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The mayor’s presentation about Paris Economic Development Corp.’s finances could only have one purpose, PEDC Director Steve Gilbert said.
“Putting these kinds of things out in a public forum is an interesting approach,” Gilbert said. “That has to be taken as an effort to discredit the PEDC and me.”
Mayor A.J. Hashmi spent about half an hour during Monday’s City Council session presenting copies of expense reports and receipts on an overhead projector. He said his purpose wasn’t to offer criticism or offend anyone. The mayor said he wanted to see if PEDC had accomplished what it set out to do, what could be done better and if the taxpayers had gotten their money’s worth out of PEDC.
“You can’t help but be offended,” Gilbert said. “I can’t help but think that’s what this is all about.”
The presentation covered a seemingly random collection of charges in 2012, primarily for hotels, food and bar charges on trips – some of which totaled several hundred or thousands of dollars – as well as several “working lunches.” Hashmi said the documents needed more detail about who was there and what business was being conducted.
“I could not possibly present 1,800 pages,” he said. “Irrespective of which months you look at, it’s kind of the same trend.”
Gilbert said his own analysis of the last three years worth of expenses shows an average of 15 trips per year for trade shows, prospects and other PEDC business. Board members and volunteers frequently accompany such trips, he said.
“When you have a lot of people at a restaurant, the bill adds up,” he said. “Our board has approved all these expenditures. If the current board wants to change our procedures, that’s what they should do.”
Hashmi noted that some of the expenses he discussed were for Lamar County Days in Austin and included the cost of hotel and meals for volunteers who could not afford to go on their own.
“I want to thank them, and I think all citizens should go and help promote our wonderful city,” he said. “However, we cannot afford this type of expense.”
The mayor said future Lamar County Days promotions should be given a budget ahead of time. He offered a similar suggestion for future attempts to attract industry. Each project should be given a specific budget based on “what the project is worth to the city and how badly do we want it.”
“I’m not interested in knowing what could, what should and what has happened, but we need to learn from our mistakes so that we don’t keep repeating that,” he said. “I think we as a council and the PEDC board should share the responsibility, that we should have done a better job at formulating policies and procedures and following them.”
Hashmi made a point to say that he got the documents and paid for copying on his own. The information he presented mirrored that requested by former Paris City Council member Bill Strathern, who is also Hashmi’s former campaign manager. But, the mayor said after the meeting that he didn’t consult with Strathern about his presentation and hasn’t talked to him in six weeks.
During the citizens forum, Strathern asked to be on the agenda for the next council meeting to present the results of two open records requests that revealed what he called “questionable activities.”
He filed the first in July for PEDC’s credit and debit card transactions for the last two and a half years. The second came a couple of weeks ago, asking for expenditures for 2013 Lamar County Days, expense reports filed by PEDC staff and documents used to ensure compliance of companies that had received funds from PEDC.
Those came to 2,127 pages and required 64 man-hours to copy, Gilbert said. From the similarity of information requests, he said it appeared Hashmi and Strathern were working together.
Strathern said he started wondering about the economic development corporation’s activities about a year ago. PEDC has not followed the voters’ intent when they approved it in 1993, he said.
“Whenever the PEDC is questioned, there’s an uproar,” he said. “It’s as if PEDC considers itself immune from the oversight of the people that formed it. That attitude has strengthened my resolve.”
Gilbert said information provided to voters who approved the PEDC sales tax indicated the money would be used to create and keep jobs in Paris, train the labor force, buy land, rehabilitate existing structures, promote Paris and improve streets and utilities related to industrial jobs.
The PEDC personnel manual calls for “discretion…when entertaining a business prospect and/or client to the purchase of alcohol and food. In today’s business climate, the practice of having a drink socially or with a meal is a common practice.” Approval from the director, assistant director or a board member is required for such purchases.
“All of that was taken out of context,” he said. “If any of our elected officials have a question about any of our expenses, I’m always open to discussion.”
Something that seems to be forgotten, Gilbert said, is that PEDC has been getting results, including:
Carl Cecil asked during the citizen’s forum if people would be allowed to respond after the mayor’s presentation. Hashmi said that would be put on a future agenda.
“Well, I guess we’ll put that on the agenda for the next meetings and give Mr. Gilbert an opportunity to explain the benefits of all these costs,” he said after the meeting. “I didn’t hear any benefit analysis. And so I hope he has the opportunity to correlate some of these costs to the benefits that we’ve enjoyed over the last couple of years.”
Although at the meeting, PEDC Board President Rebecca Clifford declined to comment, stating that she is preparing her own presentation to the council.
By Jeff Parish and Charles Richards, eParisExtra