“Set Thy House In Order”: The Need for a Nonpartisan Economic Development Agency

On Thursday, September 28th, the Board of Directors of the Southern Ohio Port Authority (SOPA) held their first meeting since the Scioto County Commissioners decided to end SOPA’s official role in promoting economic development in the county. The Board met in the Welcome Center Conference Room, which overflowed with Board Members, the County Commissioners, the press, and interested members of the public.

A week prior to the meeting, the Commissioners Bryan Davis, Mike Crabtree, and Cathy Coleman announced:

"We do not feel Scioto County can be adequately represented in the future by SOPA. The board has noticed for some time the inability of SOPA to secure major projects in Scioto County, the mismanagement of recent projects, the angering of potential new employers, and the repeated threats over time of resignation by your Director, Jason Kester. Coupled with the recent notice of the pending departure of his assistant, Adam Phillips; a misrepresentation of a public official's statement by the director, and an adversarial, and in some cases, disrespectful behavior of some of the employees and board members, we are left with no other option than to end the current arrangement.”

The Commissioners’ announcement unleashed a firestorm of criticism on social media and put all involved on the defensive.

At Thursday’s meeting, a calm Bud Sayre presided as usual, and by the end of the two-hour meeting, he had given an impromptu, but well-reasoned defense of the the Port Authority's success under the leadership of Jason Kester. Pointing to over 1000 jobs saved or created, Sayre said he would "stand on our accomplishments, as a board, on Jason’s accomplishments.” Many nodded in agreement when Sayre concluded: "You can’t overlook what was saved or started. The successes certainly outweigh any failures.” Sayre’s defense of SOPA and Kester came during the public comment section of the meeting, speaking on his on behalf, after Bryan Davis and the Commissioners had attempted to justify their decision.

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Republican County Commissioner Bryan Davis (standing) defended the Scioto County Commission's recent decision to terminate the Port Authority's official role in promoting the county's economic development. During the public comments, Commissioner Davis called for the resignation of any Board members who disagreed with the new "direction.”  Photo Credit: SOPM Media (28 September 2017).

Last week’s decision by the Commissioners continues to reverberate, and this story is far from having played out. At yesterday's meeting the Board agreed to return a total of $100,000 to local donors who had “lost confidence” in the Port Authority as result of it having been stripped of its official role in economic development. Board member Phil Lajoye warned that the return of the funds would leave the impression that there was a "pay-to-play” system at work and, thus, he advised that before any moneys were transferred or returned that the Board consult with Mark Kuhn, the county prosecutor and a fellow member of the local Republican party. The board’s majority rejected LaJoye’s advice.

Board member Kay Reynolds, who also serves as the Co-chair of the Scioto County Republican Party, attempted to table the motion transferring the funds, but she and her faction lost the vote by a wide-margin. The majority concluded that the monies were best placed in the hands of other local organizations. A $75,000 donation, originally made by Andy Glockner, was transferred to the Scioto Foundation, whose mission includes economic development. And a $25,000 donation was returned to SOMC, upon a written request from Randy Arnett, the medical center’s CEO.

Craig Gilliland, Director of Finance and Business Development at SOMC, who also serves on the Port Authority Board, stated that “SOMC is requesting its donation back so that SOMC can then give it toward economic development via some other agency or activity.” Their gift of $25,000 had been made just three months earlier in July and had also yet to be appropriated by the Board. In order to avoid any conflict of interest, Board members Andy Glockner and Craig Gilliland abstained when voting on Reynold's motion to table and again on the votes to transfer the moneys.

The most recent trouble and dysfunction on the Board dates back to at least January 2017, when the Commissioners added four new seats to an already large board of 17, filling them with Kay Reynolds, Phil LaJoye, Shawn Stratton, and Mark Ward. Reynolds' appointment brought a third local GOP party officer onto the Port Authority Board. She now joined party Republican Party Co-chair Rodney Barnett and Party Vice Chair Kevin Craft, creating a virtual interlocking directorate. The other new seats were awarded to three active members of the local Republican Party, contributing to public speculation that the County Commissioners (all members of the local GOP) were trying to gain control of the Port Authority Board to ensure support for their own development projects.

