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Pending legislation to protect trade secrets of Mountain Harvest Kitchen users

Sue Guinn Legg • Mar 17, 2018 at 12:45 AM

UNICOI — At the request of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch, state lawmakers Rusty Crowe and John Holtsclaw Jr. are pursuing legislation to keep the trade secrets and proprietary information of companies doing business with the town’s new Mountain Harvest Kitchen out of public view.

Deborah Fisher, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said an amendment to the bill coming up before a state Senate committee on Tuesday will give entrepreneurs at the food business incubator in Unicoi and other government-controlled incubators across the state the same Public Information Act exemptions afforded to other businesses.

From the open government standpoint, Fisher said, the important thing is that the amended bill will keep public the financial records of Mountain Harvest and other incubators operating on local tax dollars, including the names and addresses of the companies they do business with.

“That’s all we were asking for really,” Lynch said. “We just want some protection for (Mountain Harvest) clients. If their recipes and marketing plans and things like that are not protected, they won’t use the kitchen. This is so the lack of protection won’t keep the away from the kitchen.”

Crowe said he he recognized the exemptions included in the bill as it was originally drafted were too broad and sought the coalition assistance with the language of the amendment.

The result, according to Crowe, will be exemptions to the Public Records Act similar to those granted to small business incubators operated by East Tennessee State University and University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “No more, no less. And that’s all we can protect,” he said.

“All we can protect is what (Mountain Harvest) customers have in proprietary” information And because the kitchen is paid for with public tax dollars, exempting its financial information from the Public Information Act is not feasible.

“We can’t do that,” Crowe said.

Financial reports and documentation of clients using the kitchen have a been a topic of heated discussion at several meetings of the Unicoi Board of Mayor and Aldermen and will be back up for discussion at the board’s meeting on Monday.

Alderman Roger Cooper began requesting the documents in December, saying he had heard the client numbers at the kitchen were very low during its first four months of operation and suggesting its user fees may need to be adjusted to encourage the community to use the kitchen.

A press release issued later that month reported that since its September opening, the kitchen had had more than 500 visitors; more than 100 people had attended its classes, 15 entrepreneurs had worked with the kitchen development of food businesses; and one new business had been launched.

In January, the board approved a resident scholarship that will allow up to 10 non-commercial town residents to use the kitchen for canning and other food processing at no cost through the application of contributions to the nonprofit kitchen that will cover the kitchen’s mandatory $80 orientation fee and $25 hourly use rate for those users.

A financial statement presented to the board in January showed the town spent approximately $57,000 on salaries and utilities at the kitchen during the final quarter of 2017 and generated $600 in kitchen user fees.

Lynch has repeatedly said the kitchen’s purpose is to spur new business development and not to earn a profit.

Alderwoman Kathy Bullen has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with access to the kitchen’s financial records and the names of its users.

This week Bullen expressed concern that the Public Information Act bill was not discussed by the board before it was filed and that, as originally drafted, the bill would block board members’ access to information needed to carry out their elected duties.

Bullen said the bill must be amended to provide names, contact information and dollar amounts paid by people using the kitchen.

On Cooper’s request, a discussion of the state’s open records law has been placed on the agenda for Monday’s board meeting along with a resolution supporting of the pending legislation placed on the agenda by Lynch.

Email Sue Guinn Legg at slegg@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow her on Twitter @sueleggjcpress. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/sueleggjcpress.

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