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Officials mull options for tax negotiations
Glynn County and Brunswick officials agreed Monday to hold closed-door meetings to determine how they will share Local Option Sales Tax revenue over the next decade.

Two days later, commission chairman Richard Strickland apologized for agreeing to the closed meetings, saying it's not the way county government should be conducted. County officials contacted the city with the new decision to meet in open Wednesday, but the city said it wanted to end negotiations and move to the mediation phase.

It's unclear, however, if future meetings with a mediator will be open to the public. State law allows private LOST mediations, but they don't have to be held behind closed doors.

Strickland said he wants the public to have access to the meetings during mediation, but he will defer to the recommendation of the mediator. Lawyers representing the city and county are currently trying to agree on the mediator to will help broker an agreement.

"I don't have any problem with it being open," Strickland said. "The problem is the city and county have to find a mediator."

Commissioner Mary Hunt said she understands the advantage of closed meetings and the need for the public to understand how governments conduct business.

"I do not mind it being open at all," she said. "It doesn't bother me. I feel like we're going to be as fair as possible."

Negotiations have been virtually non-existent since discussions began May 7. City and county officials have spent most of their time justifying the numbers from the opening proposals.

The city currently receives 35 percent of the revenue, leaving the county with 65 percent. The city is asking for 37 percent, with the county getting 63 percent. The county's offer is 81 percent for itself and 19 percent for the city.

Considering the tax is projected to generate $18.3 million each year, even a small change in the ratio could result in the loss or gain of hundreds of thousands in revenue for each.

County attorney Aaron Mumford said the city and county will have a say in whether future meetings are open or closed, but mediation is typically conducted behind closed doors.

"Mediations are one step away from litigation," he said.

Mayor Bryan Thompson, who suggested the closed meetings earlier this week, said he believes more progress will be made if mediation is held in private.

"It's not going to be effective any other way than behind closed doors," he said.

Thompson said every case of mediation he is familiar with calls for the two groups involved in negotiations to be separated. The mediator will meet privately with one side, make a presentation to the other side and return with a counter proposal.

The process will continue until an agreement is reached or until the 60-day time limit to complete arbitration expires.

But Thompson said he won't disagree if the arbitrator recommends open meetings.

"We'll follow the guidelines, whatever he wants to do," he said. "I would be very surprised if it was recommended the meetings be open to the public."

If mediation fails after 60 days, the dispute will be resolved through "baseball arbitration," where a Superior Court judge from outside the judicial circuit will review the final offers from both sides and approve one with no modification.

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