Open the doors on Obici House

Published 8:36 pm Saturday, December 12, 2009

Considering the intense public scrutiny that has been turned on the Obici House within the past year, one would think that the City Council would want to be as transparent as possible in its dealings with the building that arguably is Suffolk’s best-known, if not most-historic, home.

Transparency and accountability, after all, are both City Council buzzwords in this city of the controlled message. But talk is cheap, and in Suffolk, transparent city government lately gets little more than lip service.

The council’s actions in regards to the home where philanthropists Amedeo and Louise Obici once lived is a sad case in point. Council’s recent efforts to find someone to restore and repurpose the Italianate-design home and nearby Carriage House — which sit adjacent to the 18th green at Sleepy Hole Golf Course — only began after citizens confronted members with persistent rumors that there were official plans to demolish the deteriorated building.

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Council members claimed there was no such secret plan and issued a request for proposals from groups that would be interested in taking responsibility for the building’s future. But the city rejected both proposals that it received — suddenly and without public discussion or adequate explanation.

Since then, City Council has received two unsolicited proposals from private organizations interested in fixing the home up and putting it to use for their separate purposes. Again, though, Suffolk’s administration has refused to be forthcoming with information about the proposals or even about its own plan for examining and comparing them. Officials have said there is a specific process in place for evaluating unsolicited proposals. They just refuse to share it publicly.

With those two latest plans in some kind of bureaucratic limbo, the City Council is now set to go into a closed-door session on Wednesday to talk about Obici House. Virginia law allows such sessions under limited circumstances, but the council is not required to close its doors to the public, even if those circumstances are met. And it is far from clear that they have been met in this case. There is no active contract to negotiate, there is no bid process, since the RFP was closed. And there is no known likely litigation concerning Obici House.

On issues great and small, Suffolk’s council and administration take great pains to control the message that reaches the public. But in the case of Obici House, their efforts have created a vacuum that can only be filled by rumors, innuendo and supposition. None of that supposition is healthy for the city or for the relationship between citizens and their government.

There’s little wonder that conspiracy theories regarding the Obici House have gained such momentum during the past year. Suffolk officials have not given folks a reason to believe anything else. They could turn the tide by choosing on Wednesday to start conducting business concerning the historic property in public.