MANATEE -- Legal actions that could force agencies in two Florida counties to open meetings and records related to business development to the public have Manatee County's lead economic development organization making sure that private dealings with businesses remain private.
Neither situation directly affects the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. at the moment, and officials involved in attracting and retaining businesses here are emphasizing a state statute that allows the EDC to keep deals secret while being negotiated.
If those protections were negated, officials contend that businesses considering Manatee County for expansions or relocations could be scared away.
"It would be a major handicap in dealing with some companies," said Larry Bustle, chairman of the Manatee County Commission and a vocal supporter of the EDC's mission. "Where they are now, no one may know they are leaving."
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A private non-profit that got its start within the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce about two decades ago, the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. operates as a public-private venture connecting companies with incentive money and regulatory assistance. About 30 percent of its budget comes from the public. Its 2012-2013 budget shows $226,500 coming from the county, Bradenton, Palmetto, Longboat Key, Port Manatee and Suncoast Workforce. Private investors gave $491,000 to the EDC that year. Total administrative costs were $644,000.
The local public investment in the EDC's activities goes beyond annual payments toward operations. Manatee County has also commit
ted to paying out just over $1 million in incentive money between 2009 and 2020 to companies that meet employment and capital investment goals.
For the money it has received, the EDC has worked with more than 60 such projects since 2009. During the past year, it assisted five local companies expand and brought another in from Sarasota County. EDC officials do not reveal the identities of these companies to county officials until and unless an incentive contract is approved by both sides.
Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area EDC, said that keeping discussions with relocating or expanding companies "under the veil of confidentiality" is the only way to complete them without endangering a deal. When EDC staffers do communicate privately with a company, they do not identify that company to elected officials, county or city staff members or even members of the organization's board of directors.
Hillstrom said she would not want EDC records concerning ongoing work with these companies open to public scrutiny, or to be the target of a suit.
"It's a little disheartening when you see something like this going on," she said. "A lawsuit takes away from the job you're supposed to be doing."
At the moment, no one has Manatee's EDC in the crosshairs for a public records challenge. Hillstrom and Bustle said state statute protects the confidentiality agreements the EDC has with businesses seeking assistance. The statute, 288.075, specifically protects records including business plans that could damage a company if made public during a relocation or expansion negotiation. The measure allows the EDC to keep its negotiations confidential for up to two years.
"I think we're in pretty good shape," Bustle said.
Sarasota, Brevard EDC challenges entwined
Keying on an April decision by a Brevard County circuit court that forces the EDC to produce records requested by Brevard's clerk of court, a Sarasota County group is pressing to settle a five-year legal battle that could open that county's EDC meetings to public scrutiny.
The argument in Brevard County centered on the fact the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast receives much of its funding from public sources and because it perform functions previously under public purview. In Sarasota County, the EDC formed 10 years ago to take over duties previously assigned to a county subcommittee. Five years ago, Citizens for Sunshine Inc. sued the EDC after the group was denied access to records related to business development in the Fruitville Road corridor.
Andrea Flynn Mogensen, an attorney representing Citizens for Sunshine, said her clients' case has been slowed by a lengthy evidence discovery process. The Brevard ruling, she said, gives the group legal leverage it needs to further its case. The group has renewed a request that the EDC of Sarasota County provide notice of its meetings and open all those that make decisions about spending public funds to incentivize business expansions or relocations.
"That's a government function and we should know what's happening with our tax dollars," Mogensen said. "The public should be part of vetting process."
The Space Coast EDC has filed an appeal to the court's ruling in Brevard County. Sarasota's EDC has until Wednesday to respond to the Citizen's for Sunshine settlement offer. In addition to asking for more public access to EDC meetings, the group seeks to recover $75,000 in legal fees.
Late last month, the Bradenton Area EDC presented its annual update of the work it has done during the past year to promote business growth in the county. It helped five companies expand in the county and another relocate here. Under incentive contracts with those businesses, the EDC estimates 570 new jobs will be added to the local work force along with more than $3 million in capital investment. The non-profit counted an additional 332 jobs as retained by companies it worked with.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.