For the past two weeks, aShortChronicle has been trying to find out what was going on with possible incentives for the project. Specifically, the request was to understand if Commissioner Jenest recused himself from any previous discussion in closed session where incentives were discussed.
Over this past weekend, aShortChronicle pointed out to Commissioners that they can disclose information if they so desire. See this article from the UNCSOG on the subject. Per the article...
"Elected officials and others are usually surprised to learn that there is no general law that prohibits board members from disclosing information obtained in a closed session. Disclosure of specific types of information is prohibited by separate statutes that make such information confidential (whether from a closed session or in any other context). So long as confidential information is not involved, board members are free to exercise their First Amendment rights to communicate about matters that are discussed in closed session."
Tuesday, the answers from Town Hall finally came. Davidson's new Town Attorney, Cindy Reid, provided the following.
"As permitted by NCGS 143.318.11, the Board held a closed session in January 2016 about the proposed project for the Metrolina site. Commissioner Jenest attended the closed session and disclosed his involvement with the project. He was not required to recuse himself and/or ask the Board to excuse him as no vote was taken.
Because the purpose of the closed session for economic development is no longer in effect, information from the closed session in January can be released. The developer asked for consideration from the Town for assistance for the project. Possible items were synthetic TIF (tax increment financing), a brownfields grant, stormwater exemption, and utility relocations/street improvements.
The Town made no official response in the closed session to the requests."
Commissioner Stacey Anderson clarified that the developer did not ask for any specific dollar amounts. A follow-up conversation with Mayor Pro Tem Beth Cashion confirmed this.
Because there was no specific ask from the developer, there was nothing to vote on. On the plus side (if there is one) all indications at this point are that the Board strongly indicated no town support would be forthcoming.
It's unclear how much that dissuaded the developer however. On February 1st a few weeks after this meeting, the public record shows the developer contacted the town manager, Jamie Justice, about TIF options. When asked if the town manager was interested in reviewing the TIF option, Justice responded "Yes I am game." (Remember, the Town told aShortChronicle as recently as last month Tax Increment Financing had not been ruled out.)
The list of things wrong with this whole picture is long, but here are just a few that jump off the page.
1. Closed sessions for economic development are "permitted" not "required". Why did Davidson even feel the need to have a closed session discussion on this? The town was not competing with any other town for the business. The public deserves to know exactly where elected officials stand on these issues. That's kinda hard to do when the discussions are held behind closed doors.
2. Who could possibly think it is ok for Commissioner Jenest to participate in a closed session discussion in any way when it involves his private sector client? Just because a recusal is not required doesn’t mean it should not happen. Commissioners regularly get excused from meetings because of personal issues. They have to step out for a few minutes or leave early for one reason or another. They've even been known to miss votes. Yet, when a Commissioner who is doing work on a project before the board enters a closed session where the possibility of incentives will be discussed, saying a recusal is not "required" is the response.
3. The statement from the town attorney mentions no vote being taken. That is of course true as votes can't be taken in closed session. However, let's suppose they had come back into open session and voted on something. Jenest would have recused himself at that point, but by then the damage would already have been done if he had participated in the closed door discussion and influenced the outcome.
This is no way to run things if you expect voters to to have any trust in the openness and transparency of local government.