Commissioners, Rowan Jobs Initiative at odds over records

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Rowan Jobs Initiative, a nonprofit agency which has received county funding, is refusing to turn over records to the county.
In response, commissioners have agreed to consider a new policy that will require any agency receiving county funds to comply with state open meetings and public records laws.
In late June, Commissioner Tina Hall requested copies of RJI board meeting minutes starting with the receipt of county funding. She also asked for additional information on how the $325,000 in county funds were spent.
Hall told commissioners Monday evening that Dyke Messinger, a director and chairman of the marketing committee, met with her last week but didn’t provide the requested records.
She said he offered some limited information relating to Miller Davis Studio’s work for the organization.
On June 2, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted to pull all county funding from the organization after learning that $117,000 had gone to Miller Davis while owner Mike Miller was a director of the Rowan Jobs Initiative.
Rowan Jobs Initiative was started in 2005 to assist the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission. It uses a mix of public and private money.
Hall and County Attorney Jay Dees said Messinger offered to meet individually with commissioners and show them documents and records relating to Miller Davis only.
Hall questioned what the agency has to hide, adding, “Openness and accountability is job one.”
Messinger said Tuesday that he has talked with the RJI board of directors and its members will not turn over minutes. He said the county has had the opportunity to be part of the organization from its inception. “We’ve never tried to hide anything. Why does the county want minutes once they’ve disassociated with us. It’s not to understand, it’s to try and slam us.”
Messinger contended that Hall is looking for negative information. “She has shown negativity toward our organization. It’s pretty clear it’s a fishing expedition to find something to slam us.”
In an e-mail to Dees, Messinger outlined RJI’s position, saying the records belong to RJI and are not public records.
Monday evening, commissioners debated whether to accept the invitation to meet with RJI or to demand copies of minutes and other records.
Commissioner Jim Sides said he wants copies, insisting the public has a right to the information.
Sides announced that he is working on a policy used by other counties to require any agency receiving tax dollars to comply with public records and meetings requirements.
Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell said such a policy is a great idea. Mitchell called the $325,000 given to RJI a lot of money, but asked, “What’s the end game?”
Mitchell questioned whether the board is willing to go to court to get the records and what the cost might be. “Is it worth the money?” he asked.
Hall said taxpayers have a right to know how the money was spent.
Chamberlain suggested commissioners take up RJI on their invitation for individual meetings and see what they are willing to provide.
Chamberlain said he is willing to meet with RJI any time and noted that he attempted to meet with members of the organization several week ago about the Miller Davis issue, but no one would meet with him.
Chamberlain went on to offer a bit of advice for agencies wanting county funding in the future: “It’s tough to vote yes when you get blasted,” he said, referring to a scathing attack from RJI members at the June 16 meeting.
Commissioner Jon Barber defended RJI, saying that if the goal is to determine the number of jobs the organization is creating, it won’t be easy.
Barber went further, saying the Board of Commissioners is responsible for creating jobs.