Gazette faces resistance from new city management to supply information about how economic incentive agreements are processed

Under the city’s new management, staff most knowledgeable of a subject are prohibited from answering media questions directly.

File photo: Interim City Manager Peter Lee, right, listens with Councilman Barry Mansfield, left, during the Ocala City Council at Ocala City Hall in Ocala on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted June 1, 2022 | By Jennifer Hunt Murty

I recently wrote to the Gazette’s readers to explain our new policy of identifying obstacles to the transparent flow of information between public employees and their bosses–you, the public. Some of you might not have understood why we take this seriously and how big a problem this has become in Ocala.

Right on cue comes a prime example of the struggle following an inquiry to the city about agenda items at the May 17 city council meeting. Indulge me as I briefly set the table.

The council that day was considering two requests from businesses to get taxpayer dollars to help them grow, known as economic incentive grants.

One came from R&L Carriers, which asked for $300,000 to offset the costs of water, sewer, fire impact fees and building permit fees for their 125,000-square-foot trucking logistics center that is within the city limits. The council unanimously approved the grant without discussion.

Although the agenda noted the project’s expected economic impact, it seemed odd to us that the owners would need any incentives from the city. After all, R&L is owned by the same billionaire developers behind World Equestrian Center. If these grants are some sort of thank you gift for doing business in the city, let’s talk about who else is entitled to that generosity.

That brings us to the second request, this one from GTI Florida, LLC, a medical marijuana growing facility. GTI asked for a rate reduction of up to a 20% for five years from Ocala Electric Utility. The company plans to spend $30 million to erect two buildings totaling 130,000 square feet at the site of the former Mark III facility.

Their request was unanimously denied.

Why, you might ask? Good question.

Councilmember Jay Musleh said the plant was just outside the city limits, so Ocala would not have the benefit of increased property tax revenue.

“Now, I want to say that we don’t just say, well, if you don’t live in the city, we’re not going help you out. We want all of Marion County to grow. But we were we just talked about raising our PCA (Power Cost Adjustment) rate (for OEU customers). We’re doubling it, and yet we’re choosing to give a significant rebate back to a non-city [business],” said Musleh, adding that his thoughts had nothing to do with the company growing cannabis.

Fair enough. Then interim City Manager Pete Lee joined in.

“I’ve had discussions with Mr. Sheilley about this project from the beginning,’’ he said, referring to Kevin Sheilley, president and CEO of the Ocala Marion Metro Chamber & Economic Partnership. “Aubrey (Hale) has handled everything to do with the agreement, so he can speak more clearly to that. But the one aspect was the 50 full-time positions with $54,000 minimum (salary) was my consideration in beginning.”

Musleh quickly noted GTI is going to build the facility regardless of the incentives and had no choice but to purchase power from OEU. “We just raised [electric] rates and now we want to give a discount here?” Musleh asked rhetorically.

The Gazette asked city staff to explain how these economic initiative requests are handled. Does it make a difference if they come by way of the CEP?

Our interest was piqued for a couple of reasons. For starters, the calculations for the projected return on investment for each of the projects do not appear to have been crafted by the same agency or arrived at using the same methodology.

More importantly, R&L Carriers is represented by the same law firm that represents the city. Knowing how the deal originated and how the city processed it is relevant for the public to understand whether this truly is an arm’s-length transaction.

Still with me? Good, because here is where the process of us gathering information and context for you goes sideways.

We followed the city’s media policy (drafted, we must note, without input or approval of those of us to whom the policy applies – the media.)

We emailed the city’s spokesperson, Ashley Dobbs, numerous times over the course of 13 days seeking to interview staffers, like Aubry Hale, whom Lee said handled the GTI request. In her email to the Gazette she explained delays, “Due to the complicated process, I just don’t have enough knowledge to be able to provide the information myself.”

Noting that we were approaching the two-week mark for a response to a question, we asked for 10 minutes of Hale’s time. Denied. We could, however, send some written questions.

At this point, Dobbs attaches the city’s media policy again “as a reminder.”  At this point, I don’t know why exactly she thought we needed a reminder since we were 13 days into the policy’s inefficient new cycle, and the memory was still very fresh.

We asked city council members for help breaking the logjam of information. Only Jay Musleh, Jim Hilty, and Barry Mansfield responded that they’d encourage city management to communicate with the Gazette on the issue.

Councilmember Kristin Dreyer declined to respond, but previously she told the Gazette she thinks media should be restricted from talking to city staff and only be allowed to talk with a public information officer, “just like a corporation.” We asked then if she understood the difference between a company’s right to privacy and a government’s obligation to be transparent. She reiterated her position and expressed concern that the press was reporting on issues before she was aware of them, which she did not think was appropriate.

It needs to be stated that this roadblock is new. Under the previous city manager, Sandra Wilson, when the press asked about subjects that were technical, the department head or employee with the most knowledge on the topic was made available for an interview, with the city’s public information officer kept in the loop.

This choking off of public information is not unique to the Gazette and the city of Ocala. The Society of Professional Journalists recently sounded an alarm in their piece Gagging of America: Policies show employee speech heavily restricted across government.

“The silencing of employees is problematic for workers, journalists and the public for many reasons, and is especially troubling in the public sector, which is funded by taxpayers’ dollars and protected by the First Amendment. Even though restrictive speech policies are almost certainly illegal, they remain prevalent.”

This national organization encourages journalists everywhere to push back against this dangerous trend.

“Journalists can seek out and report on gag policies at the agencies they cover, inform sources of their First Amendment rights, and let readers know who isn’t being allowed to speak and what questions aren’t being answered as a result.”

So, now you know.