City Attorney Mike Aguirre showed up at a meeting of the Southeastern Economic Development Corp.’s Executive Committee last night to present a plan to the agency for the City Attorney’s Office to temporarily take over SEDC’s legal duties.
The committee eventually voted 2-2 not to endorse Aguirre’s plan, in which he offered the agency at least two deputy city attorneys to help the agency with legal issues for the next 90 days or so. That proposal will now be discussed by the full SEDC board.
But, before that vote, Aguirre and SEDC Corporate Counsel Regina Petty engaged in a heated war of words over, among other things, the provisions of the state’s open meetings law known as the Brown Act and Petty’s history as a legal representative of the troubled agency, which has been rocked by a scandal over hidden bonuses paid to employees.
Petty has represented SEDC for several years and has been a fixture at agency board meetings. Aguirre took aim at her representation of the agency and her professional relationship with ousted SEDC President Carolyn Y. Smith.
“I want to look Carolyn in the face and I want to say ‘Regina, it’s time for both of you to go,’ in my opinion,” Aguirre said. “I’ve listened to several of the meetings, I’ve listened to the legal advice and I have to say the legal advice is skewed in favor of the existing management.”
Aguirre had been criticizing Petty and SEDC staff from the start of the meeting. As the meeting began, Aguirre attempted to hand out a document to the committee members that explained that they could relieve Petty of her duties immediately, if they so wished.
The document was promptly whisked out of the meeting room by an SEDC staff member.
“I have communication, a legal communication, that’s been intercepted by Carolyn (Smith), and I’m asking that it be passed out to the board,” Aguirre said.
The SEDC staff member, Executive Assistant Kimberly King, said that she merely wanted Smith to have a chance to read the document before it was handed out.
“It hasn’t been intercepted, it’s just been given to her, which is our normal protocol,” King said.
“Get the copies and pass them out to the board,” Aguirre demanded. “This is a public meeting. I can pass anything I want out to the board.”
Copies were made and the document was passed out.
Petty appeared shaken by the attacks by Aguirre and at one point looked as if she was close to tears. She informed the board that she would not be willing to continue to represent SEDC if the agency allowed her credibility to be attacked in meetings by other lawyers and by Aguirre.
Then she took her own shot at the city attorney, who is currently engaged in a bruising reelection campaign.
“I am highly insulted that Mr. Aguirre would come in here and attempt to use this board, this meeting, as a political circus. He knows full well that there is no attorney in this country whose integrity and competence is better than mine,” she said.
Aguirre isn’t the only one who has criticized Petty, however.
The lead auditor for a report released last week — which found SEDC’s pay practices to be fraudulent and the agency’s performance to be poor — said some board members her team interviewed felt that Petty “would convey info they didn’t believe was quite accurate.” However, the auditor said they couldn’t verify the claims and it wasn’t in their contract to look into the issue further.
In a letter to Mayor Jerry Sanders in the wake of the bonus scandal, SEDC board member Darryl Williams also mentioned Petty when speaking about a “culture” of manipulation and intimidation at the agency. He wrote:
Using corporate counsel and Special Agency Counsel, the President of SEDC controlled questions and the flow of information so that board members could not obtain sufficient answers to assist in making good judgments.
Petty’s future at the agency, and Aguirre’s proposal, will now be discussed at the full board meeting on Sept. 24.
In the same meeting, the committee said that it would also be asking the full board to consider a request by Mayor Jerry Sanders that Smith step down as SEDC president immediately, and that the board revisit Smith’s termination agreement.
The termination agreement gave Smith a $100,350 severance and allowed her to stay at SEDC until October.