COVINGTON — Officials were scheduled to hold a closed meeting Thursday night to discuss the Baxter International project.
Officials with the Newton County Board of Commissioners, City of Covington, Newton County Water and Sewerage Authority, Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties; and the Jasper, Morgan and Walton county commissions were invited to the meeting, which was scheduled for 7 p.m. at Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center in Mansfield.
The meeting was not open to the public or the press.
According to a letter sent to invited officials by Alan Verner, chairman of the Joint Development Authority, “we will be meeting with a state official at a state office. It is not subject to the Open Meetings Act pursuant to O.C.G.A. 50-14-1(a)(2) which states in pertinent part ‘the gathering of a quorum of the members of a governing body or committee for the purpose of meeting with officials of he legislative or executive branches of the state or federal government at state or federal offices at which no official action is to be taken’ does not constitute a ‘meeting.’”
Verner said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon that officials with the Georgia Department of Economic Development would attend the meeting, which he said was to “bring everybody up to speed on where the project is and get everybody together to let them know what roles they may have to play on getting this process going.”
Asked why officials would not have that discussion in public, Verner said that, “Baxter has still got trade secrets, and manufacturing stuff that’s still at stake. They want to keep it low profile until we get everything in place on their end. It’s better for the counties to sit down, since there’s land acquisition involved, not in a public meeting.”
Verner said the acquisition of property in Stanton Springs by Baxter may or may not be discussed in the meeting. He said the contract has not closed as of yet on the property.
“I think it’s good for counties to be able to sit down in a closed setting and talk about something they’ve only been able to talk about in trying to attract Baxter without really even knowing who they were,” he said.
Verner said no official action was to be taken at the gathering.
David Hudson, attorney for the Georgia Press Association, said House Bill 397, a new law now in effect, “would allow a quorum to meet with other government officials ‘at which no official action is to be taken by the members.’”
Baxter International announced in April that it will locate a plant in Stanton Springs, investing $1 billion and employing 1,500 people.