City land deal should have been handled in better way

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 4, 2006

To the Editor:

The events of last week make Mayor Perkins and those of us on the City Council look like fools.

For months, the mayor, with the backing of the Crenshaw 5, has been adamant that the city buy approximately 120 acres of land for $1 million behind the old Wal-Mart on Highland Avenue. To me, that is spending money we don’t have for land we don’t need for a purpose we know not.

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Nevertheless, because the majority of the council would buy the Brooklyn Bridge if the mayor said he wanted it, the council voted on June 12 to have (1) an appraisal, (2) a survey, (3) an historical review, and (4) an environmental study done on the property.

The mayor repeatedly assured the council that these items would be made available to the council and that no final action would be taken until the council approved it.

Months passed and no information on the four items was ever presented to the council. At the council meeting on Monday, Sept. 25, I asked the mayor if he had a planned use for the property. He replied that he did not have a plan, but he had a “vision.”

Visions are insufficient because the law, and as the bank’s attorneys have now told us, states that the city can only spend public money for public purposes.

This means the city must have a planned use for the land before it buys it or the city’s bond attorneys, and consequently the bank, will not approve a loan for speculative land purchases.

On Tuesday, Sept. 26, the day after the council meeting, the mayor had hand-delivered to council members a letter telling us to go by the city attorney’s office and read the 500 pages – that’s right, 500 pages – of documents related to the land purchase and then sign saying whether we supported or opposed the purchase. His letter also said, “Assuming that a majority will approve moving forward with the acquisition, President Evans and I will execute a resolution authorizing treasurer Cynthia Mitchell to complete the transaction.”

I immediately wrote the mayor, Mr. Evans and my colleagues on the council explaining that this procedure for voting violated the Open Meetings Law and could void the sale. In light of this, that procedure was abandoned.

We were next told on Thursday morning by President Evans, who was being pressured by the Crenshaw bloc, to call an emergency council meeting to ratify the purchase, that there would be an emergency meeting Thursday night. Councilman Cain pointed out that the purpose for this meeting did not meet the requirements under state law to be an emergency; therefore, the Thursday night meeting was cancelled.

Finally, the council met Friday night, Sept. 29 at 6:30 p.m. to buy the land for the $1 million. By then, I had seen the 500 pages of documents and was extremely disappointed in the less than forthright manner in which the mayor had dealt with the City Council. (1) The appraisal and survey had been prepared on Aug. 18, but had never been shown to the City Council. Before the City had the appraisal, on Aug. 9, the mayor, without the approval of the Council, had signed a Right of First Refusal Letter committing the City to pay $1 million for the land.

The Council had approved paying $5,000 for the right of first refusal, but a total price to be paid was not mentioned.

(2) The environmental survey had been received by the City on July 24, but never shown to the City Council. The interesting thing about this survey is that it was done by Highpoint Environmental Services in Murphy, Texas. Does anyone have to guess why we selected a company in Texas to do an environmental survey in Selma?

(3) Even in the 500 pages of documents, there is no historical review, as required by the Council on June 12. The property in question contains some of the last redoubts existing in the South from the War Between the States. Surely many acres of the land must be preserved as an historical site.

(4) At the meeting Friday night, we learned from the bank’s attorney that the bank had given to the mayor a Terms of Sale Sheet, but the mayor had never shown that to the Council.

Friday night, we learned that the mayor’s purpose for the land was to build a new high school on it.

Unfortunately, the Selma School Board and superintendent appeared unaware of the mayor’s grandiose plan and wanted more information.

When asked how he planned to finance a new school, which will cost millions of dollars, the mayor said that he planned to raise property taxes.

What an irresponsible idea to raise taxes in a city where 31.5 percent of the people live below the poverty level and productive people are moving out of the city in record numbers!

At the meeting Friday night, the mayor, who was out of town, sent the Council a letter delaying the land purchase.

The Council then voted to table the matter and adjourned.

What a wasted week dealing with an issue that could easily have been dealt with had the mayor and Council been willing to have a Public Hearing before spending $1 million and had the mayor been forthcoming with the information, which should have been given to the Council and to the public.

I never understood why all of the secrecy surrounding this land purchase.

Finally, it is unfortunate that the Council did not spend $1 million Friday night to buy land because later that night a jury awarded the Sanders-Moss clan $310,000 that the city does not have budgeted and possibly does not have at all.

I hope the mayor has more than a “vision” of how we the taxpayers of Selma are going

to pay his supporters this $310,000.

Cecil Williamson