Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Oconee County Industrial Development Authority Debated Sale Of Real Estate In Meeting Closed To Public

Another Scheduled Tomorrow

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.

Georgia Law

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.”

Advance Notice

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.

My Request

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.

Tomorrow’s Meeting

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.

Gateway Park

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.

OCO: IDA 12 12 16 from Lee Becker on Vimeo.


Anonymous said...

Any idea what they could be up to? As someone who lives near one of those parcels, I've always worried about them selling honestly.

Me'chanted said...

How do they get away with these consistent EXECUTIVE SESSION meetings? What's the point? Why do they chose to do it? Do they have the RIGHT to have a meeting that is "in executive session"? And why do they want to? I'd like to know the answers to these questions before I decide if I'm as mad as I think I am. I am also going to ask Chuck Horton about this personally.

Anonymous said...

Dear god. You don't think they'd try to move the solar farm plan down there do you?

Jonathan Wallace said...

Me'chanted, I share your concerns.

Anonymous said...

Me'Chanted, State Law allows executive session to discuss real estate matters so that potential buyers can be protected. Not everyone wants their business done in front of a camera or reporter. If it were for this law we very well could have lost the Caterpillar deal. That's how it works and it's a good thing.

Secrets Matter said...

The continued illegal use of executive session in Oconee County is ridiculous. Te county attorney knows better and does nothing about it. The State Attorney General's office has turned a blind eye and deaf ear to all complaints about abuses of open meetings, open records, and executive session. The citizens must complain long and loud to have such stopped. IDA is not an elected board and should be held to even a higher standard.

Anonymous said...

What will it take to (1) Get the governing bodies and agencies in Oconee County to LEARN what the state open meetings law requires; (2) Get the governing bodies and agencies in Oconee County to FOLLOW the state open meetings law. For a county that prides itself on being so wonderful, our people who run things are, in many cases, woefully lacking. Again I ask, what will it take???

Anonymous said...

If I'm up to speed on my Georgia law, governments can enter into executive session for the discussion of buying/selling of land, discussion of personnel issues, or discussing potential litigation which falls under attorney-client privilege. There my be a couple more exceptions, but if the IDA were discussing the sale of land to Synageva, then the executive session was legal.

For the commentor who raised the issue about the number of times governments have entered executive session, there is no law prohibiting the number of times a government entity may meet in executive session as long as the topic of conversation is focused on one of the issues mentioned above.

If Synageva is buying the rest of the Gateway property, the company obviously has plans for investment and employment... At least I would hope so (much like the what another commentor said regarding the Caterpillar deal.) That's the intent for this type of closed meeting: discuss the facts about the transaction candidly in order to make a well-informed decision while also giving privacy to buyer/seller of the property.

Lee Becker said...

Anonymous at 12:06.

The law allows the IDA to go into executive session for the sale of land, so the IDA was within the law in going into executive session on Monday and today.

But the IDA has to vote to go into executive session in an open session. It has to state to the public the reason for going into executive session. And the public has to be able to see the vote.

The reason for this is quite simple. If the IDA or another body could close a meeting without doing so in open, it could hold closed meetings all the time without any record of those meetings.

As I wrote, on Monday I, as a member of the public, was prevented from observing the vote and hearing the reason for the executive session because I was told not to set up my camera, told to leave before the meeting began, and prevented from hearing the meeting because the door was closed as the required open part of the meeting started.

Today I was allowed to set up my camera, the vote was open, and the reason was stated. I have recorded that and will post about it.

So the issue is not the executive session. It is the proper and legal way to go into executive session.


Anonymous said...

So would the intent for Synageva to be to buy all the parcels down to pete dickens road, or just the one directly next to it?

Lee Becker said...

The two parcels are separated by a parcel the county does not own. The purchase is of the eastern most parcel only, where is where the current plant is located.

Xardox said...

Questions abound. Many thanks to Dr. Becker.
The point about closed door sessions concerning property deals in private is a good one.
However, if the law states that a reason for the Executive Session must be honestly announced and voted upon prior to such a meeting, any action taken therein is subject to question.
It's the law. It's the rules. C'mon, folks, do it correctly.
Two hours? So what else is going on?

Anonymous said...

Xardox and others make good points.
The procedure of Executive Session was handled poorly.
The law has ruled in many instances against executive session entities and open records reveal.
A personal discussion of real estate may be a veil that can be pierced in the interest of taxpayers.
Two hours and than some to agree to sell property they are charged to develop according to IDA guidelines is odd.
Let's hope they respect that they are using taxpayers money. With the addition of real estate representatives on the board, it will be interesting to see what "develops".