"Budget hearing turns into personal grilling" (Nov. 18, 2014)
The controversial Acuity Brands expansion deal looks headed to local approval after officials hashed out an agreement earlier in the day, Conyers Mayor Randy Mills told the City Council Nov. 19. But in unusually strong commentary, Mills and most of the council blasted the controversy as an "embarrassing" harm to Rockdale's "word and honor."
In further extraordinary criticism from the typically mild-mannered City Council, Mills also condemned county Chairman Richard Oden's recent public interrogation of Conyers Rockdale Economic Development Council Executive Director Marty Jones, calling Oden's actions "totally unacceptable."
The lighting manufacturer Acuity, one of Rockdale's biggest and oldest employers, announced major job-creating expansions at its facilities on Lester Road in Conyers and in DeKalb County last month. The state economic development agency brokered the expansion deal, which includes tax abatements, and Gov. Nathan Deal formally announced it. Some local officials and CREDC were involved in the deal. But the county Development Authority - the local agency that has actual abatement-creating powers - wasn't aware of the details and verbally rejected the deal on Nov. 4 in a surprise move.
After a meeting of officials that morning, the "Acuity deal was, we believe, finally put to bed" pending formal Development Authority approval, said Mills, who is also CREDC's board chair. "The good news of it [is]...we got them to stay and we got jobs coming here."
"We really need to figure out a process...where this does not happen again," said Mills, referring to the political disconnect that nearly derailed the deal. "This was embarrassing on a lot of levels."
"In our business, the political business as well as the economic development business...you have two things: your word and your honor," Mills said. "And I thought for a couple of weeks, we were going to lose both" in the eyes of state economic development officials.
Councilman Vince Evans, who is also a CREDC board member, agreed, saying Rockdale's reputation was "severely tarnished" and that the situation was "mind-boggling."
"Losing credibility with the state is the thing that bothers me the most," said Councilman Cleveland Stroud, while Councilman Gerald Hinesley added that it was causing local government to lose credibility with citizens, too.
Most of the council also spoke against Oden's treatment of Jones at a Tuesday budget meeting where the Board of Commissioners was considering additional CREDC funding. Oden has had a rocky relationship at times with CREDC and Jones as its director, sometimes unsuccessfully asking the organization to fund his own economic development programs, and more recently demanding a detailed cost-benefit analysis of its work.
At the budget meeting, Oden's actions toward Jones were widely interpreted as an attempted public humiliation, including by the other county commissioners.
"The executive director was totally disrespected, in my view, yesterday by a public official, which was totally unacceptable," said Mills, speaking in his role as CREDC chairman."If any public official has a problem with the direction of the [CREDC] board, he should come to the board."
Most of the councilmen echoed that opinion. Evans called Oden's actions "inappropriate under any circumstances" and noted the City Council works well by respectfully listening to each of its members. "I appreciate what we have, and I wish it were more contagious," Evans said.