Despite the “very, very strong” objection of Economic Development Chairman Steve Ammons, the Jefferson County Commission today established new guidelines for using money from the commission’s economic development fund.
In a roll call vote, Ammons voted a “very, very strong no” on a presented resolution. Commission President Jimmie Stephens joined Ammons in voting no, but the matter passed on the yes votes of Commissioners Lashunda Scales, Joe Knight and Sheila Tyson.
Scales offered a resolution at the last meeting that required spending from that fund to be approved by the full commission. Ammons asked that the matter be held over so that he and his staff could make a presentation about economic development. Commissioners agreed Tuesday for a special economic development committee meeting to take place Nov. 18, at which the presentation would take place.
In the meantime, Knight sent a draft of a resolution to his fellow commissioners to address how and when money can be used from the economic development fund. Scales offered that resolution as a substitution for the one she presented at the Oct. 24 meeting in Bessemer.
“This is not to be a fund for everyone to travel on,” Knight said.
“This is not for fun trips,” Ammons said, adding that he sends staff members to conferences related to economic development and has paid for such trips through that fund. “I don’t think there’s any huge rush in getting this done. We said we would take it up … at the committee meeting and come up with something that may be better rather than doing a resolution and having to amend it a week or two later.”
Scales disagreed, saying she’s been questioning spending from the fund dating back to May.
“I think transparency is now, not later,” she said. “We talked about this back in May. You (Ammons) had a problem with it back in May. I presented it again back in September and you had a problem with it then. It’s now November and you’ve got a problem with it today.
“All we’re doing,” Scales continued, “is holding all of us accountable. Since we are a committee of five, all five of our commission staffs, if it is deemed an economic development convention, all of our staffs should be privy to that one account.”
Knight’s resolution acknowledged instances in which confidentiality is key for Jefferson County to maintain a competitive edge with other entities with which it is competing for development.
The resolution said that travel to educational and training conferences for staffers be borne by the sponsoring commissioner’s office budget. It added that all expenditures from the economic development fund be itemized and placed on the agenda of the pre-commission work session for approval and followed by a vote in the regular the commission meeting.
“The chair of economic development may continue the confidentiality of certain negotiations with regard to specific project or project site until such time as the terms may be able to be put forth publicly,” the document read, “provided the chair stays in contact and advises the vice chair of such endeavors.”
Scales is vice chair of the commission’s economic development committee. Scales said: “I will not be economic development vice chairman in name only. If I’m going to be vice chairman, I expect to be treated just as the chairman is and information should be liquid.”
After the meeting, Ammons said commission office budgets are limited on travel. “The responsibility of economic development is to go and travel to those folks and be able to go to those conferences so you can build relationships,” he said. “You have to go out and be in front of people to make sure you’re building those relationships.”
“We’re not going to be able to travel and I don’t do that willy-nilly,” Ammons continued. “If everybody wants to travel off of that and we make up what economic development is and it’s kind of willy-nilly, who knows? It could deplete the fund.”
Scales echoed her sentiment concerning transparency.
“Who would be against transparency and the public knowing how their money is being spent,” she asked, “whether it be on travel, convention or projects if they’re not confidential in nature, and it doesn’t pose a threat to us losing an economic development project to enhance the county economic development growth?”