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Tax meetings go into private
Public meetings to discuss how Brunswick and Glynn County will share Local Option Sales Tax revenue have ended.

Both sides agreed to start the 60-day mediation phase after county officials backed out of an agreement made Monday that some believed would end the impasse in negotiations that began May 7.

Brunswick Mayor Bryan Thompson suggested holding closed meetings after it became clear the city and county were defending their initial proposals on how to share the tax over the next 10 years instead of negotiating. He said fewer participants meeting outside the public spotlight could have led to an agreement without violating the state's open meetings law.

The tax is estimated to generate $18.3 million each year. Currently, Brunswick gets 35 percent of the tax revenue and Glynn County gets 65 percent. The city is asking for 37 percent, leaving the county with 63 percent. The county is asking for 81 percent, leaving the city with 19 percent.

County Commission Chairman Richard Strickland said he and other commissioners changed their minds about participating in closed meetings after discussing their concerns Tuesday.

"We felt like it was not in the public's best interest to have closed meetings," he said. "It was a poor decision we should have never made."

Strickland said he initially agreed to the closed meetings as a way to show Brunswick officials he was willing to compromise.

"I take responsibility for the decision," he said. "It's not the way Glynn County wants to conduct government."

Strickland said he contacted city officials and offered to meet Monday without consultants that have dominated discussions at four previous meetings. City officials refused, saying too many people are involved in the negotiations to make any progress.

Thompson said there would have been less pressure on a smaller group to negotiate in a closed meeting.

"When you are in a public meeting, you're not going to say a whole lot," he said. "With a smaller group, there is less pressure to see if we could make any headway."

Both sides agreed to move to the next phase in negotiations and enter into non-binding mediation, which are not subject to Georgia's open meetings law. Negotiations will resume as soon as lawyers representing the city and county agree on the mediator to oversee negotiations.

"We are very confident with our numbers. The county feels confident with their numbers," Thompson said. "We're separated by a huge expanse."

The agreement to move to mediation instead of continuing face-to-face public negotiations will enable both sides to be more candid with each other because those meetings will be closed to the public.

Thompson cited a state law that allows meetings involving mediation to be closed, even though a quorum of elected officials will be present to discuss government business.

Any decision or agreement must be ratified in a public meeting, according to state law.

If both sides fail to reach an agreement within 60 days after non-binding mediation starts, the issue will be resolved through "baseball arbitration", where a Superior Court judge from outside the Brunswick Judicial Circuit will review proposals presented by the city and county and choose one with no modification.

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