Take-aways from Project X


ScottRobertsonCounty Mayor Dan Eldridge released documents Wednesday afternoon identifying the company heretofore known as “Project X” as Dentsply Tulsa Dental. Between what was revealed at that news conference and what came to light in the meeting of the the county’s Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (CIA) Committee which preceded it by a few days, much more is known now about the entire controversy that has arisen surrounding the project in the last month.

Happily, in addition to knowing more about the project itself, we know much more about both its proponents and the opponents, which helps us understand how we arrived where we are today.

  1. If this deal falls through because loose lips sunk the ship (and not because Oklahoma just offered a more attractive overall incentive package to start with), then Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge will share blame with The Johnson City Press.

After saying for weeks that he would respect the agreement between the Washington County Economic Development Council and the company to hold the company’s name out of the public light, Eldridge met with reporters from three newspapers and two television stations and handed us a ream of documents in which the company is, in fact, named as Dentsply.

Eldridge had called the 2 p.m. news conference that morning, but half an hour before it, he spoke with the site consultant for Dentsply who asked him if there were any way he could get the media to hold off on releasing the name for one more day. Dentsply, Eldridge later speculated, wanted a chance to talk with its employees in Johnson City before those employees saw or heard confirmation of the company name in the media.

So Eldridge asked the gathered reporters to embargo the release of the company’s name for 24 hours. The Press broke the embargo that evening after the television stations, which had honored it, had run their 6 p.m. news reports. So, though Eldridge asked for the media’s cooperation, in the end, the company did not get the extra day it wanted.

If the deal falls through because the company is unhappy with Washington County’s inability to keep its end of a confidentiality agreement, responsibility falls on The Press and on Eldridge.

  1. Any notion that the owner of the property might be getting a sweetheart deal from the county was dispelled.

One citizen who spoke at the last County Commission meeting asked if anyone could guarantee that the property the county would be buying for $1 million is worth even close to that much. The documents show that as of December, it was valued at $1.5 million FMV*. Eldridge stated in the CIA meeting that the property is valued at $1.3 million. County tax records show the current market appraisal at $1.331,500. If anything, the owner is selling cheap.

  1. When dealing with lawyers, grammar matters.

When The Johnson City Press asked for records under the Tennessee Open Records Act, the request was worded, “I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of public records of written agreements, draft or otherwise, between representatives of Washington County and the company publicly referred to as “Project X,” Dentsply Tulsa Dental, AND / OR Caroline Scharfstein.”

The problem for The Press is the county was not communicating directly with any of those organizations or individuals. It was communicating with John Austin, a site selection consultant employed by Ernst & Young. So County Attorney Tom Seeley told Eldridge that no documents matched those requested by The Press.

If one were to argue that Austin is, in fact, a representative of Dentsply in the negotiations, and that therefore discussions with him should have been revealed, one tiny grammatical point still would allow the county to counter that argument. Had the request said, “…representatives of Washington County and of the company…” that should have worked. But as written, the request only refers to the company itself, not its representatives, and the consultant is not a part of that company.

Now I must say, as a reporter, I hate this kind of technicality-based game-playing. Hate it, hate it, hate it. But I know in a world full of attorneys, it’s a legitimate part of how business is done. We in the media have to know how to ask precisely the right questions.

Eldridge’s subsequent voluntary release of all documents to and from his office relating to the project made the point moot.

  1. A few county commissioners were told the name of the company before the commission voted on the incentive package.

This bothered me, because I thought I remembered the county mayor telling me he had not told any commissioners at all. In reviewing my recordings, however, he only told me that he had no idea how many commissioners knew. I didn’t ask precisely the right question.

As the emails released by Eldridge show, Joe Grandy knew, as would be expected since he is chair of the Economic Development Council. Greg Matherly, the chair of the Washington County Commission, is also a member of the Economic Development Council, and so he also knew. David Tomita, chair of the Commerce, Industry and Agriculture Committee (through which the incentive plan had to pass before heading to the full commission) knew which state was the competitor. Mitch Meredith, a certified public accountant who would be hired in January by the county in the new position of director of finance and administration, did the financial analysis of the deal for the county gratis, saving the county the expense of having the work farmed out to another accounting firm, which would also have had to agree to a non-disclosure agreement.

