Being on a city government board means being accountable to the public, and sometimes that means discussing with the media information that may be discussed behind closed doors.
Such was the case several weeks ago when Dr. A.J. Hashmi, a member of the Paris Economic Development Corp. board of directors, shared with me about discussions taking place about a possible jobs retention incentive offer for Turner Industries.
Turner announced in April it would be laying off about 500 workers on June 5 due to the effect the coronavirus pandemic had on production orders. Turner Vice President John Fenner said then the company would retain a skeleton crew of 50 so that the plant could quickly resume production when business returns.
Hashmi took the position that PEDC should make a goodwill offer during unprecedented times to the company that has provided hundreds of jobs and bolstered the local economy since coming here in 1990. Given a previous discussion on the matter and fearing the offer might not get the support it needed from other directors, Hashmi said he thought the public should at least be made aware of discussions taking place about one of the city’s largest employers.
In following up on the information, I contacted board chairman Timothy Hernandez the afternoon of a planned executive session, informing him the newspaper knew about Turner discussions. I let him know that I would be calling each director to see what stance they had about the proposal, along with reasons for their opinions. I never made those calls because directors voted unanimously to offer Turner a $400,000 jobs retention incentive to maintain 50 workers through the end of the year.
Did Dr. Hahmi err in informing the media about a decision that could possibly affect more than 500 workers if Turner closed its doors permanently?
It’s not like the economic corporation’s directors were negotiating a deal with a business prospect about locating in Paris. Exposing that information could lead to unnecessary and expensive competition. But had Hashmi not shared his concern, and if a majority of directors opposed the offer, the public, likely, would never have known what the effort was made to retain the business. The public would have, once again, been left waving in the wind knowing there was talk about Turner Industries, but not knowing why PEDC took whatever action or inaction that might have resulted. So much for transparency.
Government boards are known for instructing members to avoid discussions about executive session items. However, it’s not illegal, and it’s the best recourse a board member has to inform the public about a concern they might have about a topic discussed behind closed doors. Remember, no law may infringe on First Amendment rights, and so anyone involved in an executive session is free to discuss the session afterwards with anyone else.
Yet for Paris City Council’s meeting Monday, Councilor Clayton Pilgrim presented an agenda item to remove an economic development director, and then entered a motion to table discussion and a vote until June 22. Pilgrim said the reason for the delay is to give a seven-day written notice about the proposed removal. However, a written notice is not required, according to City Attorney Stephanie Harris. And Dr. Hashmi along with Hernandez and board secretary/treasurer Mihir Pankaj were present. It is evident they had been informed.
Although Pilgrim did not mention the name of the targeted director, it did not take long after the meeting for me to determine Hashmi is the target, something I suspected beforehand because Hashmi had spoken with me. The call for removal appears to be punishment for Hashmi’s discussions with the media.
I hope this scare tactic does not keep board members on other taxpayer supported entities from contacting the media when there is a need to do so.