Decatur County commissioners acknowledge legal error in Bainbridge primate facility vote

Published 10:55 am Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Residents of Decatur County, as well as some from the surrounding area, packed the Decatur County Commissioner’s office on Tuesday evening, all hoping to express their opinions on the proposed Safer Human Medicine primate breeding facility. Following the invocation and the pledge, Chairman Pete Stephens made a statement about the project. He argued that the IDA was responsible for vetting all projects, and that non-disclosure agreements are necessary for projects such as this. He stated that he had to sign a NDA in November regarding this project.

Stephens would go on to read a statement few expected: “Because we are committed, this body, to all laws and all procedures, we asked our attorney to check on December 11, 2023, to take a closer look at it, be sure everything was proper,” he said. “We have come to understand, and to realize, that a joint meeting the commissioners participated on December 11, 2023, to consider a project agreement and pilot agreement, both related to Safer Human Medicine, were not properly noticed or posted as a meeting of the Board of Commissioners.” Stephens went on to state that the commissioners had been asked to attend a meeting, and that they had assumed the parties that invited them would have properly handled the notice. Stephens stated that, because the commissioners did not properly notify the public of this meeting, the actions taken by the commissioners at that meeting were not legal or binding. That does not preclude the agreements from being brought back before the commissioners, but Stephens stated that “at this time, neither the proposed pilot agreement, nor the proposed project agreement are approved by your Board of Commissioners.”

Following this statement, members of the public came forward to address the commissioners. Amy Meyer, PETA’s Manager of Primate Experimentation Campaigns, spoke first. She thanked the commissioners for their decision, and encouraged the commissioners to continue to push against the validity of the project.

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“I understand the importance for the city and the county to be investing in good, high-quality, high-paying jobs for your community,” she said. “But I fear that Safer Human Medicine has misled the city and county, and that this monkey farm would be dangerous, cruel, and more irrelevant than they may have led you to believe.”

Meyer went on to contend that primate facilities like this are struggling to fill positions due to the nature of the work. She also stated that the payment figures, which touted pay of $60,000 a year, were misleading, with the animal tech positions only making less than $38,000, according to the city records acquired by PETA.

After Meyers spoke, Gordon Rogers, the Executive Director of the Flint River Keepers, spoke. He thanked the commissioners for their decision, and presented the commissioners with a handout of various questions from the River Keepers. He spoke on several issues with the facility, including sewage treatment with a focus on viruses.

“Killing viruses is a whole lot harder than taking nitrogen or phosphorous out of the wastewater stream, it’s a whole lot more expensive,” he said, “and that’s related to whether there would be pre-treatment coming out of that plant, versus the treatment occurring at the Decatur County Plant.” He also raised concerns over the storm water runoff from the plant, stating that normal stormwater management techniques were not appropriate. He went on to ask about the potential problems should a major storm hit.

“I also encourage y’all to do what you’ve already exhibited here, which is to continue with the good government, transparent approach,” Rogers concluded. “Some of what was done earlier had the appearance of some excellent ‘hide-the-ball’ and some excellent ‘hurry-up’ offense, and while I admire that in my football teams, I don’t admire that in government.”

Several members of the community came forward to speak for over an hour and a half at the meeting. Mrs. Linda Miller, whose property is just down the road from the facility, spoke. “My concerns are all of the jobs and the money that all the agencies have been saying this will bring to our community is all in the perfect world,” she said, “if we fill those 263 jobs, if the average employee makes $65 an hour, which I know we all know that’s not gonna happen. I don’t see how they’re gonna fill 263 jobs when nobody in town can fill jobs.” She also asked if the county and city should be responsible for her depreciation in property value. “I’ll bet you’re glad you don’t live where I live, or any of these people. Some of them, it’s worse, it’s in their back yard.”

Dr. Gordon Miller took to the podium to speak. “I consider it my duty as a citizen and physician to describe my studies for your consideration,” he said. He brought up the executives at SHM’s prior history at Charles River Laboratories, which are currently under investigation for involvement in smuggling primates from Cambodia. He listed the various diseases that imported monkeys could introduce to the community, including malaria, yellow fever and zika, as well as the various diseases monkey feces could introduce to the river.

Some residents expressed anger and indignation at Development Authority Executive Director Rick McCaskill’s defense of the facility. Jan Jones took issue with McCaskill’s comparison of the facility to local farming and his statements regarding “misinformation”. “First, let’s clear up some of that misinformation,” she said. While she agreed with McCaskill’s statement that there were more chickens than people, she stated that, according to the latest census for agriculture in Decatur County, there were fewer cattle than people in the county. “Along with the clear misinformation in Mr. McCaskill’s statement, I’m insulted by his implication that beef, dairy and poultry farmers are on the same level as Safer Human Medicine and their breeding of animals.” She concluded, “Don’t jeopardize my industry trying to justify theirs.”

Butch Yarborough was more blunt in his disapproval. “I’m proud Mr. Kirbo found y’all an out,” he said, chiding the commissioners for doing “something stupid like this.” “Rick McCaskill needs to be fired, y’all know that,” he said, to cheers from the crowd. “Anybody that did not do the background on this project should be fired.”

After the public participation had concluded, the commissioners heard an audit report from Ben Lee, who stated that the commissioners had built back the county’s net position by $8.6 million, bringing it’s net position up to roughly $91 million. Though he did clarify that $54 million of that position was in assets. He commended the commissioners for their job building up the county’s work in building up that position.

After this, the commissioners considered a memorandum of understanding from BS Solar, LLC. According to County Administrator Alan Thomas, the company plans to build a 130 megawatt solar facility, in the total amount of $130 million. The facility would, based on its wattage output, fall under an agreement for a 10-year, 50% abatement. Commissioner Rusty Davis excused himself from voting on the matter due to a conflict of interest.

During the commissioner’s closing remarks, the commissioners thanked the community for their input on the facility. Stephens added, “If we had all the answers, we wouldn’t have voted like we voted. If we knew then what we know now, it’d have been a different thing completely.”

Click the link below to watch the entire Decatur County Commissioners meeting
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq_tEjhNGPI