The private, unannounced meetings took place Monday at City Hall, Mayor Doug Murphree said. During the meetings, councilmen met in pairs with engineer Barry Mott of Barge Waggoner Sumner and Cannon. Council President Rocky Lucas and city attorney Win Livingston met with Mott first, followed by Councilmen Tom Roberts and Shannon Darby and then Councilmen Billy Carden and Joe Hogan, Murphree said. The mayor attended all three meetings.
The meetings never contained a quorum, or three council members, and therefore did not violate any law; however, there is proposed legislation that would require these small group meetings to be public under the Alabama Open Meetings Act.
Lucas said Tuesday that the council chose to meet in small groups to better fit their schedules and also because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
“There were some scheduling conflicts, and Monday was a holiday, so it freed up some space…” Lucas said. “We could have gone into an executive session, but we chose not to. We kind of wanted to keep this low-key, because we’ve got two entities involved, and we’re stuck in the middle.”
The issue concerns 10 acres of land included in a 2007 Airport Layout Plan used by the Federal Aviation Administration to chart future airport expansions. Upon the start of an expansion project in late 2012, the city discovered that the land had been deeded to the Industrial Development Board in 1997 and therefore is not city-owned.
Since the error was found, the City Council has debated whether to remove that land from the airport plan or condemn it for public use, as the Airport Board says it is the only land available for airport growth.
IDB is not willing to sell the land, despite an offer from FAA to purchase it at market value. FAA has now given the city a Feb. 5 deadline to state its plans for the property.
Murphree said that during Monday’s meetings, Mott reported a detailed history of the land in question. Barge Waggoner is the engineering firm that designed the Airport Layout Plan.
“(Mott) just went back to when the land was given to the IDB by the city in 1996 and did a chronological review of everything that has happened until now to clarify some things,” Murphree said. “They didn’t really make a recommendation. They did more fact finding than anything else.”
Murphree said council members “weren’t trying to sneak around or do anything backhanded” by holding private meetings, but are pressed to make a decision on a deadline. “It is a sensitive thing, and we thought maybe (councilmen) just needed to talk one-on-one with the engineer,” he said.
Lucas said “in the past, when this topic gets in the press, it turns into different people being for the airport or for the IDB, and the city doesn’t need that. We need to be working like a well-oiled machine, so that negativity is something we’re trying to avoid.”
Roberts said he was not initially aware multiple meetings took place.
“I was only aware of one meeting, and that was the one I attended, until (Tuesday) night when I got to our regular council meeting,” he said Wednesday. “I thought I was called because I am airport liaison, and I assumed I would report back to everyone else with the information we had asked (Mott) to gather. I honestly didn’t know there were going to be a string of meetings, which is a practice I don’t like.”
Though serial meetings are a legal loophole of the state’s Open Meetings Act, general counsel for the Alabama Associated Press Dennis Bailey said the council potentially violated the spirit of the law.
“If they had hired an engineer and wanted to hear a report from a professional and didn’t talk amongst themselves, that wouldn’t be a meeting,” Bailey said. “If they did deliberate, the only argument you can make is that they divided into committees and had a quorum of the committee.”
However, Bailey said, “If they just wanted to meet and hear a report, they didn’t have to go through these gyrations to keep it secret. If they wanted to deliberate the report, they would have done it through these serial meetings, which is why this legislation (to make serial meetings public) is needed.”
Roberts said no deliberations occurred in his meeting with Mott.
“As both a councilman and a reporter, I have to wonder why this couldn’t have been a public meeting,” said Roberts, who is owner and editor of Sylacauga news website The Local Issue. “I don’t think there was a need to keep it closed. I think we ought to have everything out front.”
Lucas said the council will discuss the issue publicly at either a called work session or its next regular work session Feb. 3.
“It’s a mess; it really is,” Lucas said. “It’s turned into two groups pitting themselves against one another, and I hate that. Although no member of this current council was involved in putting (the IDB-owned land) in the Airport Layout Plan, we’ve been tasked with fixing it, and we’re going to fix it one way or another and in the way we see best for the city of Sylacauga.”
Lucas said he would consider holding serial meetings again, as the related bill “is not in effect yet, so we are fully compliant with the Open Meetings Act.”
Bailey said sponsors of the bill are confident it will pass during the current legislative session.
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