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Our opinion: No transparency in closed doors

It’s no secret that the idea of a new hotel in downtown Warren hasn’t been met with unanimous consent.

City of Warren staff, Warren City Council and the city’s Redevelopment Authority and Planning Commission had an opportunity to be fully open and transparent with the community about what the project would look like and how it would impact downtown.

And they blew it.

Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Law permits — but does not require — governmental entities to hold executive sessions on matters relating to the purchase or lease of real property.

The provision is designed to protect the purchasing power of taxpayers. If, for example, a governmental entity and a private firm are bidding on the same property then the government is certainly at a disadvantage. We don’t object to executive sessions held on those grounds.

However, Tuesday night’s joint executive session went well beyond just the acquisition of property. It included discussion on traffic flow, parking, subdivision of property, rezoning.

“There were a number of things discussed,” City Manager Nancy Freenock told us. “All relate to the entire project.

“It was wide ranging.”

She told us that the session was informational and that there was no deliberations.

She called it a “dress rehearsal” for an upcoming public presentation at the next council meeting.

But it doesn’t matter.

That explanation falls flat.

The second the discussion went past the sale or lease of property — and the city does own some parcels in the area that will be part of the project — someone, anyone should have pumped the brakes on the session.

While we’re pleased to hear that a couple people in the meeting expressed concerns about the scope of the executive session, those voices clearly didn’t win out.

We have come to respect the work that has been done on behalf of the city by Freenock and she’s always been open and transparent with us.

“There was no conscious attempt to obfuscate or keep anything from the public,” Freenock insisted.

But here’s the kicker: Since the public was shut out of Tuesday’s session, there’s no way for us to know whether she’s telling the truth.

We suspect that part of the reason there’s concern about this project is that development in that same area and in the downtown — the townhouses, Impact Warren, black window projects, botched $500,000 grants — hasn’t exactly included a string of successes in the last 10 to 20 years.

The public was shut out of much of that process.

And they’ve now been shut out of this process, as well.

So that lack of unanimous consent on the hotel project? The city shouldn’t exactly be surprised.

Saying that you want to be transparent is great. It’s probably noble, too.

But where the rubber meets the road is being willing to be transparent on difficult issues.

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