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Wells councilman questions removal from EDA board

By Staff | Mar 7, 2010

Mike Weber

January is the time when city councils decide which member is going to serve on the various committees.

Generally, the assignments are pretty routine.

Unless, you are Councilman Mike Weber of Wells.

“I don’t think the EDA board is working for you,” Mayor Shannon Savick told Weber at the council’s first meeting of the year.

The first-term councilman was taken off the board after serving one year. His replacement — Savick.

Not being re-appointed as the council’s representative to the EDA board may not have come as a complete surprise to Weber.

According to EDA meeting minutes, his removal from the board perhaps was just a matter of time.

At the May meeting, EDA Commissioner Jim Heckman made the following motion:

“In an effort to promote discussion conducive to Economic Development and maintain a favorable working relationship between staff and the EDA board. I move to have the city council review Mr. Weber’s appointment to this board and replace him with another council member.”

The motion passed with Weber abstaining and was sent to the council for consideration.

City officials rejected the request, not once, but on two occasions.

A review of EDA meeting proceedings show Weber’s falling out with fellow commissioners was over the Singleteary Food Solutions project.

Commissioner Kim Sorenson voted to oust Weber.

Sorenson wasn’t specific why the commissioners wanted Weber replaced. He says it wasn’t because the councilman had questions regarding the Singleteary project.

“The feeling of some of the commissioners was we could do better without him,” he says.

Heckman says the board wanted Weber replaced because “not everyone is suited for the position.”

“It takes a patient person. Negotiations and making a decision take time,” he says.

When the effort to remove Weber proved unsuccessful, two commissioners in December asked community development director Austin Bleess about terms of an EDA commissioner and meeting attendance policy.

Weber had questions about negotiations between Singleteary and two EDA board members, because they could involve a potential ‘conflict of interest.’

His concern may have been based on the following facts:

• In February 2009, former community development director Zoa Heckman is contacted by Singleteary about possibly locating in Wells;

• Jim Heckman, Zoa’s husband, is recommended by Sorenson to fill a vacancy on the EDA board and he is appointed in April 2009;

• Heckman is the president of Paragon Bank, which has on outstanding loan of around $600,000 from the failed Wells Co-Pack business venture. Among the locations Singleteary is considering is the Wells-Co-Pack facility, which the company ultimately chooses;

• Because Sorenson has an engineering background, he may be hired by Singleteary to provide consulting for planned remodeling or renovation at a facility they purchase.

Under state law, a conflict of interest exists if an official authorizes public funds which directly benefits them financially. If so, there must be a ‘written disclosure’ and it is made part of EDA meeting minutes.

There aren’t any disclosures on file.

While negotiations with Singleteary were going on, Heckman and Sorenson voted on several items concerning the project.

Last month, however, the two did abstain when the board approved a $150,000 EDA loan for Singleteary and giving the company $100,000 the Faribault County EDA turned over the city economic group committed to the project.

“The possibility that I will do a little engineering consulting for him (Singleteary) is why I abstained,” says Sorenson.

As of March 2, Sorenson says he has not been hired.

Weber says Heckman and Sorenson were reluctant to share any information regarding their negotiations with Singleteary.

“They gave us only bits and pieces of information. I didn’t feel right voting on a project I knew little about. That’s why I asked questions,” Weber says.

As for Heckman’s appointment, Sorenson points to his previous experience on the board and knowledge of how various funding programs work.

“We were told that Jim working at the bank was not a conflict. I didn’t see the $600,000 loan as an issue,” he says. “The council told us he didn’t have to abstain from voting. It just looks better that he did.”

Heckman says he sent a letter to the board acknowledging ‘mutual customers’ could come before the EDA.

“When you put on the EDA hat, you have to do what’s best for the whole community,” he says.

Heckman says he wasn’t involved in major negotiations and did not attend meetings when major funding was discussed.

“I could hardly vote on something that is perceived a benefit to the bank,” he adds.

Heckman admits proceeds from sale of the facility to Singleteary will go to pay off the outstanding loan.

“I don’t think it will take care of all of it. Everybody has to bite the bullet. You can’t have a building sitting empty. This is going to bring a lot of jobs,” he says.