Editorial: Convention center hotel talks should not be done behind closed doors

The Dalton City Council is keeping taxpayers in the dark about a developer's proposal to build a hotel next to the Dalton Convention Center.

But taxpayers aren't the only ones who were kept in the dark — along with several members of the City Council, you can add the Dalton Convention Center Authority Board and the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners to that list.

During the Aug. 12 City Council work session, Mayor Dennis Mock told council members he has been speaking with a Ringgold developer interested in building a hotel on land near the convention center on Dug Gap Mountain. That news caught at least one council member off guard.

“Unless I have missed something, I think we have had only one meeting as mayor and council and I think we were given some proposed plans from the prior administration,” council member Denise Wood said. “I think this is too big of a project to have just the mayor knowing all the details.”

Looking to the other council members, she asked, “Do you guys know any details?”

She said the entire City Council needs to be more closely involved in future talks. There are others that need to be involved, too.

The convention center receives funding from both the city and Whitfield County governments. An independent authority oversees facility operations. Commissioners and council members appoint authority members. The land the convention center is located and the land immediately around it is deeded to the City of Dalton Building Authority.

This past Monday during a work session, the City Council met for about an hour in executive session, which is not open to the public or the media. The reason for the executive session was listed as "real estate," according to the work session agenda.

According to Georgia Code Section 50-14-2, discussions during executive session are limited to pending litigation, personnel and the purchase, disposal or leasing of government property. State law does not require that any meeting be closed.

Georgia law requires that discussions during executive sessions are strictly limited. For example, council members can discuss leasing the convention center property but they cannot discuss whether they believe a hotel next to the convention center is a good idea. Those talks must be done during open session.

During and after their regular meeting this past Monday night, City Council members weren't in a mood to talk much about the convention center hotel possibility. One local resident during the public comment part of the meeting asked council members why they met in executive session. No one answered him.

After the meeting, a Daily Citizen-News reporter asked the same question and got varying degrees of non-answers.

Council member Tyree Goodlett said "I feel like it was necessary in case sensitive information came up like the developer's name, to protect any negotiations."

Wood said the executive session was needed to protect privileged communication from the city attorney.

Council member Gary Crews said the topics council members discussed were "appropriate for executive session." When asked what topics, he responded: "Some real estate issues," and declined to elaborate.

Any time elected officials are that hesitant to answer questions — and give vague answers — the public should be concerned.

The next step is putting together a committee including members of the City Council, county commissioners and members of the convention center board. We believe these meetings should take place in open session. Elected officials, and those appointed to the convention center board, shouldn't hide behind executive sessions.

The public's right to know trumps any concerns about the developer's name getting out or divulging privileged communication with lawyers.

How much could this deal cost taxpayers? Is the developer requesting any tax breaks or other incentives? Do our elected officials think a hotel next to the convention center is a good idea?

After the Aug. 12 work session, Mock said of the hotel proposal: “I don’t want to name names yet. This is like so many other prospective good things to come to Dalton. Some of them don’t come to fruition. We will announce that once something is signed. It is not something we want to keep behind closed doors. It is good news if it happens and it is a good effort if it doesn’t. We’re still in the very early stages.”

So far, talks have been kept behind closed doors. Open the doors.

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