Transparency questioned

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Editor’s note: This is the second story in a multi-part series investigating the operations of the Heartland Industrial Park, concerns expressed by residents and responses from the Heartland Regional Industrial Facility Authority leaders. Stay with The Gazette for additional reports.

By Emily Hollingsworth

The Charlotte Gazette

The amount of transparency from the Heartland Regional Industrial Facility Authority to the public is among concerns regarding the Heartland Industrial Park.

Terry Ramsey, of Charlotte County, expressed concerns about the transparency of the authority regarding input, or lack thereof, that it receives from regional and state organizations and potential lack of input from members of the public.

Terry Ramsey

Ramsey detailed in a February 2017 letter to the editor that he himself had wanted to provide comment about the park’s handling of meeting minutes, annual audits and installing an annual report that would be given to area boards of supervisors meetings regarding the Heartland.

“I requested in advance three minutes on the agenda to speak at their Jan. 26 meeting,” Ramsey said in the letter. “The Charlotte County Administrator relayed to me the authority chair’s response: there would be no public comment at the meeting.”

Another concern regarded members of the authority meeting with news station WDBJ- 7 for a feature which aired in December.

Ramsey had contacted a representative from the Virginia Division of Legal Services regarding public transparency relating to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), asking whether members of the authority, when interviewed for the WDBJ-7 feature, should have considered the interview an authority meeting and notified members of the public.

“The (authority) is supposed to advertise its meetings,” Ramsey said.

In an email provided by Ramsey, the representative noted Virginia Code § 2.2-3701, which defines meetings as “a body or entity, or as an informal assemblage of (i) as many as three members or (ii) a quorum, if less than three, of the constituent membership, wherever held, with or without minutes being taken, whether or not votes are cast, of any public body.”

The broadcast shows Charlotte County Supervisor and Authority Chairman Gary Walker, Cumberland County Administrator and Authority Member Vivian Seay Giles, Prince Edward County Supervisor and Authority Member C.R. “Bob” Timmons and Amelia County Administrator and Authority Member A. Taylor Harvie III.

Ramsey, like Charlotte County Supervisor Kay Pierantoni, believes transparency to the public would be imperative for the Heartland and potential benefits it can offer the county.

“The people on that board are not directly elected to that board,” Ramsey said. “They’re on it because they are appointed. The mode of accountability is indirect at best. I think it’s good that they are finally trying to do something, but building the shell building just doesn’t make sense. They need to be doing things to market it.”

Ramsey also noted concerns relating to the authority’s meeting minutes.

Ramsey, who worked in audit, budget and financial management at the state, local and federal government levels for 45 years, said he had been taken aback upon also receiving the board’s meeting minutes.

“That was a total surprise,” Ramsey said. “Kay and I went in there, and they just gave us this book, and it was just a dog-eared, ragged book with stuff shoved everywhere in it, stuff out of order, pages marked ‘draft,’ and I’ve been in and looked at (Charlotte) County’s board of supervisors minutes, and those look like how they ought to be.”

Ramsey noted that the board of supervisors minutes were neatly filed, signed by the board chairman and county administrator and use a Bates numbering system, which Ramsey said is a system that uses a sequential number of pages in the book to keep the minutes in order.

“It’s just the level of accountability,” Ramsey said about issues he had with the authority minutes. “I was surprised. If I had been keeping minutes and if I knew someone was coming to look at them, wouldn’t you at least try to straighten them up?”

He said he had spent a considerable amount of time placing the authority minutes in sequential order.

“Sunshine for the whole Heartland issue is good for it,” Ramsey said.

Walker said in a Jan. 11 inquiry about the lack of public comment period that the authority has items, including meeting with potential businesses, that could potentially pull businesses away if the information became public.

“You have to do it in a business-like manner, and most of the time it’s done behind closed doors because the companies don’t want everybody to know their business,” Walker said.

“An authority board is kind of a quasi-governmental thing,” Walker said, describing differences between the role of the authority and a board of supervisors. “Economic development is not like doing public business for the board of supervisors.”

Walker listed the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and the Virginia Growth Alliance as organizations the Heartland has partnered with regarding its operations.

During the authority’s Jan. 23 meeting, members of the authority agreed to allow a public comment period in which members of the public can speak to issues related to the board for no more than three minutes. The decision was not made into a motion.