Much as we may dislike it, two members of a governing body emailing back and forth about an upcoming decision is not a Sunshine Law violation.

According to the Court of Appeals in a recent case on the Open Meetings Act cited by the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service, “email communications between members of the Nashville Metropolitan Council, even emails copied to the entire council, did not constitute a ‘meeting’ as defined in TCA 8-44-102(b)(2). According to the court, ‘Even though several emails copied all members of the council, the exchanges among the members did not reflect either an intentional or inadvertent convening for which a quorum is required for the purpose of making a decision.’”

With this legal precedent in place it is difficult to see how emails between the mayor and a few individual commissioners could be held in violation. Again, that doesn’t mean we have to like it. It just means that’s how the courts interpret the law.

  1. Whoever is telling people that the company is in trouble is a liar.

Dentsply stock hit an all-time high in November. As of this writing, it’s trading at more than $50 a share. That puts its stock value right between Eastman Chemical Co., and NN Inc.

Yet the CIA Committee was told last week by a very concerned citizen that he’d been told by “an employer (sic) of the company” that it was just a matter of time till the company, “folded under,” and that the county was just about to lose a million dollars. I don’t doubt this citizen believed whomever told him that. But whoever is spewing this garbage to good folks like him is doing so for some reason other than the best interests of the taxpayers.

  1. Dan Eldridge is not always as arrogant as he generally comes across.

The county mayor has always struck me as being better with numbers than with people. He has a hard time hiding his emotions when he is talking with someone he thinks “doesn’t get it.” Some interpret his often-deliberate manner of speaking as being aloof or condescending.

But in his office Wednesday, when the mayor was pleading for reporters to hold for 24 hours the information he was giving us, there was no shred of arrogance left in his demeanor. Too late, perhaps, he discovered the word, “please,” and the tone of voice that sounded like he meant it.

  1. Most of the people angry about not being told who the company is have an absolutely valid reason.

They feel the county government is disrespecting them as taxpayers. Commissioner Danny Edens summed it up at the end of the CIA committee meeting.

“Every time I’ve heard this mentioned here tonight, it’s been the governing body – what the governing body saw fit to do – what the governing body did with the governing body’s money,” Edens said. “It’s not the governing body’s money. It’s the taxpayers’ money.”

“I didn’t vote for this,” Edens said, “but I hope it works. I’m going to get on board and try to make it work. It’s what we need to do going forward. That’s my job as county commissioner, to try to make what we’ve got to work with work. That’s what I intend to do.

“So,” Edens concluded, “let’s start calling it the taxpayers’ money and then we can do whatever we feel necessary to do with it because that’s what they elected us to do.”

  1. Some of the people angry about not being told the name of the company apparently thought many more details were being withheld.

Kim Dahlgren, former president of the Washington County Republican Women, spoke at the CIA Committee meeting. She told committee members that people were upset about “all the secrecy” but couldn’t say what secrets she felt were being kept aside from the company name. “Miscommunication comes when all of the information isn’t out on the table, and I’ve had a lot of phone calls, and I’m not even on the commission, from people disturbed with the secrecy behind it. The miscommunication is being told, ‘here, vote on something, but you’re not allowed to know what it is. Here’s a little bit of information just to give you information to make a decision, but yet you’re not communicating to the public.’”

Dahlgren talks about commissioners being given “a little bit of information,” when they were given everything but the name and address of the company, and the other state with which Washington County was competing. Dahlgren also said the county wasn’t communicating to the public. The county commission and its committees discussed the deal in detail in several public meetings and posted the same presentation that commissioners received on the county website.

The details of this plan were discussed in three newspapers, on radio, and on local television. At some point, taxpayers do have to take the responsibility to read, listen or watch.

  1. Having said that, more reporting – and more responsible reporting – could have helped taxpayers feel they weren’t being kept out of the loop.

We at News & Neighbor reported on this after it was first discussed publicly. Our first article outlining the deal points ran Jan. 7. In retrospect, we should have run similar articles in every issue.

