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Posted by on Sep 6, 2008 in At TMV | 9 comments

Palin’s Sports Complex Boondoggle – Conservative Leadership?

Sarah Palin cites not only her 18 months as Governor of Alaska to defend her conservative, reformist record, but also her 6-year stint as Mayor of Wasilla.

According to the Wall Street Journal, however, her signature accomplishment as Mayor was not exactly an example of conservative leadership or executive competence.

Under her guidance the city pushed for an expensive indoor sports complex to be paid for by city taxpayers and financed through bonds. After much local discussion of the complex, it passed a citywide referendum by 306-286. Yes, that was the TOTAL vote in the referendum, suggesting just how small the electorate is in Wasilla and how small the budget was for the city. This was a big deal, even if a tiny fraction of the city’s 8,000 residents bothered to vote on the complex financing plan.

Anyway, it turned out that the city did not have proper title to the land on which the complex was to be built, and was taken to court. There was a three-way dispute between the City, the Nature Conservancy (which owned the land) and a Fairbanks developer. The City had to pay out $1.3 million in extra litigation costs as a result of the dispute, and the city is still dealing with the large debt incurred in the deal.

I have some sympathy for Palin here. In my home town of Maryville, Tennessee we had a similar sort of dispute over a new Civic Arts Center. It was to be jointly funded by the City of Maryville, the City of Alcoa (next door), Blount County, the State of Tennessee, the Federal government and Maryville College. Remaining financing was to come through private donations. In the middle of community discussion over the Center, Blount County pulled out of the funding arrangement due to protest from some voters that the project was an “elitist boondoggle.” The project is still going forward (it sits in front of my office), though is somewhat scaled down without the Blount County money.

This was a project that both Democrats and Republicans supported, though some in both parties opposed it as wasteful. While this county is dominated by the Republican Party, it is a fairly mainstream business-oriented party and not an ideologically libertarian or social conservative party. Lamar Alexander, a real gentleman and a common-sense moderate conservative, is actually from our town and he exemplifies much of the GOP here. Nevertheless, as many conservative activists pointed out, this project was NOT an example of conservative behavior at work. I’m not a conservative and I’m glad the Arts Center is being built. I think it will do great things for this community, which is already growing quite fast. And while there were minor delays in construction, the project is taking off without a hitch. But I certainly see that a true small-government conservative would never support such a project.

I see the Wasilla sports complex as a similar sort of project. I generally love these sorts of major civic projects. Yeah, they’re expensive. But they are great places for the entire community to come together.

But they are hardly the stuff of small-government conservatism. And more importantly, they better be executed right. In our case, the Arts Center could have been completely derailed when the County pulled out. But creative leadership from the project directors allowed the Center to go on with relatively little changes (a somewhat smaller auditorium). It’s almost impossible to imagine the city failing to secure a title over the land; it would be a massive scandal.

And yet, that seems to be what happened in Wasilla. In the signature accomplishment of Mayor Palin’s tenure, she botched the purchase of land for a major sports complex. Her loyalists on the council there say “litigation happens.”

Is that the kind of executive leadership we could expect from Palin in Washington? Is she going to botch a similarly gigantic project and say, “stuff happens?”

Normally, these kinds of things wouldn’t be so important. But she’s holding up her executive leadership as an example of what she’ll bring to Washington.
How that impressed McCain is beyond me…unless he didn’t bother to check.