Muffled shouting. That’s all that could be heard from behind closed doors shortly after the Baldwin County Commission recessed for an executive session after a work session last week.
Earlier, the commission had conducted business as usual as a number of rather innocuous issues were discussed. There was the purchase of property from the city of Bay Minette for the county’s jailhouse expansion, which, in effect, will close the state’s only driver’s license office in the northern part of the county. But nobody at the meeting mentioned the closure.
There was a request for money and in-kind services from the Fort Mims Restoration Association for its annual reenactment and living history event in August. It didn’t stir any debate.
There was a discussion of a mask mandate in county-owned buildings, and while commissioners appeared conflicted on the effectiveness of wearing masks, there was no appetite for a mandate and not much controversy.
But what made Commissioner Joe Davis raise his voice after the meeting — he actually turned red, he told Lagniappe later — was his realization the terms of a basic lease amendment he proposed had been changed, in spite of his recommendations as chair of the finance committee.
Specifically, Davis said he acted in that role and upon the commission’s request to enter into negotiations with board members at the Baldwin County Cattle & Fair Association (CFA) to recoup back rent at the Baldwin County Coliseum and resolve a payment request.
The county has had a litigious history with the CFA beginning with a lawsuit filed in 2013, in which the commission attempted to recoup misdirected payments to the CFA after the parties traded property in Robertsdale where in 2008, the CFA built the hurricane-resistant coliseum using a $7.5 million FEMA grant.
At the time, the county also kicked in $2.5 million and agreed to pay the CFA $75,000 per year to maintain the facility. CFA also obtained a $2.3 million federal loan to complete the 40,000-square-foot building, which can sustain 200-mph winds.
In 2005, the CFA entered into a memorandum of understanding to sell the coliseum to the county for $4.8 million. As a part of the understanding, the previous County Commission agreed to lease the building back to the CFA for 75 years in exchange for $15,000 in annual rental fees and the revocation of the $75,000 annual maintenance agreement.
After the lease was signed, the county complained two $75,000 payments to the CFA in 2006 and 2007 were erroneous and asked a court to agree, while also altering or revoking the CFA’s lease. The circuit court did agree, but the decision was reversed and remanded on appeal.
In 2017, the parties filed a joint motion to dismiss, reaching an agreement that the CFA would pay back $150,000 in erroneous payments and back rent; a $2.3 million grant reimbursement would be split between the parties; and the 75-year lease would be canceled in favor of a new five-year lease.
The resulting five-year lease asked the CFA to pay $15,000 per year to lease the coliseum, along with 15 percent of net revenues generated by event bookings. The CFA fell behind on rent again, and started a separate dispute about interest earned on the grant reimbursement while it was held up by the court, but Davis said through his recent negotiations, he recouped the back rent, resolved disputes and proposed a new streamlined, five-year lease.
Specifically, he was looking to omit language about revenue sharing and extend the term through September 2025.
But when he saw it on the agenda at Monday’s work session, Davis claims he noticed his proposal “had been changed” and the lease term was left to expire in September 2022. He targeted Commission Chairman Billie Jo Underwood as the culprit at the regular meeting the following day, but Underwood claimed she didn’t change anything.
But back behind closed doors Monday, Davis admitted there was some shouting.
“I’m Scotch-Irish and I turn red when I get mad, glad, bad, sad or excited,” he said. “Yes, I raised my voice.”
On Tuesday, he made a motion to adopt the amended lease under a new five-year term, but it failed 2-2 with the dissent of Underwood and Commissioner Skip Gruber.
Gruber, who is the only current commissioner who was in office during the lawsuit, said the existing lease will suffice for two more years, and if the CFA can abide by it, he’d be happy to consider another five-year term at that time.
At one point during the lawsuit, the former county administrator showed the commission a slideshow of unhealthy conditions at the coliseum including dead rodents and insects, cleaning supplies in the food areas and general lack of maintenance of the grounds. Part of the lease and the federal grant include maintaining the facility to be ready for use at all times as an emergency shelter.
Davis said those conditions have since been satisfied by the CFA and “as far as I know, they keep it to code. They do a good job. When we have events there … my dealings have all been very positive. If it’s a public, county-owned facility, we expect it to be maintained.”
But Gurber said there’s more to it than that.
“I don’t have a grudge by no means,” he said. “I do believe the coliseum isn’t being managed up to what its potential can be.”
Gruber went on to claim that the CFA board hasn’t been active in pursuing new revenue at the coliseum, and claimed some CFA board members have died in recent years and haven’t been replaced.
“I think it can have a lot more than a gun show every once in a while and a couple events,” he said, adding the board did at one time pursue a deal with a local college to add a CDL permitting school on the site, which he opposed.
“In the contract, it all boils down to nobody will sit down and look at what’s really going on,” he said. “We’re supposed to get a certain amount of money per event and that was it.”
Davis said that is exactly what he has been doing, but at the commission meeting Tuesday, blamed a “serious, serious, communication problem” with his colleagues for the division, which he said is exacerbated by their fear of violating the Open Meetings Act.
He apologized to his colleagues and citizens, claiming that “sharing information is not deliberation” under the Open Meetings Act, and also promised when he takes over as commission chair in November, he’ll share all committee information with staff and other commissioners.
As for the lease, he can’t say whether the commission will revisit it before it expires.
“Another intent was to change the date so it wouldn’t correspond with [county] elections in 2022,” he said. “When the three [new commissioners] came in we found out there were issues, and it’s not a topic you want to jump right in your face.”
A representative from the Cattle and Fair Association could not be reached for comment.
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