ST. PETERSBURG — The City Council's newest member called for a review Thursday of the city's economic development deals in the wake of disclosures that the city secretly set aside millions in public dollars to persuade a private business to stay.
After months of covert negotiations, the City Council last month quietly approved $12.7-million in incentives for Jabil Circuit, one of Tampa Bay's largest high-tech employers, without public notice, discussion or mention of what they were voting on.
Even some council members weren't sure what they voted on. And last week a high-ranking city official denied the city had a deal with Jabil.
Council member Karl Nurse, appointed in April, voted for the deal but now says it should have gotten more public scrutiny.
"While I understand there are conflicting needs to work out economic development projects behind closed doors, the public's right to know what commitments are being made must be weighed," Nurse wrote in an e-mail to city staff members Thursday. "I would like a greater comfort level that we are doing as little as possible out of the sunshine to achieve our economic development goals."
Four of his council colleagues, however, expressed confidence in the city's closed-door approach, which state law allows. The other three could not be reached.
"I have been elected to make decisions on behalf of the citizens," said council member Jeff Danner. "I can't take everything to referendum or hold a public hearing on everything. We would never get anything accomplished."
This isn't the first time Jabil has asked for government assistance. The company was promised $3.4-million in state tax refunds in 2001 in exchange for creating 1,150 new jobs in Florida.
Jabil also unveiled plans to build a 2-million-square-foot headquarters on 94 acres in St. Petersburg two years ago. It never happened.
The latest Jabil deal involves incentives from the city, county and the state to keep Jabil and its 1,900 jobs in St. Petersburg.
The bulk of the $34.4-million incentive package would be paid by the state. The county would chip in about $1.7-million through grants and tax refunds.
In return, Jabil must hire 858 new workers at an average annual salary of $42,685 a year. Jabil also must build a new $49-million campus, generating about $300,000 annually in new tax revenue to the county.
State officials have 90 days to approve the incentives.
Jabil, headquartered at Gateway Business Park, is also considering relocating to Michigan or California.
Jabil officials did not return calls for comment Thursday.
Secret negotiations began in October after Jabil announced it was looking to move.
The County Commission on Tuesday approved the deal without identifying Jabil. County Administrator Fred Marquis confirmed it was Jabil.
The city, however, took the secrecy further.
On Monday, June 16, council members learned they would vote on a multimillion-dollar incentives package for a local employer. City staff members meet privately with each council member to discuss the proposal, but council members were not told what company would benefit.
"I was very uncomfortable voting on it because I thought it was like buying a pig in a sack," said council member Wengay Newton. "They said we can assure you this is not going to be bad. This is going to protect jobs."
The staff did not add the incentive package to the council's agenda until four days later, just hours before the council met to vote on the proposal. None of the council members, including Chairman Jamie Bennett, called for public discussion of the issue.
The council approved the deal June 19 without discussion. It was part of the so-called consent agenda in which numerous routine items are approved all at once. That made it virtually impossible for the public to know what the council was up to.
Under state law, city staff must comply with a company's request for confidentiality, but not council members.
One week after the council approved the incentives package, a city economic development official denied there was a deal.
"We want Jabil's future to be in St. Petersburg, and, of course, we would work with Jabil to make sure that happens,'' said Dave Goodwin, the city's director of economic development at the time. "But the city is not offering. We don't have $35-million."
Nurse said the city should shine a light on economic deals in the future. He asked the council to schedule a workshop to discuss the issue.
"In hindsight, it looks to me that we went overboard," he said. "The more I think about it the less comfortable I feel about it."
Times Staff Writer Sydney Freedberg contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org.