Houston Press: The Legal ‘Pay for Play’ Secrecy of Economic Development Councils

This Focus On the Fort Bend EDC exposes how all Economic Development Councils are legally allowed to operate partly in the shadows, even while accepting money from taxpayer funded organizations like Katy ISD, Fort Bend County and Harris County.

FORT BEND COUNTY (The Houston Press) – At just after 7 a.m. on a mid-September day, a visitor made it no farther than just inside the glass doors of the development council. About 30 or so directors, mostly white, male, in their fifties, wearing dark suit coats and with the tops of their Men’s Wearhouse dress shirts open, wandered about inside a meeting room off the main office, sipping coffee from paper cups. On each high-backed leather chair, both around large tables and around the sides of the room, sat meeting agendas emblazoned with the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council’s logo.

“May I help you?” a woman asked in the tone of someone addressing a homeless person seeking a seat at Fleming’s. She summoned council CEO Jeff Wiley, a cool-headed, well-coiffed gentleman with a brunette shock of hair. “This is a private meeting,” Wiley advised, not unpleasantly. He is friendly but serious.

Why? Aren’t these people doing the work for the public? Some of the people in there are employed by the cities and the school districts and the county. “Yes, but they are business leaders,” Wiley said. Okay, but can’t we just hear what they’re talking about? After all, isn’t this to benefit the whole county? What is so secret? “There is nothing secret. It’s a private meeting,” Wiley said.

Millions of dollars are spent and generated by the Fort Bend economic development group, which draws up a legislative agenda and advises local municipalities and school districts on political stances and strategies. It is often the first group to greet prospective corporate leaders who may be looking to come to the county.

The development council mobilizes task forces devoted to pending projects that will affect nearly all local residents. It produces aerial maps of the region, and municipalities can then buy a sponsorship with their names attached for $5,000. In May, the city of Missouri City paid the development council $12,000 for a “branding and marketing program video.” And for the season that just wrapped up in mid-September, Missouri City paid $2,500 for a piece of skybox No. 16 for the minor-league Sugar Land Skeeters baseball team, according to invoices obtained for this story.

The county’s cities, special districts and schools pay between $20,000 and $250,000 a year to have a designated number of spots on the board of directors. The more you pay, the more you get of these powerful slots that help develop the roads, the type of growth and the tax breaks given to companies in Fort Bend County.

Businesses also pay for a spot at the table, with membership fees running between $1,500 and $6,000 a year. Those that pony up rub elbows with the dealmakers and purse-string holders from the government. “It’s very important for us to have a presence in Fort Bend County,” said Helen Bow, a representative of Wells Fargo, a longtime member of the council. “It’s like joining any other civic group, like the Rotary.”

Except that it isn’t. In some cases, a company coming to Fort Bend county is required to belong to the council if it wants to be privy to tax abatements the county hands out. And board members also provide input on bond measures, then see their own companies receive contracts to provide services on projects paid for by those bonds.

Several calls and emails to other companies belonging to the council were placed for this article. No one else responded.

For decades the Greater Fort Bend Economic Development Council has carved out public policy while its members enjoy the lucrative economic fruits of booming Fort Bend County. Most of the work has been done behind closed doors.

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