The Oconee County Industrial Development Authority yesterday (Monday) spent nearly two hours in a meeting closed to the public.
Contrary to the state open meetings law, the Authority voted to go into executive session not in an open meeting, as required, but rather in one already closed to the public.
The group asked county Economic Development Director J.R. Charles and Oconee County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Keller to copy what appeared to be some type of legal contract about an hour into the meeting, but it adjourned without taking any action on that contract.
The Authority is scheduled to meet at 7:30 tomorrow (Wednesday) morning to take up again discussion of the contract, and it again is likely to go into executive session.
County Attorney Daniel Haygood confirmed this afternoon that the issue is a contract for sale of property and noted that the IDA–which operates with taxpayer dollars–only owns property it wants to sell at one location–its Gateway Technology Business Park south of Bogart.
NOTE: The IDA on Wednesday morning, after another executive session, agreed to sell the remainder of the acreage in its eastern tract of Gateway to Synageva BioPharma Corp., with headquarters in Lexington, Mass., which previously purchased part of the property.
Told To Leave
The meeting yesterday was held in the basement of the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce, 55 Nancy Drive in Watkinsville.
As I came down the stairs to the meeting, IDA Chair Rick Waller approached me immediately and told me not to set up my tripod and camera.
He told me the IDA was going into executive session and I should go back upstairs and wait until I was told I could come down.
I could see a number of people in the room who were not IDA members, including incoming Oconee County Commissioner Chuck Horton and Wayne Bagley, who will join the IDA in January. Both stayed for the meeting.
Shortly after I went back upstairs, Wes Geddings, Oconee County finance director, came up behind me and closed the door at the top of the stairwell.
Possible To Hear
Even with the door closed, it was possible to hear Waller call the meeting to order.
The members then voted on something, probably the minutes of the last meeting, and then voted to go into executive session.
I could not hear the justification for going into executive session which, according to state law, has to be stated in public before a public vote to go into executive session.
Even with the door closed, it was possible to hear loud laughing and banter during the discussion.
I easily could have reopened the door, which was out of sight of those downstairs, and heard nearly as well as if I had been in the meeting. I did not do that.
I also could have protested Waller’s telling me to leave and appealed to Haygood, who was at the meeting, but I did not, so as not to be confrontational.
The Georgia Open Meetings Act of 2012 states, in various sections:
“Except as otherwise provided by law, all meetings shall be open to the public. All votes at any meeting shall be taken in public after due notice of the meeting and compliance with the posting and agenda requirements of this chapter.”
“The public at all times shall be afforded access to meetings declared open to the public pursuant to subsection (b) of this Code section. Visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.”
“When any meeting of an agency is closed to the public pursuant to any provision of this chapter, the specific reasons for such closure shall be entered upon the official minutes, the meeting shall not be closed to the public except by a majority vote of a quorum present for the meeting, the minutes shall reflect the names of the members present and the names of those voting for closure, and that part of the minutes shall be made available to the public as any other minutes.”
“In the event that one or more persons in an executive session initiates a discussion that is not authorized pursuant to Code Section 50-14-3, the presiding officer shall immediately rule the discussion out of order and all present shall cease the questioned conversation. If one or more persons continue or attempt to continue the discussion after being ruled out of order, the presiding officer shall immediately adjourn the executive session.”
Economic Development Director Charles sent out notice of the Monday meeting on Dec. 5. He sent me a copy of the notice.
Included with that Dec. 5 notice was the agenda, which listed eight items, starting with approval of the minutes of the Nov. 14 meeting, followed by a financial report, a report from Waller, a report from Charles and citizen input.
Item six was: “Executive Session to discuss real estate matters, if needed. “
The final two items were scheduling of the next meeting (Jan. 9, 2017) and adjournment.
I sent both Haygood and Charles an email message last night asking them to provide me with the minutes of the open meeting from yesterday.
I sent a repeat of that request this afternoon.
When neither responded, I called Haygood, who told me the IDA came out of executive session somewhere before 6 p.m. and heard the financial report from Geddings originally scheduled as the second item on the agenda.
At that point, Haygood said, the Authority voted to dispense with the remainder of the agenda and adjourned.
Haygood said the justification for the vote to go into executive session was a real estate matter.
I did receive email from Charles today.
At 11:32 a.m., Charles sent out the notice of the meeting tomorrow morning, also at the Chamber of Commerce.
This agenda contains six items: The Chair’s report, Charles’s report, citizen input, an Executive Session to discuss real estate matters, if needed, schedule for the next meeting in January, and adjournment.
Haygood told me this afternoon that he expected the Authority to go into executive session and then to come out of that session and to vote on the contract for sale of property.
The Industrial Development Authority owns four separated pieces of property that are part of its Gateway Technology Business Park.
Two are on Aiken Road and two are on McNutt Creek Road, separated by SR 316.
The two Aiken Road properties are separated by another parcel the IDA has not been successful in purchasing, and the two McNutt Creek Road properties are separated by land the IDA does not own.
The IDA has struggled to find buyers for the land since developing the park in 2000.
The authority controls money allocated to it by the Board of Commissioners, including money from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
Blake Giles, editor of The Oconee Enterprise, came to the IDA meeting yesterday about five minutes after Waller had called the meeting to order. Giles said Waller had told him the Authority would go into executive session.
Giles joined me on the main floor of the Chamber of Commerce building, waiting to be allowed to join the meeting.
I gave up at 5:25 so I could make it home, eat and be at the Planning Commission meeting at the Courthouse at 7 p.m.
Giles stayed, and he told me this afternoon he was allowed to join the group when it came out of executive session, shortly before 6 p.m.
The video below is heavily edited to reflect what Giles and I were able to see of the executive session.