816 North

Owen agrees to support county funding of EDC — with a caveat

Clay County Commissioner Gene Owen says he’ll support the release of county funding for the Clay County Economic Development Council, but only on the condition that the EDC rework its bylaws.

Currently, the bylaws specify that the county’s presiding commissioner serve on EDC’s executive committee, whose oversight includes policy, business-recruitment matters and spending. Jerry Nolte currently represents the county on the committee.

Nolte’s involvement with EDC became an issue in December 2016, when Owen, the western commissioner, and Luann Ridgeway, eastern commissioner, voted 2-1 to require that the county’s 2017 funding be contingent on Nolte resigning his executive committee post.

In 2016, the county provided $172,000, roughly 30 percent of EDC’s budget. County assistance for 2017 could increase by $25,000 this year if the sides can reach agreement.

EDC’s 2016 contract has expired and the non-profit organization currently is not receiving county funding, Executive Director Jim Hampton said.

Reaching a new agreement – and resuming funding – hinges on several things, Owen said in a March 14 telephone interview.

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “If they’ll change their bylaws, we’ll give them the money. I just want to improve the board. It’s as simple as that.”

Owen and Ridgeway have proposed that the county’s current representation on the seven-member executive committee be increased from one voting member to three. That would require the EDC rewrite its bylaws, which for 50 years have specified that the county’s interests on the committee be represented by the presiding commissioner. All three commission members serve on the organization’s 31-member board of directors.

Should the EDC approve the bylaws revision, Owen said the county’s three appointments would not include a commissioner or county administrative staff.

“I would like to appoint three people who have experience in knowing how to attract economic development: not commissioners, not county employees,” he said.

Owen said the appointees would periodically report back to the commission with updates on policy decisions, EDC spending and the organization’s progress in recruitment efforts.

Ridgeway agreed last week that the county should have more representation on the EDC’s executive board.

“I very much support the concept of having county designees having a greater voice on the executive board,” she said in a text message. “If county money equals one-third the economic development council budget, then it’s fair to have one-third representation on the board. I think it’s also important that the county have designees appointed rather than partisan political office holders.”

According to Owen, it was Ridgeway who communicated the county’s proposal to the EDC’s executive-committee chairman. Some aspects of that proposal apparently were discussed during a commission executive session that preceded the December meeting, at which the Nolte resignation-EDC funding tradeoff became public.

However, Nolte said, the idea of revising the council’s bylaws to give the county three slots on the executive board was not discussed at that time.

Prior to the board’s March 13 business session, Nolte read a statement in which he said he would resign the committee post on several conditions: Clay County agree to release the EDC’s 2017 funding; Owen fulfill his pledge to increase the $172,000 figure by $25,000; and the vacated executive committee seat “be filled by a commissioner because of the important policy decisions that are beyond the scope of a bureaucrat.”

Nolte said he would oppose appointing a county staff member to the post.

“We should not offload our duties and responsibilities we owe Clay County taxpayers to (county-employed) staffers,” he said.

He made no comment on the idea of appointing people not affiliated with the county.

Although the county’s contract with the EDC contains a provision that funding may continue on a month-to-month basis after an agreement expires, Nolte said there has been no extension during 2017, a loss that would hurt the council.

“We’re not the biggest contributor to EDC’s budget, but we are significant,” he said the day after he read his public statement.

Nolte said his pledge to resign his EDC board seat rests with Owen fulfilling his promise to sign the 2017 contract and increase funding by $25,000.

“My resignation is the sole condition of the ultimatum by Commissioner Owen to renew the contract,” he noted in his statement.

Speaking of Owen in the subsequent interview, Nolte had praise, saying, “He’s a man of his word. I think he’s honorable.”