Talks between Macon-Bibb County officials and a company that wants to sell drones to the local government have been going on since last fall, although the public just learned of the proposal earlier this month.
Despite extensive communications between Mayor Robert Reichert and Olaeris CEO Ted Lindsley that date back to October 2014, several city-county commissioners said Wednesday they weren’t aware of the $5.7 million project until a closed-door meeting in March.
“We never knew anything about it” until then, said Commissioner Elaine Lucas, who has not yet made up her mind whether she supports the county buying a fleet of drones from Olaeris. “There’s a lot that goes on in the Government Center that we’re not privy to.”
Macon television station WMAZ reported on its website Wednesday that emails obtained through the Open Records Act show that Reichert and Lindsley discussed ways to keep the project secret from the public.
Efforts to reach Lindsley for comment Tuesday evening were unsuccessful.
Reichert, reached by The Telegraph at a public safety training session in Maryland, said a group that included himself, commissioners and the county attorney video-conferenced with Lindsley at the closed March meeting about Olaeris’ proposal to manufacture and deploy drones in the county.
Reichert said that prior to that meeting, the mayor asked Lindsley if he was OK with going public about the project. When Lindsley replied he was not, Reichert said he didn’t know of any exception to the law that would allow the meeting to be closed, so he asked the county attorney’s office for guidance.
Senior Assistant County Attorney Crystal Jones told The Telegraph that under an exception in state law “if a company has trade secrets” or if there is a security threat to the county that the meeting could be closed.
In an affidavit that Lindsley signed March 18, he said the meeting would include details about his company’s trade secrets and that there could be information that would make Macon-Bibb County vulnerable to “terroristic attacks, sabotage, criminal or terroristic acts.”
Some commissioners said Wednesday they didn’t know why the meeting had to be closed.
Several said they were not aware of trade secrets or safety concerns, but Reichert said there were details from Olaeris that qualified as trade secrets.
“There was nothing nefarious or sinister about this,” the mayor said. “It is economic development, which has been linked to this project in my mind very early in the process.”
But Lucas said she never heard anything to warrant closing the meeting.
“There were no trade secrets because nothing technical was discussed,” she said. “We talked about how it functions, but it wasn’t from a technical standpoint.”
Reichert said there were some technical details in the March meeting, such as the drones’ navigation system as well as details about licensing, weight and other capabilities.
“I was certainly not trying to keep anything from the public for no other reason than this is economic development and at the request for confidentiality from (Olaeris),” the mayor said.
Commissioner Virgil Watkins said he was not aware of any threats or trade secrets in the March meeting either, but he acknowledged there might have been information Olaeris needed to keep from its competitors.
“I would never fault a private company for asking for that,” he said. “It comes to the attorneys and everybody to make sure that’s justifiable. I guess they thought it was due diligence.”
Reichert said his talks with Olaeris began last fall after Don Druitt, director of the Macon-Bibb County Emergency Management Agency, told him that Lindsley wanted to talk about a potential drone deal.
Reichert said he later met with a handful of others at then-Middle Georgia State College to discuss how drones could tie into the school’s aviation program.
Reichert also said he attempted to find out how commissioners felt about the project before it was sent to a committee. The commission’s Public Safety Committee last week approved the project’s concept and sent the measure on to the full commission for consideration.
Tuesday night, commissioners tabled the drone resolution that would have allowed Reichert to begin working out details of a contract.
That resolution, if it had passed, would not have obligated the county to pay any money, but instead would have been a “good faith” agreement that the project would move forward barring any unforeseen problems, Reichert said Wednesday.
Macon-Bibb County is not the only government being courted by Olaeris.
At a Greensboro, North Carolina, City Council work session, officials there decided to wait for more details from Olaeris after hearing a presentation similar to the one Lindsley gave in Macon the week before.
Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Mallory Jones said one of the issues remaining is that there isn’t yet enough information about the drone project for residents and county officials to feel comfortable.
“I think with the public, they don’t understand as much as we do, and we don’t understand as much as we should,” he said.
To contact writer Stanley Dunlap, call 744-4623.