County officials question meeting

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Joanie Morris

Kannapolis Citizen

Several Cabarrus officials are questioning the need for meetings held with Dole Food owner David Murdock last week at his Pity’s Sake Lodge.

Murdock met individually with several Cabarrus County commissioners, but not all commissioners were invited and at least one accused Murdock of trying to get around the state’s Open Meetings Law.

At least two commissioners who attended the meetings also told Cabarrus County Manager John Day that Murdock would like to see Kannapolis and the county more than double the amount of bonds they are issuing to support construction of the N.C. Research Campus.

Kannapolis officials have approved issuing $76 million in bonds. Murdock reportedly told at least two Cabarrus commissioners that he favors $160 million in bonds.

Lynne Scott Safrit, president of Castle & Cooke’s Charlotte region, could not be reached for comment.

Day sent an e-mail to commissioners last Tuesday letting them know Castle & Cooke officials wanted to meet with them and discuss the N.C. Research Campus.

Day said he then discovered that not all of the commissioners had been invited to the meetings with Murdock, which took place Wednesday and Thursday.

Commissioners Joni Juba and Grace Mynatt met with Murdock Wednesday. Chairman Bob Carruth met with Murdock Thursday.

Day originally wanted to meet with Murdock Wednesday, with Juba and Mynatt, but when he found out commissioners Jay White and Coy Privette had not been invited, he decided not to go.

“After it became apparent not all commissioners were invited, I became uncomfortable with it,” Day said Friday afternoon. “I decided not to attend and offered to arrange a meeting between Castle & Cooke and the board as a whole.”

Day said he understood from talking to the three commissioners who met with Murdock, they didn’t discuss “a lot of substance or detail” about the Research Campus. It was mainly fact-finding, with Murdock explaining the project in more detail and adding that $76 million in tax increment financing bonds may just be the tip of the iceberg.

Carruth and Juba told Day that Murdock would like to see the bond amount increased to about $160 million — to help pay for infrastructure updates and expansions throughout Kannapolis.

“They want to borrow as much as they can,” Day explained.

Privette said he got Day’s e-mail about the meetings with the California billionaire.

“I e-mailed John back and told him I felt like Mr. Murdock should meet with all the commissioners and it ought to be a public meeting,” Privette said Friday.

“This is a way to skirt the public meeting laws of North Carolina. We should not be discussing public business in private.”

Privette and Day shared the e-mails with a Citizen reporter. In the e-mails, Day stated:

“… Commissioner (Jay) White informed me that he had not been contacted by Castle & Cooke, as had commissioners Carruth, Juba and Mynatt. I called him, and we discussed the manner in which Castle & Cooke has apparently chosen to conduct business with county officials and our discomfort with it.”

He explained the reasoning for each commissioner’s invitation to Pity Sakes and continued, “… I was becoming uncomfortable and contacted the chairman about notifying all board members about the situation. …

“I really don’t think conducting meetings with select members of the board is an appropriate manner in which to do business. My preference and suggestion is to cancel the two meetings scheduled with Murdock and invite him and anyone else with Castle & Cooke to meet with the Board of Commissioners as a whole.”

Privette agreed with Day and said Friday that he would only meet with Murdock to talk about the campus in public.

“It’s my feeling that public policy matters ought to be discussed in public,” Privette said. “The only meeting I will be in is when all five commissioners are present — and the press.”

Commissioner White said he learned about Murdock’s meetings when he got Day’s e-mail.

“I was not invited,” White said. When asked about the discussion to increase the amount of bonds for the N.C. Research Campus, White said that should be part of the public discussion.

“I think it ought to be open,” White said.

At some point, he’s sure to meet Murdock, he said, but any discussion “will probably be general conversation” unless it takes place in an open meeting.

He added that he didn’t think this was a secretly planned meeting with intentions of garnering votes or anything like that.

“The information will be public and was going to be public,” White said of the intent by Castle & Cooke to pursue a larger sum of money. “That will always come to light.”

The amount of the bond hinges on approval from the Centralina Council of Governments, but Kannapolis officials have said the bond amount currently under discussion — $76 million to be paid back by incremental tax value collections in a special tax district within the city — will go to pay for infrastructure improvements, such as underground power lines, improved parks and greenways and even a parking deck.

The county and Kannapolis might increase the amount of the bond with a letter of credit from Murdock, Day said Friday, but even that has risks.

“One of the issues with the letter of credit is it can … have all kinds of limitations on it,” Day said.

He suggested possibly getting a cash security from Murdock instead. The money would be put in a trust fund for the duration of the bond repayment obligations — 20 years, most likely — and then distributed to whomever Murdock decided.

So far, Murdock and Castle & Cooke have not offered anything definite to secure the bond, Day said, but they are thinking of ways to enable the city to borrow the most money possible.

Contact Joanie Morris at 704-932-3336 or