During Thursday’s meeting it became clear that the ongoing controversy grew out of a recent development project involving Solid Rock Mandanus Ventures (commonly referred to as SMV), a company that plans to build a factory on public land adjacent to the Greater Portsmouth Regional Airport in Minford. In order to complete the deal, the investors requested that the Port Authority sell the land to SMV for 1$, which is not necessarily an unusual request in a major deal like this, but when copies of SMV’s Articles of Incorporation were shared with members of the Board, questions of possible conflicts of interest began to circulate amongst members of the board and public.

SMV had been formed by five business partners, two of whom were foreign nationals from Turkey, whose American business interests are handled by Aaron Smith of the Mandanus Group of Virginia, and three local investors, two of whom were Glen Baldridge of Federal Supply Services Inc. (FSSI) and Billy Whitaker of Solid Rock Construction. The last of the three local investors is an as-yet-to-be-named “silent partner,” whose identity is now the focus of intense public speculation.

Following Thursday’s meeting, Nikki Blankenship, a reporter with the Portsmouth Daily Times, pressed Commissioner Bryan Davis about the identity of the mystery local investor. While Davis acknowledged he knew his identity, the Commissioner refused to divulge any further information, denying that it was either himself or his firm Sole-Choice. Yet, questions remain unanswered regarding whether the “silent partner” is a past or present business partner of Davis or any of the other Commissioners.

News of Billy Whitaker’s role in the project was enough to cause a stir, as he serves as the Deputy Chair of the Scioto County Republican Party. Whitaker’s firm, Solid Rock Construction, according to the Portsmouth Daily Times, has been used by the County Commissioners on various projects including the recent Doug Coleman Splash Pad in Riverside Park, “several paving projects, the demolition of more than 20 land bank properties this year and various other projects.”

During the public comment section of Thursday’s meeting, Whitaker acknowledged his role in the project and explained that he had only acted as any businessman would have done in similar circumstances. He told the Board, “I’m just a guy trying to make it; I saw an opportunity and I took it.” The opportunity was an offer to join the project as a “silent partner.” Whitaker explained that he had initially asked to be unnamed in the negotiations with the Port Authority because he had personal (church) and work (business) relationships with members of the Port Authority Board.

One thing is clear from the press coverage and public statements: while there may have been no violations of Ohio law, the leadership of the Scioto County Republican Party and the County Commissioners have left the very distinct appearance of self-dealing and conflicts of interest. Worse, by ending the Port Authority’s role in economic development, the Commissioners and their supporters on the Board have lost the trust of many of our community’s most successful and influential businesses and harmed the interests of all the residents of the county.

When Commissioner Davis concluded his public remarks, he spoke directly to the Board and requested the resignation of those members who didn’t approve of the new “direction.”

While the SOPM has its sights on the 2018 Congressional and the 2020 Presidential election, we are also following the ancient command to “Set thy house in order; for thou shalt die, and not live.” Our house is the people’s house, and the people’s house includes a room dedicated to advancing the economic development and progress of our community -- as a whole, not one particular political party or faction.

Placing the county’s economic development authority under the direct supervision of the Scioto County Commission, especially when it is in the hands of just one political party, will always create the appearance of a conflict of interest, especially when the Commissioners conduct taxpayer business with secret, “silent partners.”

The SOPM Steering Committee agrees with Bud Sayre’s remarks, as reported in the Daily Times: “This county will never reach its full potential until everyone is willing to work together. Politics, egos and jealousy should never replace progress and cooperation. The Southern Ohio Port Authority should never be a political subdivision.” We believe the county needs an independent economic development agency, one where its board is non-partisan, where partisan political interests are not hardwired into its make-up. We call on the County Commissioners to reform the membership rules for the Port Authority Board by barring Party officials (of any affiliation) from service on such public boards.


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