Ford will resign from Etowah County Mega Sports Complex Authority, little else resolved

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When the bill was passed creating and funding the Etowah County Mega Sports Authority, former State Rep. Craig Ford as sponsor of the creating legislation was made a member.
When the bill was passed creating and funding the Etowah County Mega Sports Authority, former State Rep. Craig Ford as sponsor of the creating legislation was made a member.

Only one thing was resolved Wednesday at a called meeting Wednesday of the Etowah County Mega Sports Complex Authority, as a Nov. 1 court deadline remains to settle issues so construction of a soccer complex in Rainbow City can continue.

It was noteworthy, however: Former State Rep. Craig Ford agreed to step down from the authority created through legislation he spearheaded.

When the bill was passed to create and fund the authority, Ford as sponsor of the creating legislation was made a member.

"This was my passion since way back in 2002," he said.

Rep. Gil Isbell, R-Gadsden, holds the seat Ford occupied at the time the legislation was passed. He asked to speak at the meeting Wednesday. He said the project was larger than any one individual, and bigger than any city. He said it is a county-wide project that will be part of economic development for the county.

"The project must be completed, and it needs to be completed now," he said. " An unfinished complex will affect Rainbow City in an extremely negative way for two to four years." He said issues around the bond issue must be resolved, and there would have to be an agreement between the authority and Etowah County Tourism.

Isbell said the current sports authority has been forthcoming with their responses to all questions and concerns, financial inquiries and disclosure of information regarding the approval of the bond issue.

He offered a plan that called for:

  • A mutually agreed/negotiated Memorandum of Agreement between the ECMSCA and the Tourism Board regarding the distribution of lodging tax over the $491,000 cap;

  • Restructuring of the ECMSCA Board;

  • Upon passage of the ECMSCA Restructure Bill, Ford will submit his resignation and relinquish all responsibilities related to ECMSCA.

"I love this sports authority. I'm happy to resign and relinquish responsibilities at the proper time," Ford said.

Authority Chairman Ralph Burke said Ford and Isbell will work out details of when that resignation will come.

Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre, and his attorney, Christie Knowles, attended the meeting, and raised some of the questions Jones says led to his motion to intervene, seeking a delay validation of a bond issue for the complex: mismanagement of funds and taking actions without involvement of the full authority.

However, Burke insists Jones is attempting the oldest trick in the Alabama political history books: "Create your own crisis so you can form a solution and build your poll numbers."

It's a page from former Gov. George Wallace's playbook, Burke said. "Pure and simple, it's the politics of fear," he said in a provided statement.

Burke said Jones is trying to turn delays in construction and the authority's plans to refinance as "make it into an act of malfeasance."

Jones raised questions about contractors who haven't been paid, and builders' insurance that hasn't been paid. He's accused the authority of spending money it doesn't have. He and his appointee to the authority say the executive committee has made decisions and kept information about the board's finances from the full authority.

Burke and some other authority members maintain that without Jones' intervention, a bond issue — refinancing exiting debt and borrowing new money — would be complete and payments could be made.

Bond counsel Jodie Smith of Maynard Cooper & Gale said without the motion to intervene, he believed the authority would have gotten a ruling, the bond issue would be done and the project "would be back under way with construction."

"It truly caused an unnecessary delay in the project because the senator is moving quickly in the upcoming special legislative session to change the sports authority to a board he can control," Burke said. "That was evident when he appointed his father-in-law, Jeff Overstreet — let me repeat, he appointed his 'father-in law' to both the tourism board and the sports authority.

"If that is not evidence of desire to control, I do not know what is," he said.

Burke said Milam and Company stands ready to start construction again. He said turf work, sod and paving remain to be done.

The authority was set for a bond validation hearing in Etowah County Circuit Court Sept. 16 when Jones filed a motion to intervene, seeking to delay the validation for 60 days. The bond listed revenue the authority received above a cap on lodging tax for tourism as collateral on the bond, filings stated; Jones said including it would interfere in his plan for legislation to remove the cap. The tourism board joined in, supporting his motion.

Jones also questioned the structure of the board — saying he plans legislation to change it — and the constitutionality of the legislation that created it.

Presiding Circuit Judge William Ogletree instructed the concerned parties to negotiate a resolution. That began a process — that included the authority, the tourism board, Jones, Rep. Gil Isbell, R-Gadsden, and Rainbow City Mayor Joe Taylor — to determine a path forward.

Knowles indicated a proposed restructuring plan had been given to the authority but no action has been taken on it.

Taylor said Rainbow City — which purchased the sports complex property from the authority and leased it back to it for a nominal fee — wants to see the project completed, and to see the bond issue go through. He offered to speed the city's remaining payments on the property if possible, if that would help the authority get the project moving again.

The members of the authority present — Burke, Ford, Roger Boatner, Hugh Miller, Randy Vice and Trina Willett — met in executive session Smith for about a half hour.

Knowles questioned the legality of the meeting and the vote for an executive session. The authority had been a 12-member board. Recently some members have resigned, including Jay Hedgspeth, Chris Russell, John B. Moore and Heather New. Keith Blackwell also indicated he intends to step down, but Burke said he's received no official resignation notice from him.

Knowles said the resignation of members did not mean fewer people are required for a quorum, which is required to conduct business, such as voting to go into executive session. Members are liable if they vote improperly to go into executive sessions under the Open Meetings Law, she said.

However, Burke maintained the authority has 10 members, and that those present made up a quorum.

Robert's Rules of Order indicate a quorum is a majority of members of a board or committee unless bylaws, rules of a parent organization or the motion establishing the committee differs. Membership is comprised only of people who "maintain their status as members in a prescribed manner."

Smith called attention to a Code of Alabama section 10A-20-16.01 regarding liability for volunteer board members of nonprofits. He said there had been some talk that seemed designed to scare authority members into thinking they could be sued, while state law protects them.

The meeting was heated at times, with Jones questioning whether the full authority know of actions taken by the executive committee, or voted on change orders for the project.

Burke and Ford cited minutes from previous meetings when Jones' appointee to the board, Overstreet, was present, or was present at subsequent meetings when the minutes recording those actions would have been approved.

Contact Gadsden Times reporter Donna Thornton at 256-393-3284 or donna.thornton@gadsdentimes.com.

This article originally appeared on The Gadsden Times: Ford says he will resign; Etowah sports complex issues remain

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