discussing the errant trustee’s actions that summer, frequently and intensively – in serial email meetings that violated the Ralph M. Brown Act – during which they coordinated a cover-up.

(A few side notes: The plagiarist, Trustee Dan Johnson, subsequently skipped Brown Act training for the NHUHSD Board of Trustees. Recently, another NHUHSD scandal – the 2017 censure of a misbehaving member – piqued our curiosity as to whether the Brown Act training that the board had undergone four years earlier had any lasting effect with somewhat different members and a different superintendent. So once again, late last year, we filed a PRA request for their emails. We got them, and guess what? The training worked. There were no further violations. The current NHUHSD board had observed public process and held public deliberations in public, and the district deserves credit both for their prompt PRA response and this lasting reform.)

The disclosure of Humboldt State’s backchannel emails with The Village’s developers – also the result of a PRA request, this one by Arcata Citizens for Responsible Housing (ACRH) – was disappointing in terms of basic competence. How could the individuals entrusted with managing a state university not know that their email messages are public documents?

Is there any real reason why Humboldt State couldn’t have said, “While we’re talking to them about various details, it’s not our project at this time, so until further notice, please direct questions to the developers?” That would’ve been simple, direct and honest, and would have spared the university some headaches. Now, with its credibility needlessly but fatally compromised, Humboldt State finds its earnest assurances to the public over its intentions for The Village met with deep skepticism.

Ironically, there was nothing inherently wrong with the university sharing information with The Village’s developers. They should be communicating in order to shape an optimal project for public consideration. In fact, HSU, the developers, ACRH, the City of Arcata, its citizens and the news media should have been in close contact all along. More communication by all would have drastically improved the heat-to-light ratio in the often-toxic public dialogue surrounding this project.

Even The Village’s citizen opposition has caught the secrecy bug, accepting money from at least one unidentified local developer to help fuel the fight. In their zeal, the moral hazard of taking dollars from undisclosed parties with financial interests in the outcome appears to have eluded ACRH. Doing so exposes them to perceptions of acting on behalf of well-to-do developers’ business ambitions – “astroturfing” by a supposed grassroots group.

What do these dark money donors want in return for their investment in ACRH? We can only speculate: do they want to kill The Village and its 602 new beds to keep the rental market tight, and the rents they currently charge high? Or are they keeping open their own development options for the juicy Craftsmans Mall site?

Should The Village be  rejected and replaced by a different housing proposal that carries the same issues to which they now object – a student-dominated development with traffic and neighborhood impacts – ACRH says it will oppose it just as staunchly, even if their present patrons stand to benefit. ACRH may well get the opportunity to do just that.

It should be obvious by now that secrecy and skullduggery is a bad look, a self-destructive way of doing things and isn’t helping the open public process we need for a fair review of The Village.


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