Transparency and Accountability for EDAs

Image credit: Chesterfield Observer

How transparent and accountable should Economic Development Authorities be to the public?

That’s the fundamental issue raised by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who submitted a bill that would require local government approval for all EDA grants and budgets. That bill was defeated by one vote in the Senate’s local government committee, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch, but Chase said she hopes to resurrect it in the near future.

“Bureaucrats who are not elected by the people should not be allowed to dole out taxpayer money,” said Chase. “I’m tired of elected officials abdicating their responsibility so bureaucrats can do their dirty work.”

The bill arises from a controversy in Chesterfield County over county plans to build an industrial megasite in the Bermuda district. The EDA wants to rezone and buy about 1,700 acres of land as a site for potential large, industrial users. The paucity of so-called megasites in Virginia has been identified as a bottleneck to economic development, ruling out the state for consideration by automobile companies, aerospace firms and other large-scale manufacturers. Success in attracting a major manufacturing concern could create $1 billion in investment and create up to 5,000 jobs.

Chesterfield economic developers contend that EDAs are accountable indirectly because authority members are appointed by boards of supervisors, and EDA expenditures of tax dollars are approved in counties’ budgetary process in open meetings. Additionally, all EDA expenditures are recorded by Chesterfield’s accounting department, and the EDA does an annual audit.

But members of a Chesterfield citizens group, the Bermuda Advocates for Responsible Development (BARD), say they have many unanswered questions about EDA expenditures and the proposed megasite.

EDAs have many powers, including the ability to acquire land and borrow money, said Patrick McSweeney, an attorney speaking on behalf of Chase’s bill. “This creates a shadow government potentially in every locality in Virginia. Once a decision is made by these authorities there is little that can be done about it unless they have done something blatantly illegal.”

“There’s no reason that local governments can’t do what they do,” he said. “There’s no reason not to have (EDAs) as an advisory body.”

Bacon’s bottom line: EDAs do spend millions of local dollars, they do issue tens of millions of dollars in municipal bonds, and their decisions do impact local communities. Virginians should insist upon total transparency in decision making regarding the assembly of land and building of infrastructure in industrial parks, and they should insist that elected officials be accountable for multimillion-dollar grants and expenditures. I don’t see how Chase’s bill does EDAs any harm, and I can’t understand why anyone would object to it.

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3 responses to “Transparency and Accountability for EDAs”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I understand what the citizen group is after…but we have a problem these days with people’s expectations from government. They think they are entitled as taxpayers to 100% transparency so they can “hold accountable” We see this especially with the cries to “make” higher ed release more and more info so the folks concerned about tuition affordability can find more ammunition to challenge higher ed costs.

    The BOS budgets money to all kinds of activities from Parks & Rec to the schools to the regional transit and libraries.

    Do we REALLY want the BOS to look at every one of these agencies spending from an approved budget and then nix expenditures they don’t agree with, to micro-manage at that level? I’m not sure how far this ought to go.

    Seems to me that if the BOS takes control of what the EDA is doing – the substantive role of the EDA itself becomes more or less irrelevant. Some level of delegation has to occur if you really want these agencies to perform their function, there has to be , by nature, some level of confidentiality..

    Even BOS go into closed session to have” Discussion concerning a prospective business or industry or the expansion of an existing business or industry where no previous announcement has been made of the business’ or industry’s interest in locating or expanding its facilities in the community.”

    Code of Virginia
    Table of Contents » Title 2.2. Administration of Government » Chapter 37. Virginia Freedom of Information Act » § 2.2-3711. Closed meetings authorized for certain limited purposes

    § 2.2-3711. Closed meetings authorized for certain limited purposes.

    A. Public bodies may hold closed meetings only for the following purposes:

    3. Discussion or consideration of the acquisition of real property for a public purpose, or of the disposition of publicly held real property, where discussion in an open meeting would adversely affect the bargaining position or negotiating strategy of the public body.

    4. The protection of the privacy of individuals in personal matters not related to public business.

    5. Discussion concerning a prospective business or industry or the expansion of an existing business or industry where no previous announcement has been made of the business’ or industry’s interest in locating or expanding its facilities in the community.

    6. Discussion or consideration of the investment of public funds where competition or bargaining is involved, where, if made public initially, the financial interest of the governmental unit would be adversely affected.”

    1. djrippert Avatar

      I do want total transparency. Unlike owning a stock I can’t sell my interest in the Commonwealth of Virginia if I don’t like how “management” is running my asset. There’s also no share price to let me know how the market as a whole values the asset. The only way I know whether our elected officials are competent or not is to look at what they are doing in a great deal of detail. The other way to understand how well our government is performing is to compare that government to that government to other similar governments. Why should Virginia be less efficient that Georgia? All of this requires a great deal of transparent data.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    “Transparency” is important but it can also be a bit of a canard these days when people want to hold govt “accountable” for everything…

    And I very much agree about standard comparisons between cities, counties and states .. it’s exactly how you find things different that do merit further scrutiny.

    But EDAs negotiate with potential business opportunities and without some level of confidentiality – businesses would not engage and/or would go elsewhere to consider locating.

    There are provisions in the code for closed meetings where the knowledge could potentially harm interests of the negotiating parties.

    I agree this is also an area for potential skullduggery of “too sweet” deals.

    But virtually every major business decision to locate some where in Va is conducted confidentially until an actual proposal comes in front of elected officials for a vote .. there is usually a public hearing process and the specific aspects of the proposal have to be disclosed and allow public scrutiny.

    trying to interrupt the process early in the stages.. could well spell doom for negotiations and so EDAs do need the ability to negotiate confidentially. You just have to trust them to initiate the process.. and you can always reject what they ultimately bring for approval.

    Now the intersting thing here is that DJ is an anti-Dillion, “Virginia Way” guy who rankles at the State setting rules and restrictions for the locality.

    And I just point out that things like transparency and hearings.. and comparative financial data in Virginia are mandated by that Clown Show in Richmond and in other states without that level of governance.. many “home rule” jurisdictions don’t have any mandated level of transparency.. it’s just what they decide.. and no , don’t tell me that people can hold the elected “accountable” at elections. A home-rule Fairfax would surely run amok on issues involving transparency… just look right now how their police dept conducts itself even with State and Federal rules.. they just flaunt them anyhow. Citizens have to actually bring lawsuits to force them to do what the law says they should do.

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