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Monday, August 10, 2009

Knoxville, Tenn., mayor defends NS confidentiality agreement

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Knoxville, Tenn., mayor defends NS confidentiality agreement


It has caused him no end of political heat, but Jefferson County Mayor Alan Palmieri says that signing a confidentiality agreement with Norfolk Southern was the right thing to do, according to the Knoxville News-Sentinel. He doesn't regret it and says he would do it again. While some residents who have concerns about Norfolk Southern's plans for an intermodal facility fear that the agreement cloaks behind-doors dealings, Palmieri denies this is the case.

"There have been no secret meetings and nobody with the county has signed anything with Norfolk Southern," he said, referring to agreements other than the pledge of confidentiality.


Public officials routinely sign confidentiality agreements with companies that are looking at moving into an area but don't want to alert competitors or real estate speculators, Palmieri said.


Norfolk Southern has announced that it wants to build a transfer operation in New Market, Tenn., where truck trailers and containers are on- and off-loaded from rail cars for long-distance shipping. The corporation seeks to build the $60-million intermodal facility on 280 acres along Highway 11E between New Market Elementary School and Bruner Road. Two studies project that the NS facility would generate 1,801 jobs in Jefferson County by 2020 and 2,600 to 2,700 jobs by 2025.


The project has created conflict between those who see it as a threat to farmland and quality of life in Jefferson County and those, including Palmieri, who see it as a lifeline to pull the local economy out of the depths of 15 percent unemployment.


The Norfolk Southern confidentiality agreement was his introduction to the project in 2007, Palmieri said.


"Don Cason (Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO) came in one day and said here is something important that you need to sign," he said.


Palmieri signed it, as he said he has done for many other companies. He said the Chamber of Commerce circulated the confidentiality forms for the railroad and that as far as he knew, he and Jefferson County Commission members Phil Kindred and Murrel Jarnigan were the only elected officials asked to sign. He believes about 20 people in all, mostly from the business community, signed.


Palmieri and others have received requests to produce the documents signed, notably from the Jefferson County Tomorrow citizens' group, but Palmieri said he signed the three-page form letter and handed it back to Cason without making a copy. Cason said the Chamber of Commerce has no plans to make the signed confidentiality documents public. To do so could set a precedent that might scare off other companies looking to locate in Jefferson County, Cason said.


"The next time a business prospect comes to Jefferson County and wants to talk confidentially about a project, they are going to say, 'the last project that came through here, you handed out the confidentiality agreement. Are you going to do that with ours?' " Cason said.


Kindred said he agreed that the confidentiality pledge was necessary.


"If you lived in a perfect world where everybody played by the rules, you could just come into town and start talking to people about what you planned to do, but there are people who make a living in land speculation," Kindred said.


Susan Terpay, spokeswoman for Norfolk Southern in Norfolk, Va., said the railroad would not release the signed forms from Jefferson County, but said they are the standard form the railroad uses when it is assessing a new project location. Besides protecting the company from competitors and land speculators, it is also needed to protect proprietary information Norfolk that Southern might share. The forms are routinely signed by elected officials, she said.


"It is a standard legal document we use in a project where someone would be looking at confidential information," Terpay said.