City staff signed non-disclosure agreements on property sale

McCLEARY — Facing the potential arrival of the city’s largest employer in decades, McCleary Mayor Gary Dent requested and received the signature of every city employee and each McCleary City Council member on a specially crafted non-disclosure form, recently released records from the city show.

Mayor Dent said the idea for the non-disclosure form came from him and wasn’t done at the insistence of the company.

“This was completely my idea,” Dent said last week. “Nobody was pressured into signing anything.”

The non-disclosure agreement was signed in October. By the end of December, the company going by Halo Steel, although in records is called USA Investment Group, purchased seven parcels making up 350.7 acres for a combined $2.695 million. On Jan. 15, the company issued a press release announcing that the company would invest $200 million into a new steel pipe manufacturing facility with the possibility of creating hundreds of new jobs.

On Oct. 23, Dent issued a memo to his staff and council members, noting that he wanted to ensure information about the potential property sale didn’t become public too soon.

“During our discussions with the potential developer, one thing which has become relatively clear to me is that the company does not want to become too public at this stage,” Dent wrote. “So, the next few months will be crucial in the decision making process. I have no doubt all of us want the project to move forward to success and do not want to do anything which might in anyway imperil its progress.”

Dent’s memo notes the city will be getting “confidential information.”

“In terms of you on the council, I want to keep you as well informed as possible,” Dent wrote. “For the council members, upon receipt and my review, it is my intention to disclose certain confidential and proprietary information to you. You who are staff members will be getting the information in your role as public employees responsible for various aspects of the information gathering and provision.

“Balancing those intentions, our duties under the public records law and the goal of the developer to not go too public too soon will be a challenge,” Dent added. “To help meet that challenge, what I need to achieve is your agreement about how we will handle the information, which will be provided to each of you.”

Dent asks each council member and city employee to commit “if acceptable to you as an individual” to sign the non-disclosure agreement. Dent says he asked City Attorney Dan Glenn to craft the document.

The agreement specifically pertains to the Port Blakely property, which was purchased by USA Investment Group.

“For purposes of the requested individual commitment, confidential information would include all data, materials specifications, financial information, and other information received by or provided to you individually, whether orally or in writing, by the Mayor in relation to the project being considered for development on the property currently owned by Port Blakely,” the disclosure states.

The signers agreed “to hold confidential information I receive in confidence and shall discuss it only with other officials or department heads of the city who have a specific need to know” and “to not disclose, publish or otherwise reveal any of the confidential information received from the city to any person not within the group mentioned in the prior subparagraph except with the specific written authorization of the city.”

The non-disclosure agreements were released to The Vidette a few days ago, although it took about a month after an initial Public Records Act request seeking records pertaining to the USA Investment Group and only after pointedly asking if the non-disclosure agreements existed.

City Attorney Dan Glenn said that city officials were trying to speedily reply to the original records request and simply missed a few documents.

“I am confident that there was not and is not any intention upon the the City’s staff to withhold documents,” Glenn wrote in an email.

Glenn said the non-disclosure agreement is pretty typical, and not very unique among local governments.

Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney says he’s never heard of a mayor asking not just his city employees, but his council members to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Hoquiam is in the midst of a contentious debate over allowing three companies to export oil out of the Port of Grays Harbor and Durney has also been involved in helping place numerous large employers to his community over the years.

“I was mayor in Aberdeen and mayor in Hoquiam and that’s the first I’ve heard of anything like that,” Durney said. “I’m surprised his council agreed to do it. Would the threat have been that the mayor would shut out information if they ddidn’t sign it? There are specific executive session laws already, you know, which govern what is protected and what’s not.”