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Critics wonder if transparency will really be Megasite’s ‘hallmark’

  • 4 min to read
Lee Ford

Gov. Bill Lee at Ford Motor Co./Megasite announcement

Tennessee emerged as the winner in a nationwide scramble to attract more than $5.6 billion in investment from Ford Motor Co. and SK Innovation, a South Korean battery maker, to manufacture electric vehicles and batteries on a tract of land 40 miles northeast of downtown Memphis.

Now, the weight of the project falls in part on the shoulders of former Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Clay Bright, picked by Gov. Bill Lee to serve as the first CEO of the new Megasite Authority of West Tennessee. Established during a special session last month, the Megasite Authority will oversee the construction of the site and act as a sort of “mini TVA” providing the site with all of its utilities and overseeing operations.

Bright has already begun making weekly trips from Nashville to the rural, 3,600-acre tract in Haywood County where the assembly plants will be built. His first order of business as CEO is familiar — road construction. During the special session, the legislature appropriated more than $200 million for road construction of state routes, connector roads and an extra interchange on Interstate 40 in Fayette, Haywood and Tipton counties.

“Before there can be a Blue Oval City or a Ford or an SK Innovation manufacturing facility, there has to be infrastructure in place,” Bright told the Post. “In order for trucks, workers and heavy machinery and materials to be transported to build these facilities, we have to make it efficient and accessible. That’s step one.”

Second on his list — utilities. Currently, there is no water infrastructure, wastewater treatment facility or electrical provisions at the site. The Megasite Authority will be sole provider of utilities for Ford and SK Innovation and eventually, the peripheral development in the area.

He adds that utility decisions and development will not be made or discussed until the entire Megasite board of directors has been appointed.

Megasite Authority criticism

Though he is not known as a political operator, and he came to public service after a long career in the construction business, Bright’s new role has put him in a political crossfire. Several Tennessee lawmakers and policy experts have sounded off on the legislation establishing the authority for, they say, giving the governing body broad powers with few true checks and balances.

“I know of no other entity like the proposed new Megasite Authority in Tennessee with this power,” Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said.

Bright told the Post that transparency would be the “hallmark” of the Megasite Authority, but critics argue the language in the legislation doesn’t guarantee transparency.

“This legislation was constructed with the opposite of transparency,” said Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D-Nashville). “Bill Lee essentially created a fiefdom with this authority.”

Outlined in the bill, the Megasite Authority has exclusive power to adopt, amend and repeal bylaws, execute contracts, retain third party contracts, exercise eminent domain and establish and operate a public water system, among other controls.

“Any attorney would object to this language,” Clemmons said. “For heaven's sake, it gives the authority the power to exercise eminent domain without any checks and balances.”

House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) defended the legislation. He said the site, nicknamed Blue Oval City, was modeled after a city and the authority should have the same powers as any municipality.

“What does Rep. Clemmons think our 11-member board of directors is?” Sexton said. “It’s a direct check on the Megasite Authority.”

Rep. Sam Whitson (R-Franklin) reiterated Sexton’s rationale and told the Post there were sufficient checks and balances in place. Clemmons argued that if the authority were truly modeled after a city, officials such as the CEO and its board of directors would be elected not appointed — just as citizens elect their city council members and mayor. He also called the board of directors “incestual.”

Per the legislation, the board of directors includes the governor, three of his cabinet members and seven appointed members — two of whom are appointed by the governor, two by the speaker of the House, two by the speaker of the Senate and one jointly appointed by the Senate and House speakers.

So far, only two board members have been appointed to the board of directors. Two weeks ago, Lee appointed longtime Tipton County Mayor Jeff Huffman and Charlie Tuggle, who serves as vice president and general counsel for Memphis-based First Horizon Bank, to the board of directors.

Clemmons said he was pleased that Tipton and Tuggle were appointed, but he pointed out that there is no guarantee that there will be local representation on the board in the future because there isn’t a provision in the legislation requiring that any of the appointed members live in or be an elected official in Tipton or Haywood counties. According to Sexton, the legislation does not explicitly stipulate that there should be geographical representation on the board because this is a state project, not a local project.

Ron Shultis, the director of policy for the Beacon Center of Tennessee — a nonprofit, libertarian-adjacent think tank — echoed some of Clemmons’ concerns. He specifically referred to the clause in the legislation that would give the Megasite CEO and attorney general the power to keep documents that would typically be considered public records confidential for a period of five years if they deem it sensitive information. 

“It’s like a five-year lock out,” Schultis said.

“And when the five years run out, do all the records and memos still exist?” Fisher asked. “And do we even know why it was kept secret?”

She added that any communication with the AG, as the authority’s legal counsel, would likely be privileged. Sexton asserted that the records policy is standard procedure for this type of development, as it was modeled after other protocols at the Department of Economic and Community Development.

But there is an important distinction between the authority and the ECD. The ECD is not a governing body while the authority is, and some critics argue that Tennessee’s laws governing public records indicate that the Megasite CEO and attorney general should not have the power to keep documents confidential.

“We have seen this in Tennessee already with the Google deal in Clarksville, where Google said the value of the government property conveyed to them ... was ‘proprietary’ and prevented its release,” Fisher said. “The public couldn’t know the value of the government land given away.”

Bright acknowledged the concerns raised, but reminded critics that he did not devise the legislation or the structure of the authority.  He also said that Ford praised the state for keeping the initial announcement so hush-hush, as confidentiality is key when negotiating economic development deals according to the kinds of people who make those deals.

“The other states competing for the bid did not know they had lost until the day Ford publicly announced they had chosen Tennessee,” Bright said.