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Steve Gilbert, executive director of the Paris Economic Development Corporation, responded Tuesday to his board concerning allegations raised by Mayor AJ Hashmi to the City Council on Aug. 26 of exorbitant and poorly documented expenses.
“My credibility, integrity and character have been challenged, and my professional reputation has been called into question due to the manner in which information was presented,” Gilbert said in a memorandum to the PEDC board.
“The mayor and I spoke face to face about these issues, and we agreed that for the good of Paris, the public disagreements between PEDC and City Council must end,” Gilbert said.
“We both committed to honest and frequent communication. This is the only way to move forward jointly to support economic growth. Unfortunately, contentious presentations continue to be made,” Gilbert said.
The past PEDC board “was fully aware of, participated in and approved all operating expenses, including travel and training,” Gilbert said.
“As executive director, I will use the best possible discretion out of respect for the citizens of Paris and Lamar County who work hard and pay taxes,” Gilbert said.
“The public must know that the PEDC staff and past board did nothing wrong,” he added.
All PEDC expenses were documented and passed through city Finance Director Gene Anderson, he said.
“In the future, the PEDC board will have closer oversight. They are developing, and will implement, clear policies and procedures for expenditures, travel and entertainment, including better internal controls,” Gilbert said.
“Citizens who care about Paris and Lamar County’s economic future and our ability to compete for jobs must make every effort to end malicious, public back-and-forth bickering. In this, there are no winners,” he said.
Gilbert had these responses concerning specific allegations raised in the mayor’s council presentation:
In closing, Gilbert said in the memorandum to PEDC directors, “my sincere hope is our community can find common ground, resolve our differences, take correction action and move forward to beat the competition and grow our local economy.”
That turned out not to be “in closing,” after all. Gilbert, in his “Director’s Report” at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, noted that he had put together a memorandum to PEDC board members concerning the allegations, but he did not elaborate.
“My expectation is not to go over that today,” he said, adding that he was working with PEDC members Bruce Carr and Vicki Ballard on a review of policy procedures “and we’ll continue to go through that process, and in good time bring that back to the board.”
Halfway through the meeting, however, board member David Turner pushed Gilbert over the edge when he made a motion that Gilbert be made to hand over his PEDC credit card and get board permission for all future expenditures.
When PEDC chairman Rebecca Clifford asked if anyone had further comment to a review of the PEDC’s operating policies and procedures, Turner raised his hand.
Turner said he was present for Hashmi’s presentation to the City Council and was also present for follow-up presentations on Monday night by Clifford and by Bill Strathern, whose open Records request for PEDC documents was the basis for the mayor’s presentation.
“It seems like one of the biggest sources of abuse are the PEDC credit cards. And it seems to me you should collect those credit cards. Put them in your possession, Ms. Clifford, that you be in charge of the credit cards, and that any expenditures have to be presented to the board,” Turner said.
“I think it would relieve Mr. Gilbert of a lot of criticism, and it would also give us the opportunity to get control of a lot of things,” Turner said. “We certainly have to get control of this,” he added.
“I’m going to make it in form of a motion, that from this day forward, Ms. Clifford, those credit cards be controlled by you.”
Gilbert held up a spreadsheet he and Shannon Barrentine, the PEDC’s assistant executive director, put together.
“There has been a lot of talk about a lack of internal control, and Shannon and I, over the years that we’ve been here, took all the finances from the PEDC back from the Chamber of Commerce, and built it from the ground up in 2010. This document shows every line item in the budget and every expense by month and year to date. Every expense,” Gilbert said.
“The board just before you said they didn’t want to see this report any more. They said they wanted to see just a summary of this report. This report has been maintained, and every month it’s reconciled with Gene Anderson’s financial report, which is a tax basis report that he sends to the PEDC. And those are all given to the PEDC board.”
Then he paused, turned toward Turner, and began letting out all the pressure that had been building up inside.
“I have bit my tongue,” he said. “You can take the credit cards. I don’t care. I rarely use it. I’ve taken as much of this as I can without saying anything. I’ve not responded to the mayor, out of respect for the discussions that he and I have had. Rebecca has made her presentation. Bill has made his. I am up to here,” Gilbert said, raising his hand even with his head.
“I have today handed out a memorandum to this board, trying to refute some of the nonsense that’s been said about this organization and me and the staff. And at some point, you know, if I don’t say anything, then all of the public and all of the bloggers and all of the Facebookers and all of the rest of them think that we’ve done something wrong,” Gilbert said.
“I have not done anything wrong. And so we can continue this discussion, but there is information that has been presented to this board, for every month, in great detail. And so, David, you can do whatever you want to do, but we’ve got to move this ball forward, and by me not saying anything does not mean that I’m sitting here to be guilty as charged.”
Clifford said she does feel the board’s policies and procedures are in need of revision “so it’s clear to everyone concerned what the rules are. You have to know the rules in order to play by them.”
She added: “I don’t think it’s anyone’s intent not to play by the rules. We just need to make sure they’re clear and concise.”
Ballard said her committee is well along on a review of policies, “and we have a plan we are going to present. But I’m not into micro-managing.”
Turner responded, “Nor am I. But you know, we all know, I want to minimize, or take away, that source of irritation. But I will table my motion (for all PEDC credit cards to be turned over to Clifford) if you’re telling me we’ve got a way to get a handle on it.”
“We will move quickly,” Ballard said. “I withdraw my motion,” Turner said.
Lost in the shuffle, Gilbert said, “is that the PEDC has achieved significant positive results from the work conducted over the last three years.”
Throughout the next five years, there are 625 new jobs in the works at Campbell Soup, Skinner Bakery, Potters, T&K and BodyGuard, he said. And the PEDC has a current project “pipeline” of confidential new deals in the works, he said.
He estimated the new private capital investment for Paris and Lamar County throughout the course of the next five years at $373,650,000.
By Charles Richards, eParisExtra