Questions surround Square on Carter letters

Published 12:03 am Sunday, August 30, 2015

VIDALIA — The City of Vidalia has received 221 letters of support for the Square on Carter project, but all of those letters appear to be a form document that a source close to the matter says were distributed to city employees.

The letters, obtained through a public records request, are dated May 29 and are addressed to Mayor Hyram Copeland.

“Please allow this letter to serve as my support of the Square on Carter development,” the letter reads in part. “I have received an overview of the town’s plans … and I feel this would create multiple opportunities for me, as a resident of Vidalia.

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“I take pride in my town and am happy to live in a community that is growing, as opposed to one that is declining. The proposed Square on Carter development will offer job opportunities for me and my neighbors, as well as healthcare, recreation, shopping and dining to both residents and travelers.”

The letter ends with a note of thanks to Copeland and the city’s board of aldermen “for continuing to invest in our town to create a future for our young people.”

Many of the signatories of the letter appear to be city employees or their family members, though others include local residents and business people with no direct connection to City Hall.

A city employee, who asked not to be named in order to protect his or her job, said employees in his or her department met with a supervising employee, “in reference to the letter that the mayor wants the employees to sign.”

“If we don’t sign it, he wants a family member to turn it in,” the employee said.

The employee said no one with the city government put direct pressure on employees to sign the letter, but many felt uncomfortable with the request.

“(My co-workers) are for the betterment of the city, but they feel like they’re being pressured into doing stuff,” the employee said.

“It’s not the fact that what they’re trying to achieve, it’s a fact of how they’re going about doing it. If they’re giving us a letter that they drafted, but we as employees don’t feel like it’s right, even if we’re in favor of it, it makes us feel like it could jeopardize our jobs.

“Nobody feels like they’re pushing against the issue, but the way (the mayor is) going about it, is the wrong way and we shouldn’t be in the middle of it.”

The employee said the letters that were distributed apparently came from City Coordinator Larry Chauvin.

Chauvin said he was not the originator of the letters, but he could not recall who gave them to him.

“I am not sure who actually wrote the letter,” he said. “I did gather some of them, but most of the people I got to sign it were business people.

“We had a form letter because we thought it would be easier for people instead of them having to write it out themselves. I took it to local business people and explained to then what we would do, and some would sign it and others wouldn’t, and I would say, ‘That is your prerogative.’”

Copeland declined to speak on the record about the matter.

The city has also received 10 letters in opposition to the project, each of which appear to be distinct. Some of those who sent letters of opposition have been outspoken critics of the project thus far, while others are local residents who have not made public statements about the matter.

The Square on Carter project — which would include the purchase and development of the land in question for resale to developers — was first unveiled in March, though the Vidalia Board of Aldermen had given the go-ahead for a $7 million bond application for the project in February.

State Treasurer John Kennedy eventually shelved that application in late June after the state bond commission received legal advice from its attorney that the project might not meet constitutional muster. The city has applied for the bonds a second time, this time through an economic development district the aldermen created last year instead of directly through the city. The aldermen also serve as the governing board for the district.

Most recently, the project was on the August agenda for the bond commission as part of an executive session.

Bond commission representatives have declined to discuss why the project was discussed behind closed doors except to say it had to do with a records request that was “very serious.”

An attorney representing the landowners for part of the proposed site — Bryant Hammett and Brad Dutruch — has filed a request for the correspondence tied to the application.

The request followed a public call by former Secretary State Al Ater for an investigation of the project, which he alleged was part of a conspiracy to justify Vidalia purchasing the land at an enormous profit to the landowners, a charge those involved have denied.

Kennedy said during the bond commission meeting the request in question was not the Hammett and Dutruch request.

Hammett, Copeland and two others bought 33 acres across the highway from Walmart in 2006. Copeland and the two other partners sold out their portions in 2010, paving the way for Dutruch to join the partnership.

Copeland has previously provided paperwork showing he lost money on the deal.

The Square on Carter proposal was developed by outside consultants following a series of meetings last year. It is the centerpiece of a larger city master plan that includes revamped city codes and zoning that the board of aldermen adopted earlier this year.

City and economic officials have contended the site of the project is the only place left for serious development in a city that has experienced significant growth in recent years.