FORT WAYNE – The task force created to recommend how the city should spend nearly $80 million no longer plans to allow the public to watch the process.
The 15-member Legacy Task Force created by Mayor Tom Henry to help determine how to best use the money from the lease and sale of the former city electric utility met on Thursday, but for the first time did so behind closed doors.
Quinton Dixie, task force co-chairman, said the decision to turn off the television cameras and meet privately was made to ensure members could speak freely about numerous ideas.
We want people to feel free about their comments, he said.
Frank Suarez, spokesman for Mayor Henry, said the decision to make its meetings private was made by the committee. The mayor believes all the meetings should be open, but he understands the desire to have some informal working sessions, Suarez said.
The city reached a $39.2 million settlement with Indiana Michigan Power to sell its former electric utility and the rights to all its former customers. If the state approves it, the city will receive $5 million upfront and the rest over 15 years.
In addition, the city has more than $38 million in a trust account from leasing the utility to I&M for three decades.
The group is under no legal obligation to meet publicly, as Dixie said, because it is not a governmental body. It includes only two of the nine City Council members, which is not enough to mandate compliance with the states open meetings law.
Despite that, the group has met publicly for months and meetings have been on public-access television.
Dixie said the purpose of the meetings to this point has been to gather public input, which is why those meetings were open. Those meetings resulted in hundreds of ideas and more than 90 group proposals for how to use the money.
Closing the meetings to the public and media scrutiny would create the best results for the group, Dixie said, adding he expects all future meetings to remain private until the group is ready to present its recommendations to the mayor.
But Suarez said the mayors office was under the belief the group would have future meetings open to the public before recommendations were made.
The task force has met several times and discussed broad themes for how the money could be put to its best use. It has not, however, openly discussed any specific idea.
At its last meeting, members were tasked with scoring numerous proposals to begin the discussion of their worth. That discussion was to begin Thursday on topics related to arts, culture, downtown development and rivers.
Dixie said residents shouldnt be concerned that the discussions will be conducted privately because that is where most participants will feel freest in discussing them.
The majority of committee members, he said, are not traditional public figures and not necessarily used to conducting business in public.
He said the committees next step involves eliminating ideas and narrowing the available options for the final recommendations, which could go to the mayor by August.