The Clay County Commissioners had a lengthy discussion this Monday about the Clay County Economic Development Council (EDC). The EDC is a non-profit organization that “is a partnership of the private and public sectors aimed at the overall economic development of Clay County, Missouri.”
The EDC is made up of an executive committee of seven members, one of which is Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte. There also is a board of directors which includes 38 members. Three of those members are the Commissioners, the other 35 all come from Clay County businesses.
We reached out to the Clay County EDC and obtained a copy of their bylaws for clarification.
With regards to the Presiding Commissioner, it is the EDC bylaws that establishes Nolte’s membership on the executive committee:
“The Executive Committee shall consist of seven (7) members. The officers of the corporation shall be members of the Executive Committee. The Presiding Commissioner of the County of Clay and the Past Chair Advisor shall be ex- officio voting members of the Executive Committee. The Chair of the corporation shall appoint, subject to approval by a majority of the Board of Directors, one additional board member, Chair of an Affiliate organization or a past chair to serve as a member of the Executive Committee.”
The EDC does receive public funds from Clay County taxpayers.
It was those public funds and Presiding Commissioner Jerry Nolte’s position on the executive committee that became the center of the discussion at the meeting.
Nolte started out with his perspectives on the history of the EDC. His comments also hinted at the confrontation that was about to occur with the other two commissioners. He stated that a motion was made during the December 12, 2016 Clay County budget hearing that Commissioner Owen made a motion to withhold the $172,000 in public funds the County gives the EDC unless Nolte resigns from the executive board.
After speaking for about 7 minutes Nolte yielded to Commissioner Owen. Owen stated that Nolte was a cause of trouble at the EDC.
“You know I have gotten several complaints about you being over there trying to swing your weight around a little too much. In the past you have abstained from voting on anything the EDC had to say. And the reason why you did that is you think there is a personal conflict of interest.”
Intensifying his tone, Owen looked at Nolte and told him, “It looks to me like you have tried to take credit for everything good this county has done in the last four years. The EDC is doing a good job and will continue to do a good job without you on the board.”
Once Owen stopped talking, Nolte calmly asked him how many meetings of the EDC over the last year that Owen had attended.
Owen, after remaining silent for a total of 13 seconds, refused to answer the question, and again reiterated his comments about Nolte “swinging his weight around.”
Nolte continued to push Owen for more specifics on the accusations telling him he’d received zero complaints personally. He asked Owen, “What would be one of the issues that I use my influence on?”
Owen response was only, “I’m not going to say anymore.”
Nolte responded, “So the conflict of interest is unfounded. It’s a little bit difficult for me to make any kind of comment when there is no substance to the charges. Anybody can say conflict of interest, but there’s no backup of documentation, there’s not even a specific instance that I’m aware of.”
Commissioner Ridgeway remained silent for the first 12 minutes of the discussion. Some of her concerns dealt with the use of money that the County gives to the EDC. She wanted to know if there was a chance that some of the money could have been used for small business finance.
Nolte told Ridgeway that the funding stream for small business finance comes from fees and other monies paid by people who participates in the program. According to Nolte the program is self-supporting.
Nolte continued for some time discussing his concern about the accusations raised when Commissioner Ridgeway raised a point of order accusing Nolte of not staying on issue and focusing on motives and personal attacks.
The conversation moved past the point of order and continued. Commissioner Ridgeway gave a lengthy statement clarifying what her and Commissioner Owen were asking.
“This is either a huge misunderstanding at best or a huge mischaracterization at worst. There is a fact that Presiding Commissioner along one other person was co-chair of the strategic development committee, or something of that nature, for some period of time. Which we could say the strategy of the economic development council had to be driven, or at least directed or promoted in some way by the committee of which the Presiding Commissioner served. Co-chair of strategic development, when there’s only two, I think lends itself to saying if we’re not developing the strategy of the Economic Development Council, it’s grossly misnamed. So with regards to this particular issue, the Presiding Commissioner abstained in 2015. That is a fact.
Then in 2016 the Presiding Commissioner changed his position and voted for the contract, that is a fact. That is a change of which the majority of this Commission was apparently not aware. Now Clay County remains either 1/3 or we are the largest single donor to the Economic Development Council. That being the case, I believe those facts taken together show the potential for a conflict of interest.
The Economic Development Council is governed by humans. Humans have to be constantly thinking where does my existence come from. The existence comes from my funding. If for some reason I don’t follow what the Clay County Commission strongly suggests is a business that should be followed, or a business that should be denied support then they have to realize they may be risking part of their funding.
That to me if I were an employee of the Economic Development Council, that would be a concern. I think there are other ways to resolve this in a peaceful, professional manner.
For example, we can look at having Commission designees that do not directly vote on the budget, but are economic development directors in the local community.”
Later in her statement, Ridgeway attempted to clarify why Owen and Ridgeway were raising the point.
“It is not an accusation, it is an investigation. We have till February to determine, does conflict of interest exist, is there a better way to do this, can we do a better job distancing ourselves as voting members on the budget from any kind of direct voting membership in an outside organization that is supported in part, by your own admission 33%, I believe more than that, with taxpayer dollars. There just needs to be a line of demarcation.”
The discussion was ended after nearly 35 minutes as the Commission moved on to the published agenda. It appears the discussion will be continued once the New Year begins.
Editorial Note: There is an edit at about 26:14. There is only about 3 seconds omitted and was a result of having to begin a new video file on our camera as it limits the length of video segment to 29 minutes.
6:45 PM An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the funding from Clay County to the EDC was $272,000. The actual amount of the funding is $172,000.