Secret Deals Challenged: If You Act as a Local Government, Spending Tax Money, Why Aren't You Subject to Open Records?

What constitutes a public body subject to the Sunshine law and subject to public records requests?

—Funded with taxpayer money? Check.

—Governed by a board that contains elected officials? Check.

—Spend taxpayer money on consultants who commit county revenue to third parties? Check.

—Take property-tax revenues from citizens and then propose to force them to sell their property to a third party? Check.

—Commit the county to forgo $300 million in tax revenue over the years to benefit a commercial enterprise? Check.

—Obligating the county for lost revenue and spending before getting permission from the county government? Check.

These are some of the reasons that a group of Jefferson County property owners and their Knoxville attorney, D. Scott Hurley, are using to ask a judge to force the Jefferson County Economic Development Oversight Committee (EDOC) to abide by the open records law and to have public meetings. The organization is a branch of the county Chamber of Commerce.

The suit comes in the wake of a failed megasite proposal and a pending project to build a Norfolk Southern intermodal switch yard that requires closing county roads and building others. The suit says the county contributes $200,000 through the Chamber of Commerce from property taxes and the hotel/motel tax. And that EDOC puts itself forward as acting on behalf of county government, entering into contracts with private third-party entities that result in obligations for county taxpayers. The suit says these things happen without the approval of county government.

It is somewhat amusing that, according to the suit, county commissioners are assigned a rating by the EDOC. Dependable supporters are a "3." They are fully informed as to what EDOC is up to. The commissioners that are likely to be persuaded are a "2." They are told some things and not others. Commissioners rated a "1" are kept completely in the dark.

The suit says this makes the County Commission culpable for allowing the county to be obligated by EDOC without specific permission from county government.

As more and more projects come along that commit taxpayers to fund infrastructure, offer tax relief, and take private property to turn over to another private entity, the operations of economic development groups statewide need another look.

If an economic development group is acting as the functional equivalent of a government agency, why are the records not public? If the economic development agency is having a secret meeting to discuss decisions as to the dispensing of public money, are they not acting as the functional equivalent of local government?

Should a county government be able to use its economic development agency to avoid the public records act, and to keep obligations of taxpayer money a secret?

In the final analysis, proposals for tax abatements and spending have to come to local government for final approval. The megasite deal involved spending money without County Commission approval. When the county mayor pulled his support and the public outcry against the proposal killed it, EDOC stepped forward and agreed to pay for the money spent out of its own funds and not out of taxpayer money. I'm not sure how you distinguish a county dollar from a private contribution dollar in your bank account.

Often, in small or rural counties, local government is presented with a fait accompli. Taxpayers and property owners find out about industrial development plans when the process is so far along it is almost impossible to stop.

The Norfolk Southern facility still hangs over the New Market neighborhood. I'm sure economic development agencies will be keeping a close eye on Jefferson County's Chancery Court. Taxpayers should as well.