Morgantown City Council received a reprimand from the citizens recently. The controversy began when council decided to act quickly to buy 40 acres of woods to turn it into a protected green space.
Red flags popped up immediately. The property, called Haymaker Forest, is only partly in the city limits. Council was willing to pay $5.2 million for the land even though it was appraised at only half that much.
Council members advocated buying the land, and then trying to pass a levy next year to pay for it. The contingency financing plans if the levy failed were vague.
Councilman and Deputy Mayor Mark Brazaitis had an apparent conflict of interest since his home is adjacent to Haymaker, yet Brazaitis pushed harder than anyone for the purchase and voted in favor of the deal.
Perhaps worst of all, some on council took an imperious attitude toward those who questioned the purchase. Councilman Barry Wendell, when asked during a radio interview on WAJR about the opposition, predicted opponents were all talk and no action.
“This is a challenge to those online people who come at us with various things—show up at a meeting. They don’t show up,” Wendell said.
Wendell must have been surprised, then, when angry Morgantown residents filled the council chambers and spilled out into the hallway. Forty-seven residents spoke and nearly all were against the Haymaker deal.
The speakers over and over pointed out the folly of the purchase. Many said they support creating more green space, but only if the city had a better plan to pay for it and after Morgantown funded myriad other needs, like fixing the children’s pool at a city park, repairing municipal buildings and paving streets.
It was especially impactful when Morgantown Fire Chief Mark Caravasos testified about manpower and equipment needs of his department, which is responsible for critical fire protection for the University City.
After nearly four hours of public comments, all but one of the council members got the message and postponed the purchase indefinitely. Notably, the one vote against scrapping the fool’s errand was Brazaitis, thus adding to the conflict of interest allegations.
(Morgantown has asked the state Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion on whether Brazaitis has a conflict.)
The council is a representative democracy, so the voters choose council members to act on their behalf. However, powers vested in the council extend only as long as they have the consent of the governed.
The passionate response by the citizens of Morgantown to the ill-conceived plan by the council was a powerful demonstration of what happens when those in office lose sight of the source of their authority—the people.