And then there’s The Johnson City Press, which chose after telling those same details early in the process, and initially describing the deal as “pretty good,” then chose to portray “Project X” as completely different than the last jobs retention/expansion deal it had covered in which the company (NN Inc.) had asked to remain unidentified.

When asked Wednesday by the mayor why he chose to write about “Project X” differently than he had written about what had been called “Project Stone,” The Press’ writer said, “We didn’t get a lot of calls about NN. I guess again I’m going back to being driven by the readers and the taxpayers and website comments.”

With all due respect, I think there may be some confusion between cause and effect. If a disgruntled commissioner on the losing side of the vote and/or a few of his friends and political allies sold the inexperienced reporter on a juicy-sounding conspiracy theory, and the writer then began writing stories which happened to lead opinion in a particular direction, I’m sure more calls and comments would follow.

If that writer’s website published anonymous comments beneath every story with complete disregard for whether the comments were true, then its readers, who are taxpayers, would be even less likely to feel they had been well-informed. And they’d be right.

And if the writer actually let anonymous website comments about his earlier work color his judgment on how he should treat the story in the future, he would be giving more weight to his own prejudices, rather than seeking to be objective.

But that’s all academic. The Press’ writer respected a request for confidentiality when it suited him and railed against another one within a year. Popular outcry doesn’t change the definition of right and wrong.

  1. Which brings me to my final point…

It’s mind-boggling that a publicly traded company can force a local government to defy its taxpayers’ right to know where their money is going by holding jobs hostage. But that’s exactly what this case represents.

It’s the world we live in. So long as communities need jobs more than the companies need to locate in one particular community or another, the companies will be able to make demands that put public officials in impossible situations.

I don’t believe the mayor and 19 commissioners want to stand up and disrespect the taxpayers who voted them into office. They’re not stupid, though they do make mistakes from time to time, and having gone through each of the emails relating to the deal at least once, I have found no evidence they are corrupt.

So if they are neither stupid nor corrupt, why are they disrespecting the taxpayers so blatantly? They are afraid of losing an $8 million payroll. Virtually every candidate for every political office north of dogcatcher runs as “the jobs candidate.” None of these commissioners wants to be known as the commissioner who let 189 good jobs move out of the county. None wants to explain to a voter why his job was allowed to move to Oklahoma without a fight. The commissioners know they’ll be criticized for letting the jobs go if they don’t do the deal and they know they’ll be criticized for insulting the taxpayers if they do. So 19 of them hold their noses and make a choice they’d rather not make. They insult themselves and the taxpayers by approving a deal without being able to give a full accounting of every single fact to their constituents.

And four media outlets who would rather report the facts as we get them allow ourselves to be cajoled into holding the name of the company for 24 hours, because we are told it could make the difference in saving those 189 jobs and even adding 25 to 75 more. Our ethics tell us our responsibility to the community we serve goes beyond just getting the facts out before the other guy. We believe if there’s even a chance we can help save our readers’ jobs, we should do it. So we agree to the embargo. But we don’t like it.

When I started editing a business magazine, I swore I would never criticize a business owner for doing what he or she thought was best for his or her business, no matter how wrong it seemed.

But this puts me to the test.

The fact that a site consultant can pull the strings of public servants to the point where those servants are willing to do things they know will infuriate taxpayers feels completely wrong.

But I can dislike it all I want.

Taxpayers can protest all they/we want.

Politicians can lament it all they want.

Until every city, county, parish, district and state government in America agrees not to take part in this feeding frenzy of competing confidential offers in which companies know everything and communities are left to beg, it’s not going to change.

*Fair Market Value

Corrections: In my Wednesday column, I incorrectly attributed a quote to Commissioner Todd Hensley. Those words were spoken by Commissioner Joe Grandy. Also in my Wednesday column, I corrected the assertion that Commissioner Robbie Tester knew the identity of Project X. I did not directly apologize to Tester, as I told him I would. Commissioner, I apologize. It is never my intent to mislead my readers, implicitly or explicitly, and I regret even the possibility of having done so.


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