By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
On Tuesday, February 2, four members of the Gadsden City Council voted to indefinitely table a resolution that denied granting economic incentives for Pilgrim’s Pride industrial development. The resolution, drafted and introduced by Councilman Jason Wilson, concerned the proposed rendering plant and opposed the project’s proximity to the municipal airport, as well as municipal tax abatements for the project.
While the council voted for unanimous consent to immediately consider the resolution under new business, a secondary motion and vote for indefinite continuance of the item halted the conversation. Council President Dr. Cynthia Toles and members Ben Reed, Kent Back and Deverick Williams voted to table the resolution, while Wilson and Councilman Thomas Worthy voted against the motion. Councilman Johnny Cannon was not present due to illness.
Were it passed, the resolution would grant the Gadsden City Council the authority to review and approve abatement of taxes relating to industrial development projects within Gadsden under Alabama Code §40-9B-1. The resolution reaffirmed that existing legal procedures and standards should be followed objectively to consider the cost and benefit of potential industrial development within the city and reiterated the council’s confidence in the current economic development professionals.
While the resolution acknowledged the value of the poultry industry within the community and recognized the opportunity that resides with development projects like the proposed Pilgrim’s Pride rendering facility, it also noted the potential for the plant to negatively impact the community. The resolution stated issues frequently discussed among residents throughout the area, highlighting concerns such as public infrastructure, air and water quality, property values and the future recruitment of industry.
In closing statements, Back emphasized that he is listening to his constituents in District 4 and his goal remains to adhere to their wishes. He continues to research the rendering facility before reaching a conclusion. He stated that the action taken during the meeting to table the resolution was not an ending, but rather a glimpse into how industrial development works: a process that some may be unfamiliar with, but due to the revelation of information, are now witnessing unfold publicly.
“We have to be careful,” said Back. “What we do now is going to set precedence for the future. So, while you might have an opinion on the process now for this particular project, in five, 10 or 20 years when there are different people sitting up here, that precedence is going to be in place. That can come back to bite you. We have to be careful how that precedence affects us – we don’t want to make a regretful decision on that.”
Back said that when an outside council, agency or commission passes a resolution, that is within its rights, but for the Gadsden City Council to approve the introduced resolution, a different meaning arises. According to Back, approval of the resolution would mislead the public into thinking the matter was resolved.
“It’s a non-binding resolution,” said Back. “It has no legal authority and no legal precedence on whether or not something can or cannot come. If we approve the resolution and we walk out of here thinking we won, this battle is over, that’s not true and that’s not accurate, because we could easily come back in a week or two and approve a tax abatement because the resolution is not legally binding.
“I’m just being truthful. I believe in transparency, and I believe in being truthful and I’m just telling you the truth. [The resolution] is not a binding document from the City of Gadsden. It’s just an opinion paper, basically.”
Back discussed that workforce development is an issue that Etowah County needs to combat together, working with all cities within the county. He described a vision for attracting industry that he hopes to share with the public soon, stating that attracting industry begins with a workforce first.
“Please don’t leave here thinking that this is over, thinking that this is done, because it’s not done,” said Back. “There’s still many steps that have to be completed before we’ll ever receive a proposal. We have not received a proposal from anybody about a rendering plant. The city council has not received anything. It’s something we’re working on. The right people who are employed to do that are in that process; that’s how it works. If we were to say what this resolution says today, it’s not a binding piece of paper – it doesn’t accomplish what you want to accomplish.”
Wilson addressed the term “non-binding” in reference to the resolution, reflecting on the previous passed non-binding Resolution to Stay Action regarding the Emma Samson Monument downtown, which prohibited the municipal government from relocating or removing the monument. Wilson rejected the notion that he as a city council member must remain uninvolved and uniformed about industrial development recruitment projects until all permits and are passed and designs are completed.
Wilson described the resolution as a tool that would implement the council’s input on a major economic deal in Gadsden, and the only avenue he could voyage to deliver a public message on the matter, considering the nondisclosure agreements and confidentiality involved. He contemplated the purpose of the council if its members cannot be briefed into any of the meetings and cannot pass a non-binding resolution that addresses the possibility that the city might be traveling down the wrong path.
“We just have to sit aside and do nothing until somebody maybe or maybe doesn’t bring us an economic incentive package,” said Wilson. “I believe that is an incredibly limited definition of what a councilperson is supposed to do here. That’s the reason I introduced this resolution, because it was the only opportunity I had as a councilman to deliver a message publicly that said, ‘I think this project is going in the wrong direction.’ Now I believe, after this, that there are essentially three or four individuals driving this entire project. I believe their ultimate goal is to pass it, and that’s my personal opinion based on this.
“If everybody in this room knows that 99 percent of the people in their community don’t want to have this thing, and we’re delaying the vote on it, it’s either intellectually dishonest or it’s just not very effective leadership by this council.”
Wilson acknowledged the need for rendering facilities in the community and encouraged citizens to consider Gadsden’s history. He said that Gadsden became a major metropolitan area because of its logistics capabilities, highlighting the value of the river and the railroad. The result, Wilson said, was that plants were built downtown in the city center near the riverfront and residents moved to the countryside, rather than plants establishing in the country where industrial facilities are normally built. He noted that these factors, combined with the area’s small land mass community, create a different impact regarding the potential rendering facility’s effects on the city.
“It’s a different ball game here,” said Wilson. “What I thought was happening was an actual, genuine exchange where we were going to have a decorum and nuanced conversation about the pros and cons of this, but it’s increasingly apparent to me that this is 100 percent politics. I don’t know what my value is here if I can’t have a voice in a conversation like this. I reject the idea that I just have to sit here, and I can’t know about anything until some project is presented to me and I vote on it. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.”
Reed reiterated the process for translating business from the state to the Industrial Development Authority to the county and city. He felt that the argumentative nature surrounding the Pilgrim’s Pride plant may affect future recruitment and shared his warning to the council to not participate where “money and land” are involved. He referenced the 2006 corruption charges of two Gadsden City Council members, the Commercial Development Authority Director and a city consultant who were found guilty and imprisoned regarding bribery, conspiracy and wire fraud concerning the Lafferty’s Landing development.
Reed read a letter he received from the Gadsden-Etowah County Industrial Development Authority which indicated that the IDA had not been afforded the opportunity to follow through the process honestly due to working documents that were stolen from the office and shared with the public.
“I’m going to protect this council and say don’t get involved,” said Reed. “I’ll vote my conscience and the way it ought to be for the City of Gadsden.”
Prior to the vote, Toles discussed a letter from the Alabama Air National Guard, which stated that the guard does not oppose the plant, nor will it take a public position on the matter. If any person, civilian or active, made a statement regarding the plant, it was done without permission.
Toles concluded the meeting with a summary of her view on the situation.
“We don’t have anything from Pilgrim’s to vote on,” said Toles. “To me, this is about money, it’s about control and it’s about power. It’s about not being truthful.”