Several McAlester city councilors criticized what they contend is a lack of information in invoices MPower Economic Development presents to the city — with the result that MPower Executive Director Shari Cooper told them perhaps they should look for a director who is more open than she.
The action took place during the regular Tuesday night meeting of the McAlester City Council, held in the council chambers at City Hall.
In the end, the council didn’t vote on an item placed on the agenda by Ward 2 Councilor John Titsworth, calling for discussion and possible action “to require additional itemization on billing statements submitted by MPower Economic Development and contractual requirements.”
Instead, Mayor Steve Harrison suggested the matter be taken up during pending contract negotiations with MPower Economic Development for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
MPower is an entity contracted by the city of McAlester to handle economic development efforts in the city “for business retention and expansion.” Nearly all of MPower’s funding is from the city of McAlester.
Titsworth opened the Tuesday night discussion by criticizing the monthly itemized statements the city of McAlester receives from MPower for its payments from the city.
“I’ve reviewed nine invoices,” Titsworth said. “I find five items to be identical.” Others are similar, he said.
“It is the duty of this council to only pay for those services rendered,” Titsworth said.
“The invoices we are going to vote on do not say what we’re voting for.”
“We’ve paid almost a million dollars in the past five years,” Titsworth said, referring not only to MPower, but also to the McAlester Economic Development Service, the previous name of the entity.
“I don’t think we have anything to show for it,” Titsworth said.
By comparison, he said, invoices to the McAlester Water Treatment Plant, for example, “tells what we’re paying for,” Titsworth said.
Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith said he hadn’t seen any of the MPower invoices before.
“It’s spelled out in the contract the kind of things we should have,” Smith said.
Ward 3 Councilor Ward Travis Read said he was awaiting information he had requested from MPower.
“That was approximately two weeks ago and I haven’t got anything,” Read said. “I’m very disappointed in MPower. I get the impression they don’t want to be funded.”
Titsworth returned to the discussion.
“We’ve spent a million dollars in five years,” he said. That would go a long way toward paying for construction of a ‘spec’ building at the city’s municipal park, he said.
Ward 4 Councilor Robert Karr offered his input.
“I believe they’re giving us the information on what they’re doing, more in the quarterly reports,” Karr said — a reference to the quarterly reports submitted to the city by MPower, in addition to the monthly invoices.
MPower Executive Director Shari Cooper was then asked if she wanted to address the council.
She began by telling Read he had been sent the requested information earlier that day.
“I’m looking at an e-mail sent to councilor Read at 9:30 this morning,” she said.
Read asked if that information had been sent to him at work.
“I’ve asked you not to send anything to my work,” he said.
MPower’s legal counsel, Eufaula attorney Teresa Pratt, joined Cooper at the podium and addressed Mayor Harrison.
“I was thinking, Mr. Mayor, you had a great deal of input in that contract,” she said. It was suggested that the annual contract negotiations would be the appropriate time to voice any concerns.
Pratt also said invoices from MPower are going to be different than those from the water plant. MPower does require some confidentiality, she said, referring to economic development efforts among businesses or industries considering a move to the city.
“It will be a problem if that information gets out too easily,” Pratt said. For example, property could go “sky high,” she said.
If the city council requires detailed monthly reports, “It will defeat MPower’s purpose,” Pratt said.
“I don’t think anybody’s asking for confidential information,” Smith said.
Smith read the phrase “business retention and expansion” included on one of the MPower documents and said “What the hell does that mean?”
As the exchange continued, Harrison asked if he could remind everyone that all comments should be directed to the chair — meaning himself as the one presiding over the meeting.
Cooper told the council that if she were to go on a vacation, MPower would still invoice the city, because the staff would be working.
Mayor Harrison told the other councilors he depends on MPower’s quarterly report to the council — not the monthly invoices — for information updates.
“I look at the quarterly reports on the basic delivery of information as to what is happening,” Harrison said.
Cooper then addressed the councilors that had been questioning her.
“We’re not here to be grilled every time we come before the council,” she said.
“If we pack up and leave ... you will still have these challenges ahead.”
“If anyone wants to compete with us and put a bid out there, we welcome it. We like competition” Cooper said.
Titsworth replied he also has an issue with MPower’s quarterly reports to the council.
“I don’t see much information in there either,” he said.
“I don’t know of any businesses or jobs that have been brought to town in the least several years,” Titsworth said.
“What have we spent a million dollars for?
“I’m just saying I don’t think we’re getting the services we’re paying for,” Titsworth said, adding that he’s been on the city council for nine months now.
“I’ve seen no evidence of anything,” said Tistsworth. “I think we’re bordering on state statutes of giving money away.”
“In response to Councilman Titsworth, go back and read the reports,” Cooper said.
“We have brought extra value to McAlester in marketing.
“We did create jobs,” Cooper said. “We can do our best to market McAlester.”
Cooper also said she has been working on the quarterly report to the council for the quarter that ended March 30.
Ward 5 Councilor Buddy Garvin spoke of his interest in economic development and, referring to the city council said, “We need to be informed.”
Karr said MPower’s office is open to the public and to the council.
“That’s another option,” he said.
“You’re only as informed as you want to be,” Cooper said. Referring to some of the questions by the council, she said “To ask them in a public setting is non-productive.”
“It should be in a public setting,” Titsworth said, adding that it’s the “taxpayers’ money.”
Read responded to a statement that some of the city councilors had been privy to information not presented to the others.
“Every councilman should be getting the same information,” Read said. “There shouldn’t be any more cherry-picking as to who gets information and who doesn’t.”
Ward 6 Councilor Sam Mason said “I think some people are missing the boat. I think MPower will share information in person that it will not share in an e-mail.”
Mason then looked toward Titsworth and “If you don’t think they’re meeting the requirements, why bring it up and keep talking about it?
“If somebody wants to void the contract with MPower, put it on the agenda.
“If we want to get rid of MPower, we can give them 30 days notice of termination and the deal is done,” Mason said.
Cooper, still standing at the podium, said “perhaps ya’ll should search for an economic development director who is more open than I am.”
Smith interjected that “Nobody’s asking for confidential information. I admit that I have not read the quarterly reports lately.”
When Harrison noted there had been lots of discussion, Titsworth said he had originally meant to vote against accepting MPower’s claims earlier on the consent agenda, but had misunderstood what the mayor had said.
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