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Golden Quill -- Commentary: Transparency lacking in golf course talks

The City Council has made known its intent to pursue the sale of the 36-hole Mississippi National Golf Links to Wendell Pittenger.

The city has, since 1985, turned over the construction and operation of the publicly owned golf course to Pittenger. Over the past 25 years the city has entered into four leases with him to operate the golf course.

The 2008 lease, notably, has been extremely disadvantageous to the city: the lease obligates Red Wing to expend approximately $90,000 a year for maintenance of MNGL while granting ALL revenues from the golf course to Pittenger.

Citizens who have voiced opposition to the proposed sale of the valuable public golf course have formed a group, SAVE MNGL, and have investigated the facts of the council's proposed sale of MNGL. Attempts at finding details about the sale have been met with delay, with refusal by the City Council and staff to share information, with secret meetings between city staff, Mr. Pittenger, and Associated Bank, with no public council action, with non-public council action, and with rushing the sale to only one potential purchaser.

The entire process of selling a valuable, several-million-dollar city asset has been made with little transparency by the City Council and city staff.

The city for months has refused to tell the public the appraisal value of MNGL. The excuse the council gives -- that the appraisal is non-public data -- is nonsense. The city has already released the appraisal to two public parties, the potential buyer and the bank, but not to the owners of the property, Red Wing citizens.

The City Council has refused to ask for bids to purchase MNGL. The city is not required by law to request bids to purchase, but not doing so is inexplicable. How does the city know whether another potential buyer is out there? Why sell only to Wendell Pittenger?

The city staff has admitted holding several private and secret meetings with Pittenger and Associated Bank to work on terms of the sale. The city administrator has said that the city attorney has drawn up a sales agreement.

Shouldn't the Council be giving information to the public or asking for public comment before the sales agreement is written?

The City Council is rushing to complete the sale by May 2011 because of the revised 2008 revenue bond due date. The secrecy and behind-the-scenes actions by the council will ensure that the public has little time to evaluate and comment on the sale of MNGL.

State law requires the state to give Red Wing approval to sell MNGL. I brought this law to the attention of the City Council and staff.

The city attorney has quickly drafted legislation without Council input. This is wrong.

It is the council's duty, in open session, to decide what legislative changes are wanted. This is a violation of the Open Meeting Law, and a violation of the council's responsibilities.

Because of the council's secretive actions and lack of transparency, the legislation proposed is inadequate to protect the public's interest in a golf course being maintained at MNGL, inadequate to ensure a "fair and adequate" price for the sale of MNGL, and inadequate to address the possibility and consequences of a private purchaser of MNGL using the land for purposes other than a golf course or recreational activity.

I have made language proposals that would solve these matters -- proposals the city staff has chosen to ignore.

Open meetings, open discussion, and citizen input would have prevented these ill-considered actions by the council.

Transparency and honesty by the city are required to provide good government. These traits have been sorely missing in the rush to sell MNGL to Wendell Pittenger.

Take key steps

I call upon the Red Wing City Council to:

• stop the efforts immediately to sell MNGL to Wendell Pittenger.

• ask our legislators to withdraw their proposed legislation so the council can publicly decide what should be the language of the proposed legislation.

• schedule public hearings to allow public input into the sale of MNGL.

• solicit opinions from the people who use MNGL.

• make available to the owners -- the people of Red Wing -- the value of MNGL.

• share with the public the accurate and precise MNGL revenues and expenditures.

• inform the public of the part Associated Bank has taken in the sale of MNGL to Wendell Pittenger.

• adopt the prudent course of hiring three independent appraisers, giving their appraisals to the public, and selling MNGL for no less than the appraisers' average certified value of the course.

• appoint a Golf Course Board to help and advise the city in the operation of its public golf course or the sale of the course.

• sell MNGL, if it intends to do so, in an open and transparent manner, with input and comments from the citizens of Red Wing.

MNGL is owned by us, the people of Red Wing. The City Council's fiduciary duty to its citizens demands no less than open, honest, well-informed, and thoughtful actions before the council sells one of Red Wing's valuable assets.

The City Council's mission statement emphasizes a long-term vision: "The City of Red Wing is dedicated to creating, preserving, and enhancing the quality of life for all."

The public has created this great city-owned asset; now it's time for the council to work with its citizens to preserve and enhance Mississippi National Golf Links for the quality of life we have come to expect in Red Wing.