Written by Patty Decker Tuesday, 25 May 2010 19:28
The future of the Marion County Economic Development Council is in limbo following news that the chair, one of its members and possibly others were stepping down after Wednesday’s meeting in Marion.
Teresa Huffman, the county’s economic development director, said at the meeting that she will continue in that capacity, but will no longer be involved with the council as its chair or liaison between the council and commissioners.
In addition, Cheri Bentz, representing Tampa, said she is leaving because she thinks the group has lost its direction and deteriorated to the point of bickering about who is right and who is wrong as it relates to the council’s mission.
The resignations, along with pending action by the commissioners to intervene and settle a perceived deadlock in council discussions, came as a surprise to some members, who believed the group was at a turning point in its evolution.
Larry Paine, representing Hillsboro, and who is chair of the MCEDC bylaws committee, was one of the members not expecting the resignations and the recent visit by some council members at last week’s commission meeting.
“If there are issues of grudges (and) back-biting, we need to call that out,” he said. “If someone (in the group) has a problem, let’s blurt it out and deal with it.”
One of the hot button issues eliciting reactions on both sides of the discussion dealt with the bylaw change appointing an executive committee that would include a chairperson, with the MCEDC director working directly with that person and committee.
The director (Huffman) would also be acting as liaison between the council and commissioners, when necessary.
The problem with this bylaw change is that some members believe a county employee should not also serve as the chair of the board.
Paine said placing Huffman as chair was flawed from the beginning.
“It was a mistake to take and make an employee (of the county) the chair,” he said. “That, to me, is a fundamental problem.”
Commissioner Dan Holub agreed with Paine.
“We put Teresa in a no-win position,” he said. “She was blamed for everything above and below.”
Paine compared his role as Hillsboro’s city administrator with the city council/mayor form of government as similar to Huffman’s situation being director/chairperson of MCEDC.
Once all the elements are in place (bylaws, leadership questions), the core question remains, Paine said.
“How do we, as a group of citizens of this county, work to get economic development done?” Paine said.
“Once that issue is passed, in my opinion, than we can refocus the attention on who is doing what, how it is getting done and holding everyone accountable.”
Another side of issue
Trayce Warner, one of the Florence representatives, who also appeared at last week’s commission meeting requesting they intervene, said she didn’t see a problem with the director serving as MCEDC chair.
“For me,” she said, “asking Teresa not to be chair made no sense. (She) knows what is going on.”
Regarding the bylaw change to appoint a chairperson, Huffman said she has never understood the reasoning.
“Maybe (it’s) not for me to understand,” she said.
Paine said he recalled a comment by Anita Goertzen, MCEDC secretary and representative of Goessel, about the perceived feeling of being small city versus larger city.
“We (in Hillsboro) are still a very small city,” Paine said, “and we are in this thing together. We need to be on the same page with Goessel, Burns, Lincolnville (and other communities). Even with our friends in Marion, we knock heads now and then, and that’s OK.”
As for the proposed bylaw changes, Paine said the committee wasn’t planning to present them and have everybody vote on them.
“This is our work as a corporate group, and in order for that to work, we have to talk about it together,” he said. “Running to the commissioners (before talking about the changes) removes the credibility that we have as an organization.”
Sarah Dawson, one of the newer MCEDC members from Florence who also appeared at last week’s commission meeting, said she thinks credibility has already been lost.
Dawson also questioned whether she wants to be a member of such a group.
Warner said that in listening to others, there is dissatisfaction from the smaller communities.
“It seems like the larger communities have the biggest issue with Teresa,” she said. “We are now just starting to get small communities involved (in MCEDC), and now here we are losing them again.”
As for the issue of a chairperson, Goertzen said that when the time comes to vote for that position, Marion and Hillsboro will have the most votes.
“Smaller communities really don’t have a say in who that chair is going to be—you (referring to Paine) have all the votes.
“Teresa is a really good friend,” Goertzen said, “and I think I will be next to go.”
Goertzen said she believes the council representatives from larger towns won’t let Huffman get anything done.
Dawson said that if the group has concerns about Huffman then maybe they need to re-evaluate whether she should stay or go.
“I am employed by the county,” Huffman said. “This group has nothing to do with my job. I will still be the economic development director for Marion County.”
MCEDC, Huffman said, has been an organization with representatives since 1988.
When she came, she said, she became a non-voting chairperson appointed by the commissioners.
“This is separate from my job,” she said. “I gather minutes, schedule speakers, et cetera.”
Nothing is cut in stone
Jo Olsen, representative from Lincolnville who is also on the bylaws committee, said the changes are simply suggestions to work as a cohesive group.
Olsen said it didn’t occur to her or the committee that the smaller towns would be outvoted by the larger communities.
“This is a great thing to be on the table and re-address it,” she said. “That is how things are supposed to be changed.”
Huffman said she needed to leave.
“We met with the mayors two different times (regarding bylaws),” she said. “(They were asked) do you want to change things?”
According to Huffman, the mayors unanimously said, “No, leave it alone, but it didn’t stop and every meeting is a battle.”
Commissioner speaks out
After listening to members discussing the issues, Commissioner Dan Holub said, “I have been coming (to MCEDC meetings). The proposed bylaws didn’t come from Teresa—that came from the mayors.
“I have copies of hateful e-mails that she is trying to take over and I am ready to wash my hands of (MCEDC),” he said.
“The county is planning to step in,” Holub said. “We have tried very hard not to ram anything down anybody’s throat, but we keep getting beat up and beat up and beat up and things are going to change.”
Holub said he will back tourism and a countywide chamber when the commissioners met Monday (May 24).