Jabil deal re-examined
ST. PETERSBURG - Nearly four months after the City Council quietly approved a $12.7-million incentives package for Jabil Circuit with no knowledge of who the money would go toward or any public discussion, city officials gathered Tuesday to discuss its economic development process.
"Why couldn't we be told?" council member Wengay Newton asked city staffers. "It seems like a lot of people knew, so it wasn't that confidential."
The council approved the deal in June even though city staffers told council members they could not know certain details of the incentives package, including the name of the beneficiary, because of a state law requiring city economic development staffs to shield business deals. Instead, the company was known as "Project Extreme."
The state law didn't stop the county staff from telling Pinellas County commissioners, which approved a similar package, the details the council didn't know. And council Chairman Jamie Bennett said he knew because Mayor Rick Baker told him before the vote.
"We give you in your council materials ... everything we can," said Dave Goodwin, the city's economic development director.
"We are not doing this just to be secret," said Mike Meidel, director of the county's economic development program. "We are doing this to make deals happen and they would not happen if they were done out in the public marketplace."
Companies request confidentiality in economic deals because they don't want competitors, the media and sometimes even their employees to know business strategies. It works out for governments, said Meidel, because it helps keep the deals secret from other governments that might want to steal a company away.
The state confidentiality law states only economic development officials can know about confidential deals. Violators could face misdemeanor charges.
City Attorney John Wolfe said he does not interpret the law to mean that council members, who approve economic incentives, can be let in on the deals.
"My interpretations tend to be conservative," he said, because he wants to protect city officials from legal prosecution.
When news of the deal broke, the council was widely criticized for not asking more questions and for allowing city staffers to add the project to the council's agenda at the last minute, making it difficult for the public to know about the incentives package.
But some council members said the deal was handled properly.
"I was very satisfied with the information we received from our economic development staff," said council member Leslie Curran. "I don't make these decisions blindly."
Since the Jabil deal, the city has begun regularly updating its council agenda. Staffers said Mayor Rick Baker was open to having future economic deals be discussed openly by the staff and council before a vote, although the council doesn't need his permission to do that.
"I think it is very helpful for everyone to hear the questions that everyone else has," said council member Herb Polson, in support of the proposal.
-Cristina Silva, Times Staff Writer