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Mayor A.J. Hashmi and Paris Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Steve Gilbert called for people to move forward rather than dwell on the past during Thursday’s special City Council session.
Gilbert said he and the mayor met “several times” in private after Hashmi’s presentation last week in which the mayor complained that PEDC expense reports were poorly documented and that some expenses were extravagant.
“The sole goal of the PEDC board, the staff and the City Council is to make our community prosperous,” he said. “We all agree to work and to establish and foster better communications.”
Several controversial subjects have come up in the last few years, Hashmi said, including the city taking over the depot and removing a $60,000-a-year rental agreement the PEDC had with the Chamber of Commerce.
“The purpose was nothing other than to improve our performance,” he said. “Many perceived these as personal attacks, but in reality if one looks closely and evaluates the subject, one will know that it was the tough truth about subjects that would have been hard to discuss otherwise.”
The mayor pointed at Thursday’s announcement that the Red River Region Incubator will become part of Paris Junior College by the end of the month, keeping the incubator functioning and addressing financial concerns that have risen in recent months. Rather than $89,000 the city planned to pay R3bi next year, the incubator has asked for only $30,000 to help take care of remaining rent and lingering expenses.
“This would have never come about if this discussion had not taken place in this chamber,” Hashmi said.
“Though hard-to-face questions may be posed time and again, one must take a positive approach. The discussion on PEDC expenses has led to the recognition by the PEDC board to its formulation of policies and procedures that will insure in the future that we have better checks and balances, and I’m happy to say that as of right now they are closely monitoring their expenses, and thus saving taxpayer money and being frugal.”
Gilbert noted the PEDC board is working to update policies and procedures for all expenditures. He said both his board and the council must be comfortable with the policies “to ensure good documentation of how tax dollars are spent to promote Paris and recruit new industry.”
There may well be more criticism about PEDC coming, Hashmi said – likely a reference to former City Councilman Bill Strathern‘s scheduled presentation Monday about PEDC finances. But he said it should be taken as an attempt to improve things rather than a personal attack against anyone at the economic development corporation.
The mayor asked the media “to please help the situation.”
“This is not a fight between the mayor and the council and the PEDC,” he said. “This is not about who won and who lost. This is about improvement of our city and providing health, safety and quality of life to our residents.”
Gilbert said he has reviewed the economic development corporation’s travel expenses for the last three years and plans to report his findings to the PEDC board at its next meeting.
“I’m accountable to the PEDC board, and we are working together to continue our track record of positive results,” Gilbert said. “At this point, the PEDC board and staff and the City Council must move forward and spend their time in improving the city and bringing in more businesses and industrial jobs to town. We request others to do the same.”
Strathern had no comment about the comments or the presentation he plans to make Monday, but he did say he thought the incubator’s move to Paris Junior College was a good idea.
“President (Pam) Anglin is an educator, and she’s pro-business,” he said. “The only thing the incubator is about is helping entrepreneurs get started. That’s an educational program. Education belongs in the college.”
City Councilman Matt Frierson, who serves as the council’s liaison to the PEDC board, said after the meeting he appreciated the tone the comments appeared to set.
“Steve’s doing the right thing in looking forward, and doing it with his board,” Frierson said. “The decisions should rest with them.”
By Jeff Parish and Charles Richards, eParisExtra