Side meetings by members of the city's tax abatement task force will only undermine the group's work.
Whether they intended to or not, five members of the city's task force on tax abatements came close to undermining the group's work before it hardly had begun.
The task force was carefully selected to include a variety of interests and viewpoints. The goal was to put all the issues on the table and try to build a consensus on exactly how the city should use tax abatements to attract new businesses and assist existing businesses in Lawrence. Possible divisions within the group were obvious, but the plan was to try to rise above those.
One table, one goal, one consensus.
That's why it was so upsetting to some members of the task force to learn on Tuesday that five of its members had held an unannounced meeting of their own last Sunday to discuss tax abatement issues. Larry Kipp, who organized the meeting, said he meant no harm and had checked with Mayor Jim Henry and Asst. City Manager Dave Corliss to make sure such a meeting would be proper. Henry said he had understood that Kipp wanted to meet with an outside consultant. Corliss said he had advised Kipp that having more than five task force members at the meeting would require public notification.
So Kipp gathered a group of five people, plus Melinda Henderson, who has raised many questions about the use of tax abatements, to discuss such issues as the cost-benefit analysis for tax abatements, the need for better definition of the abatement policy and questions about the Administration Review Committee that looks at tax abatement requests.
These are important issues that could be and should be addressed by the full tax abatement task force. Unless the group of five had a special agenda in mind, there was no reason to hold a separate meeting to discuss these matters.
It's easy to understand why other task force members were upset. The outside meeting smacked of exactly the kind of us-against-them approach the group had hoped to avoid. If the task force is going to splinter into special interest groups and then come back to the table to promote separate agendas, the group might as well disband now.
Hopefully, the five members who attended the meeting have learned something about the fragile workings of diverse groups trying to reach a consensus on difficult issues. One of the five members said that no one attended the meeting with "malice in mind." Their fellow task force members probably can accept that explanation but only once.