Commission discusses records request involving Square on Carter in private

Published 12:05 am Friday, August 21, 2015

BATON ROUGE — The controversy surrounding Vidalia’s Square on Carter development took another unusual, secretive twist Thursday.

The Louisiana State Bond Commission sought legal counsel behind closed doors regarding a records request previously dubbed “serious” involving Vidalia’s Square on Carter development project.

The Square on Carter project seeks to borrow $7 million to acquire and provide infrastructure for a city center on the western edge of Vidalia.

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Concern over the project sparked Concordia Parish resident and former Louisiana Secretary of State Al Ater to call for a state and federal investigation of the matter earlier this month, alleging a conspiracy aimed to provide a profit to land owners who are former business partners of Vidalia Mayor Hyram Copeland.

Copeland denies the allegation.

At Thursday’s bond commission hearing, neither the agency, the person making the request nor the information requested was disclosed.

State Treasurer John Kennedy, who chairs the bond commission, said the request was “not a public records request.”

“I would like to do this in executive session, and I can’t explain why without negating the need for executive session,” Kennedy said.

The only opposition to the executive session discussion came from attorney Mary Olive Pierson who represents two of the current landowners, Bryant Hammett and Brad Dutruch. The pair owns approximately half of the 65 acres the City of Vidalia seeks to purchase.

Pierson said a paralegal in her office had made public records requests to the bond commission seeking copies of emails and other documents regarding Kennedy’s public release of an unofficial memo from the Attorney General’s office regarding the constitutionality of Vidalia’s proposal.

“We’re not just discussing your request,” Kennedy said to Pierson.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry here.”

Kennedy said the request in question was not a routine public records request.

“We get all kind of requests every day. I’ve had many requests about this topic, and we will comply with all of them.”

“Frankly, I wouldn’t have called an executive session or asked for one today, just to deal with your request. We get those every day, but we have had another request that is not a public document request.

“I can’t do it in a public meeting. I don’t like executive sessions, but on this one, I don’t see any other way to avoid it.”

At the conclusion of the executive session a spokesperson for Kennedy’s office said by telephone that Kennedy had no comment on the executive session discussion or the records request.

The City of Vidalia, through an economic development district it formed last year, is seeking to borrow up to $7 million to fund the purchase and improvement of approximately 65 acres of land across from Walmart on U.S. 84.

The current request is the second attempt to obtain bond commission approval.

The first attempt, made directly by the City of Vidalia, stumbled after Kennedy shelved the application in late June.

He did so after commission members questioned the constitutionality of the project that would purchase land in hopes of reselling it to private developers, a proposal some commission members said was speculation with public funds.

Copeland, Hammett, Mark Taunton and Vidalia Riverfront Director H.L. Irvin were partners in BCHT, a partnership that owned approximately half of the land in question. Five years ago, Copeland, Taunton and Irvin left the partnership and were replaced by Dutruch.