Dictatorships are nothing if not efficient.
No politics. No horse-trading for votes. No citizens bugging you with their annoying ideas, opinions and objections. In a dictatorship, things get done quickly, efficiently and without a fuss.
And if we lived in a dictatorship, then what the Schenectady Planning Commission did by holding secret meetings with developers of the proposed Mohawk Rivers development and casino projects would have been perfectly appropriate.
But we don't. And it wasn't.
The board, in case you missed Friday's front page, revealed that it had been regularly meeting with developers over designs for the old Alco site. The commission is reviewing hotels, a parking garage, townhouses, retail buildings, the casino and assorted parking lots, signs, landscaping and lighting for the site.
To get around a requirement of the state Open Meetings Law that meetings of public bodies for the purpose of conducting public business must be announced beforehand and open to public view, the board cleverly made sure that each time they met with developers, they had less than a quorum of the nine-member board. If you have a quorum, you have to do all those annoying public meeting things that dictatorships don't have to do.
It was no less than an abuse of the commission's power and a violation of the public's trust. But it also raises a key question: Who was served by this?
By meeting secretly with developers, did the public benefit? Were the people of Schenectady and the region served by not having the opportunity to observe the review process in its entirety? Were they served by not knowing if the commission members were asking the right questions? Were they served by a board that came to the announced public meeting and silently rubber-stamped elements of the project because they'd already asked their questions and already knew the answers they were going to get? Were the people served by not having the opportunity to ask their own questions and receive answers and offer ideas and concerns?
Don’t they realize that this whole fiasco with the casino design is the direct result of the developers secretly deciding to change the original plan without public notice or input, and then springing an ill-conceived new design on us right before final review? Did that serve anyone well?
The development of the Alco site is the biggest thing to hit Schenectady in many, many years. And everyone has a vested interest in how this all turns out.
Yet the Planning Commission — whose members serve as the citizens' last line of defense against a poorly designed project that fails to serve the community’s needs — decided to shut those citizens out of the process just because it's easier when they’re not involved. Again, who does that process serve?
If developers don't want the public freaking out about their plans, then the smartest thing to do is include them in the process as it goes. Post changes on a website. Call one of our reporters. If developers and the Planning Commission want the process to have fewer bumps, the commission doesn't have to allow public comments at each meeting. Public hearings do indeed need to be held, but not every time. The board can legally and ethically meet with developers and not let the public speak, as long as the public gets a chance to observe. The people can ask their questions and make their comments to board members and developers afterward or at the public hearings.
But, they whine, scheduling public meetings is inconvenient. Well, if meetings can be arranged with four members, they can be arranged with a quorum of five and held in the open. Meetings also can be recorded and posted online for the other commission members and citizens who can't attend each one.
But what can't happen is what is happening here — which is the public being deliberately excluded from these important discussions in the name of expediency.
If they want to do that, they'll need to find more than a good rationalization. They'll need to find a good dictatorship.