Secrecy was norm for early Grange talks, emails show

Published 4:41 pm Wednesday, July 26, 2023

When Isle of Wight County supervisors, in a public meeting last October, briefly discussed committing up to $1.4 million toward moving the Smithfield Farmers Market to the Grange at 10Main development prior to voting to approve the expense, it was a rare glimpse into the project’s potential costs and benefits.

Smithfield’s Town Council, which pledged an identical contribution late into the evening two weeks earlier, discussed the matter entirely in a closed meeting held for the stated purpose of “contract negotiations.” There was no discussion when council members returned to open session and voted to commit the money.

Emails spanning from 2020 to last month, obtained by The Smithfield Times through Freedom of Information Act requests, show town and county officials more often than not took a closed-door approach to their negotiations with Grange developer Joseph Luter IV and his father, former Smithfield Foods Chairman Joseph Luter III.

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Judy Winslow, director of the town’s and county’s shared tourism department, wrote to Luter on Aug. 3 following the first meeting of the county’s “farmers market task force” that the presence of “the press” in the room “may have stifled some of the conversation.”

Supervisors had formed the task force five months prior for the purpose of evaluating the Luters’ offer of $1 million and land for the farmers market at the nearly 57-acre Grange site at Route 10 and Main Street, contingent on the town and county jointly putting up at least $2.7 million.

On Aug. 16, 2022, the same date as a scheduled task force meeting, Luter IV asked Winslow in an email whether the meeting would be public. It would, she replied, as it was a formal task force organized by elected supervisors. The final agenda item for the task force’s Aug. 24, 2022, meeting listed “possible dissolution” of the task force to instead form a “working group.”

The working group, Winslow explained to Luter IV in her email, “would not be subject” to the state’s definition of a public meeting and associated open records requirements.

The original task force had included Supervisors Rudolph Jefferson and Dick Grice and Town Council members Renee Rountree and Wayne Hall. Also present at the Aug. 3 meeting were Isle of Wight Commissioner of the Revenue Gerald Gwaltney, Isle of Wight Economic Development Authority Chairman Carroll Keen, Isle of Wight Economic Development Director Chris Morello, County Administrator Randy Keaton, Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, Town Manager Michael Stallings, Winslow, County Attorney Bobby Jones and Town Attorney William Riddick.

Luter IV, when asked on July 24 what had prompted the “working group” agenda item, deferred to task force members.

Winslow, on July 25, told the Times the working group’s purpose was to “speed the process” of gathering information requested by the task force “so a potential public/private partnership decision could be made on a timely basis.”

According to Robertson, a working group was formed and did meet several times, but consisted of a subset of the task force’s members and eventually reported its findings back to the larger body, which was not dissolved. The working group consisted primarily of town and county staff, Robertson said.

Robertson said he didn’t recall whether any written report resulted from the working group’s discussions, but noted the group had presented its findings to the task force in October, coinciding with the Town Council’s and supervisors’ votes that month to each commit funding toward the Grange’s farmers market component. The working group’s recommendations to the task force were made in a public meeting, Winslow said.

In May, in response to a previous FOIA request by the Times, the county released a Jan. 9 email to Luter IV from a Virginia Beach-based firm that estimated the town and county could collectively owe more than $7 million as their share of what Luter IV had termed another “public-private partnership” to extend roads, sidewalks and utilities to the 304-home, mixed-use development. Luter IV told the Times in May he expects the taxpayer-funded portion, which he says would come from revenues generated by the development, won’t be anywhere near as high as the January estimate, but wouldn’t provide an updated estimate to the Times or a member of the town’s Planning Commission who asked for details of taxpayer involvement.

Luter IV told the Times in May that the $7 million estimate had been based on a much larger portion of the Grange’s infrastructure costs being funded by tax dollars, and was no longer accurate. He told the Planning Commission at its April 11 meeting that he would only be seeking reimbursement for “public” areas of the Grange.

Following the Times’ publication of the January estimate in a May 25 story, Luter IV, in an email thread with Jones and Robertson, took issue with the county’s having released the Jan. 9 document despite its being “clearly marked confidential.”

Robertson, in the same thread, took the position that while “one could argue” the Jan. 9 email should have been left out of the Times’ FOIA request on grounds that Luter IV was merely copied and not the primary sender or receiver, the FOIA training county employees undergo advises that local governments “err on the side of transparency.” The Times had phrased its May FOIA requests as “any emails between” Luter IV and any “ or domains” from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, 2021, and year to date for 2023.

Robertson then told Luter IV he reviewed the emails captured under the Times’ FOIA request prior to releasing them and “did not see any information” he believed the county “would need, or be allowed, to exclude under FOIA.”

Luter IV wrote to Robertson in the same thread, “I don’t know how any business can have confidential discussions with the county about relocation or development,” given Isle of Wight’s position on FOIA.

“The public, in my opinion, doesn’t need to know about those discussions until they have been fine tuned and submitted as a specific request.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 22, 2023 with additional information obtained through FOIA to correct that the farmers market task force met on Aug. 16, 2022, and Aug. 24, 2022. The proposal to dissolve the task force and instead form a working group was included in the Aug. 24 agenda.