ST. PETERSBURG — City Council member Bill Dudley voted to give millions of dollars to an unidentified private company because, he said, the city staff told him to.
"They said the company was going to move to California," Dudley recalled. "We had to save those jobs."
But Michigan and California officials said they have not offered Jabil Circuit anything yet, though they would not say whether the global electronics manufacturer contacted them.
The City Council approved $12.7-million in incentives for Jabil last month without public notice, discussion or mention of what it was voting on. The vote — the only time the council will weigh in on the deal — has raised questions about whether the city staff went too far in keeping details from the public and whether the council asked enough questions.
The council's newest member, Karl Nurse, last week asked colleagues to reconsider how they handle such secret deals. The city staff says taxpayers will get a good deal if the state approves the incentives — they total $34.4-million in city, county and state dollars — and Jabil accepts them.
The company would get the incentives only if it hires 858 new workers within the next three years and builds a $49-million campus. In return, the city estimates Pinellas would get about $300,000 annually in new property taxes. Jabil employs 1,900 people in St. Petersburg.
But the city staff told council members they could not know details of the incentives package, including the name of the company, 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 the details the council didn't know.
"I always ask for the name," said commission Chairman Bob Stewart. "They are asking me to vote on a decision that could have significant financial repercussions. … I need to know who is involved."
And council Chairman Jamie Bennett, who was on vacation when the council voted on the Jabil deal June 19, already knew about the city's secret negotiations.
Mayor Rick Baker told him about it despite the state confidentiality law.Some political observers say the council should demand greater accountability from the staff.
"It doesn't seem right," said former council member Bob Kersteen. "The public should be aware of how public money is being spent."
Council member Leslie Curran said she had no problems with the vote. "At some point you have to have some faith in the staff," she said.
"To my knowledge, they have never misled me."
City officials still refuse to publicly identify Jabil, even though Jabil has acknowledged that it's seeking money from the city, state and county.
State law says the city can discuss confidential business negotiations once they have been publicly disclosed, such as in a major newspaper, but city attorney John Wolfe said the city cannot discuss Project Extreme without permission from the corporation involved.
On Thursday, the City Council is expected to decide whether to hold a public workshop to discuss the deal and future economic development negotiations.
Nurse proposed the workshop. The city should be as transparent as possible, he said.
But Dudley said he isn't so sure that the city staff did anything wrong.
"I need to learn more about the issue," he said.