A few months ago, one of the public speakers at an Okmulgee City Council meeting commented: Why do economic development projects have to be secret? They always seem to be discussed in executive session. Why not in open session during the regular council agenda? It’s all City business anyway?
Miss Citizen, you are exactly correct. It is City Business, so by the open records act, it should be public, but in certain named events, it’s not. So let’s dig a little deeper.
So, let’s start with the actual Open Meetings & Open Records Act. Here I’m explaining the issue, NOT quoting actual Oklahoma State Law. Under Oklahoma law, those situations and organizations that are subject to the Open Meetings and Records act, there are only three business items they can move to an executive session and discuss in private. Even though in certain situations they can talk and discuss in private, they cannot take action. All motions and votes have to be done during regular session. Here are those situations: 1) Personnel matters, such as hiring and firing an employee. 2) The discussion pending legal contracts or lawsuits. Hopefully this exception is commonly understood. And #3. To discuss an economic development project where the client/prospect has asked for anonymity.
After any executive session the board or council should: Vote to come out of executive session. Then there should be a motion, a 2nd, and a vote that no action or decision was made in executive session.
Now let’s talk about the economic development angle. In our example: the company has money to build a new facility. They want to discuss the design, the size, the stormwater system, the size of the sign, there are literally thousands of things to talk about. So the simple reason, it’s their money and their building. It is the company's project and money, not the City’s. The project does not belong to the City, County nor the voters. It is considered a private project. So why should any conversation about the company’s investment be public? Think in these terms: If you were negotiating to purchase a new home or to build a new home, would you want all your negotiations and purchase numbers to be announced in a public meeting? Probably not.
The main reason most of the time is that they really don’t want their competitors to know what they have planned. A competitor could gain a big advantage in the market place if they know when and where a company plans on expanding their business, or bringing a new product to market. They also don’t want to announce too much in advance on construction, because this information could cause manipulation on their real estate negotiations, and big problems with the cost of materials, and labor.
The whole secret is going to go public as soon as they file for a construction permit. All permits are public. If they need a zoning change, those are all public.
Another major factor is the chance that market situation and dynamics will change in an instant.
In some years, almost 50% of the projects announced by companies are never built. That can be a reputation killer. Rumors can kill a project faster than a lot of other issues.
If the City votes to assist a company with an incentive package, like a new water line, or some land. All those kinds of projects and their details have to be voted on in public! They cannot be decided, acted on, or voted on in executive session, it all has to be public session votes.
Some readers will think, well this makes sense. Others will still not trust anyone. Not much we can do about the public’s perception. Rumors, opinions, gossip, politics. They can all kill an economic development project.
There are those who have said: The City of (insert your hometown name here) kept Company X from coming to our town. If they did, it probably was because the zoning didn’t fit the intended use. Or, the company asked for a variance on a City Building Code and that was not approved. Now to catch all these special situations you have to sit through a lot of meetings. By the time an issue finally gets to the full City Council, most of the background work has been done.