Let in a little sunshine

Published 5:36 pm Saturday, November 7, 2009

With Friday evening’s terse announcement by Suffolk officials that the city had rejected all proposals for the restoration and reuse of the historic Obici House, citizens who care about the fate of the structure that once was home to Suffolk’s most famous benefactor were left with little choice but to wonder what plans City Hall might already have for the building.

A process that has been unnecessarily secretive was further shrouded in mystery on Friday, as it became apparent that not even the organizations that submitted proposals by the Oct. 22 deadline were informed about the problems with their submissions.

“I have no idea what this is about,” Susan Blair, president of the Citizens for the Protection of Obici House, said Friday, just minutes after receiving a fax that stated the group’s offer had been rejected for not meeting the requirements specified in the city’s request for proposals. There was no explanation of how the group’s proposal fell short.

The press release announcing the rejection stated that the city “will continue to evaluate its options” regarding the Obici House, but officials were unwilling to expand on or explain that statement.

In fact, Suffolk officials have refused to name the organizations that submitted proposals or even to say how many they received, an innocuous bit of information that would seem exceedingly unlikely to compromise Suffolk’s bargaining position or the plans of those submitting proposals.

Coupled with the distinct impression city officials gave of being pressured into seeking the proposals to quell rampant rumors of plans to demolish the now-unused and long-uncared-for house, this new secrecy is troubling.

Why, for instance, did the city wait until a Friday evening — two days after council members discussed the Obici House in a closed-door session — to make the announcement about the proposals’ rejection? If the City Council made a decision behind closed doors to reject the proposals or to direct the purchasing department to do so, why wasn’t that decision announced in open session at Wednesday’s meeting, as required by state law? And if the council’s direction was not necessary — if the decision to reject proposals was made by the city administration — why was Wednesday’s closed-door session necessary at all? Perhaps there are simple answers to these questions, but Suffolk officials have not been forthcoming on even the simplest questions in regards to the Obici House.

Few other municipalities in the area make as great an effort as Suffolk to control their message. During her election campaign in 2008, Mayor Linda Johnson campaigned on a message of transparency and open government. The situation with the Obici House presents an opportunity for her to fulfill those pledges.

From the outset, the city’s handling of the Obici House and citizens’ concerns for its future has had the odor of smoke-filled back rooms. It’s past time for Suffolk officials to open a window and air the place out a bit, to let a little sunshine inside and to prove that the whole process of asking for proposals to save the Obici House wasn’t just an exercise in futility.