BRUNSWICK — The Brunswick Economic Development Corp. addressed concerns about the private nature of the its meetings – as well as ways to open its discussions to some public participation – in a Town Council workshop on Dec. 18.
Steve Weems, BEDC vice president, presented reference documents at the start of the two-hour meeting that included a statement of need for economic growth, the corporation’s conflict of interest policy, economic development priorities and other pieces of information.
“I think it’s well known that promoting and fostering economic development is a premier responsibility of the council,” Weems said. “Our role … is really to support the council’s priorities in economic development and to be of assistance in implementing that.”
Neither the corporation’s meetings nor minutes are open to the public. The corporation’s membership includes two councilors – David Webb and Chairwoman Joanne King – and Town Manager Don Gerrish. The BEDC makes recommendations to the Town Council, which in turn ultimately makes decisions. The corporation’s board of directors makes an annual report to the Town Council about its activities, long- and short-term objectives and financial condition.
The nonprofit corporation’s private members – many of them business leaders – are unpaid volunteers, while the public members – the councilors and manager – are paid by the town.
Noting there have been questions about the BEDC’s “transparency,” Weems said, “the day-to-day shoe leather work of working with businesses and trying to create economic development is by definition a confidential activity in order to bring the business activity to the forefront.”
“There has been obviously some difference of opinions about how transparent we are and how private we remain,” BEDC President Mike Ouellet said. “We feel the structure of the BEDC is essentially … that we stay private in order to have and foster these (development) explorations.”
Ouellet added that “we also are looking forward to improving our ability to be more transparent when it comes to the subject of where does economic development take us in the town of Brunswick.” He said the corporation’s members want to understand the expectations of the council and the public for economic development.
Councilor Newell Augur asked if there are various levels of privacy needed by the corporation. While he understood a business not wanting its competitors to know details of its plans, he asked if an overture to a company is necessarily something that must be private.
Weems pointed out that a business must feel it is in control of when and how its plans go public. Mathew Eddy, the town’s director of economic development, added that a few years ago L.L. Bean was looking into building a call center and contacted Brunswick as well as other Maine communities. Bean said it would not come to Brunswick if the town had any public discussion about the project, Eddy explained.
“Ultimately they made a different decision,” he said, “but they were very clear that that was not to be a public discussion until they decided it would be.”
While there are many good reasons for maintaining confidentiality, Fessenden said, confidentiality is different than secrecy, noting the two councilors who serve on the corporation.
Councilor Margo Knight suggested that a portion of corporation meetings on occasion be open so that citizens could offer creative ideas. Ouelett said the corporation would discuss her proposal.
Corporation members also spoke to the need for economic growth in the wake of Brunswick Naval Air Station’s 2011 closure.
“We can talk about 2011 as if we’re going to open the gates and move in, but it isn’t going to happen that way,” Fessenden said, expressing concern about what preparation occurs in the meantime and pointing out that the Navy is already gradually moving out ahead of the shutdown.
“We’re in competition with everybody else,” Gerrish said. “We have some great assets here that can make things work in Brunswick, but we’ve really all got to be on the same page.”