When the idea of a casino coming to Enid, Oklahoma, was first brought to the full Enid City Commission, I can safely say that neither the mayor nor the commissioners were particularly excited about the idea.
The developers of this project had apparently been quietly working on it for many months, and had already purchased several tracts of property in Enid before any of the commissioners were approached about their plans.
But just like bars and alcohol availability in our community can lead to alcoholism and drunk driving, unhealthy fast food restaurants on every corner are contributing to heart disease and diabetes, cigarettes and tobacco products at every corner gas station are contributing to pulmonary disease and death from lung cancer, a casino with its risk of a gambling addiction and poverty choosing to locate in Enid, is something city government itself cannot prohibit. The developers have made it very clear that they intend to establish a casino in our community, with or without cooperation from the city.
Given that fact, the question to ponder then is this: Doesn’t it make complete sense for, if not become an outright obligation of, your elected commissioners to listen to, discuss and be aware of any proposal at hand? In my opinion, that is precisely what Commissioner Aaron Brownlee and Commissioner Rodney Timm did. They were contacted by the developer, signed nondisclosure agreements at the request of the developer and worked in good faith on behalf of the city of Enid.
This past week, when the developer was ready to expand the discussion to include the entire commission, he presented himself, with the expectation of confidentiality, to the executive session of the City Council meeting. The statements made by Commissioner Brownlee and Commissioner Timm to the Enid News & Eagle were technically accurate. They honored the non-disclosure agreement under which they were bound. There is in fact no written, verbal or implied commitment by the city of Enid to the casino developer, nor is there such from the developer to the city of Enid as of this writing. In the normal course of business, many ideas and proposals are discussed, and many of them get eliminated and do not end up included in the formal written proposals. The statements made by the commissioners in response to an inquiry by the ENE staff were not intentional misrepresentations or lies, but were indeed factual.
Confidentiality in business negotiation, whether formalized by a nondisclosure agreement or simply implied by custom, a high, ethical standard or a moral commitment, are at the very cornerstone of business relationships at all levels. Without this confidentiality and commitment, business proposals, negotiation and open, honest brainstorming cannot occur. Executive sessions, as outlined in state law, are properly used for situations when preliminary information must be kept confidential until a final agreement is reached, or the parties conclude the negotiations and separate.
For example, a developer coming to the City Council to discuss a potential mall proposal would not identify potential tenants, lease arrangements or rental rates, construction costs and offsets, funding arrangements and financial considerations, or revenue and sales tax projections if they thought those confidential business facts would be published in the newspaper or in social media on the following day. This could potentially give competitors or other parties direct access to confidential and or proprietary information.
Legally, Commissioner Ben Ezzell was within his personal rights to disclose the confidential information which was discussed in executive session, but by unilaterally deciding to do so, he has set a heretofore unheard-of precedent, and has, in my opinion, damaged this city's reputation and its future ability to evaluate and negotiate deals with the business community. His personal beliefs, his personal convictions and his individual ideology, in my opinion, do not give him the right to violate the expectation of complete confidentiality of lawful executive sessions.
I have spoken with several business leaders in our community, several developers who had planned to meet with us in executive session, as well as retail industry consultants, and they all emphasized that without the expectation of confidentiality in an executive session, it will be impossible to move forward with economic development in our community.
The public may rest assured that all issues which are discussed in executive session eventually come to the public light, because they inevitably and appropriately require an open public vote. For example, before any incentives, TIF district creation, funding initiatives, land swaps, sales tax rebates, etc. can become binding, a majority vote in a public open council session must be taken. It is at that point in our democratic process that the individual beliefs and convictions of elected officials can be expressed, and when and where their personal and representative opinions can exert their influence. This recent blatant violation of the sanctity of the executive session by a single commissioner, and the resultant loss of credibility with the business community, is unfortunate.
Commissioner Ezzell stated, as recorded in the recent newspaper article: “I am opposed to any casino being built in or around Enid” ...” The content of an executive session is generally not discussed by individual commission members, but there is no prohibition on doing so. In this instance, I believe that it is in the best interest of the City of Enid to disclose the details of this proposal before it progresses any further.”
The city of Enid did not disclose details. Commissioner Ezzell, solely and individually, took it upon himself to disclose the confidential details of this preliminary casino discussion thereby damaging the long-standing reputation of the city of Enid with the business community and throwing the other commissioners "under the bus." Why? One can only conclude it was to grandstand and promote what can only be described as his own personal agenda, an action which I find improper and in which I am deeply disappointed.
Shame on you, Commissioner Ezzell.
Vanhooser is commissioner of Ward 6 in Enid. A shorter version of this guest column will appear in print.