- Real Estate
- Paris Flash
Enough is enough, District 4 City Councilman Dr. Richard Grossnickle and District 5 Councilman Matt Frierson said Monday night as Paris Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Steve Gilbert came under fire again for expense reports that are being criticized as exorbitant and poorly documented.
The council heard PEDC President Rebecca Clifford’s cry for the need of an overhaul of the agency’s bylaws, policies and procedures.
But Grossnickle and Frierson moved to table Strathern’s presentation as overkill.
They noted that Strathern was scheduled to give his presentation before the PEDC on Tuesday. That, and not the City Council, was the proper forum, they argued.
“I would be in favor of not having him speak,” Grossnickle said, inquiring about the possibly of tabling Strathern’s presentation “indefinitely.”
Mayor AJ Hashmi objected, saying “I have never prevented anyone from speaking.”
But after a couple of minutes of discussion, Frierson made the motion to table Strathern’s presentation and Grossnickle seconded it. The motion failed, 4-2, however to applause from supporters of stronger PEDC checks and balances. District 6 Councilwoman Cleonne Drake abstained.
“Well, thank you, you five, for allowing me to make this presentation,” Strathern said.
“The reason I wanted to talk to the council was three-fold. No. 1, taxpayers’ money is involved here. No. 2, you approve the budget. And No. 3, you did appoint the (PEDC) board so I think you have a right to hear this presentation prior to my giving it to the PEDC.”
Strathern complained that a member of the council complained on Facebook about what he would say in his presentation.
“Nobody knows what I’m going to say here tonight except me. You’re really magnificent mind readers,” Strathern said.
Hashmi stopped Strathern, asking him to adopt a more civil tone.
Strathern challenged much of the publicity Gilbert had received for “gains” that Paris had achieved in the area of economic development. A lot of it was mere hype, Strathern said.
At the end of his talk, Strathern opened the floor to comments.
“For no fault of our own, Sara Lee closed, and the PEDC was instrumental in bringing that plant back to life, Bill. I’m not going to debate it with you, but that’s a fact,” Frierson said.
“That’s not a fact,” Strathern interrupted.
“Long term, Steve has had some real positives,” Frierson continued. “If we’re going on the overall tone of, can things be tightened up? Sure they can. But to characterize [Gilbert’s economic develop achievements] as fluff, or incidental, or minor, I don’t agree with.”
Grossnickle said he was “kind of scared to open my mouth because Mr. Strathern has not shown a lot of respect to the council.”
“There’s a reason for that doctor!” Strathern broke in.
“Well, that’s your opinion, sir. I just think that your report, while it cast a lot of light where light need to be shed, this was not the proper forum. It’s a scattershot approach,” Grossnickle said. “I sense that there have been personal attacks against Mr. Gilbert which may not be warranted. I mean, I don’t think he’s a person trying purposely to cheat the taxpayers. I think he’s trying to do the best he can to keep current companies happy here, and letting them expand. I’m concerned there’s just an effort to run Mr. Gilbert, to get him to resign.”
“Fair enough,” Strathern said.
Drake said she was dismayed at the tales of woe that surfaced from the two presentations.
Airing everything in public “is not good for Paris,” Drake said.
“Whatever happened in the past is in the past. Whether it was wrong or right. There was money that was spent that shouldn’t have been spent in places, but we cannot go back and change that. We can only move forward with the PEDC board’s recommendations, and hopefully get it where it needs to be, and use the taxpayers’ money the way it should be used, and used wisely and held accountable,” Drake said.
“Name-calling needs to end, whether it’s in here or out in the public, in the media, on social networking, wherever. We need to get this over with. We need to get this straightened out, so that when people Google the city of Paris, they will want to bring their businesses here, they will want to bring their families here, and they will want to be in a city where everything is OK. I just hope from this point forward, that can be done.”
If you don’t change what’s wrong, you’re doomed to repeat it, Strathern said, adding that it’s never wrong not to correct problems.
“I wasn’t saying that we need to forget,” Drake said. “I’m just saying let’s learn from our past and let the current board set up new policies so that we don’t have this happen again.”
Strathern said, “Fair enough. Fair enough.”
Other members of the council then added comment.
“This has been painful, shining the light on some things we probably didn’t want to hear but needed to hear,” District 2 Councilwoman Sue Lancaster said.
“There’s no way that we can make it any better if we don’t know it’s going on. Somewhere along the line, PEDC got off track, and seriously off track. I think today is a good day for us to start getting PEDC right back on track, get focused on getting the jobs into our county and presenting a really clear, honest picture of our citizens,” Lancaster added.
District 1 Councilman Aaron Jenkins said: “I appreciate the insight from Ms. Clifford and Mr. Strathern. All the people at the PEDC and City Council, we must make sure we do our jobs and do the best for Paris, for growth and everything.”
District 3 Councilman John Wright said: “I think all the thoughts and the arguments that have been brought to our attention are going to be helpful in solving the problems. I have the utmost faith in the board and the leadership of the PEDC board that is there, and if we can overcome our mistakes and not repeat them, it will all be worthwhile.”
Hashmi, who represents District 7, echoed the concerns of the others.
“It’s good to look back at ourselves. None of us are angels. We all make mistakes. As long as there is potential for correction, and looking back so that in future we look back and say that we did the right thing,” Hashmi said.
“I have complete confidence in all the PEDC board members. Even the ones who I disagree with, I have confidence in them that they will do a fine job. Things have been brought to our attention,” he said. “I’m not interested in any personal attacks on anyone. The purpose is to improve the organization. We are all for Paris.”
By Charles Richards, eParisExtra