A member of the Interstate 20 Economic Development Corporation’s board of directors resigned earlier this year after Mayor Jamie Mayo urged the board to spend more than $663,000 to help a low-income housing group build a hotel in southern Monroe.
Mayo also is a member of the I-20 board.
The I-20 board’s investment of $663,000 would help the Mt. Pleasant Community Development Corporation build a three-floor and 83-room hotel at the corner of Accent Drive and Century Boulevard, where the old Ramada Inn once operated.
Monroe City Councilman Michael Echols, who served on the I-20 board until July 19, told The Ouachita Citizen on Tuesday that he resigned from the board after Mt. Pleasant’s representatives failed to answer his questions about the hotel development.
“Mayor Mayo brought the issue up and said we needed to vote on it now,” Echols said. “They didn’t even ask for nays. I had to ask to register my nay.”
Echols said the information he sought concerned the amount of sales tax revenues that might be generated by the proposed hotel project. The I-20 board’s revenues depend only a portion of the state sales tax collected within the I-20 district.
In his second objection, Echols questioned whether the I-20 board was setting a poor precedent by investing in a hotel project.
“That was the most critical question, and I had asked for that information at another meeting as well,” Echols said. “Their (Mt. Pleasant’s) representatives said they would be willing to provide that information. I was comfortable waiting for that information, but I don’t think the mayor wanted to wait to give them $600,000.”
“I resigned the next day,” he added.
Since then, Echols was elected to the state House of Representatives without opposition. City Council member Juanita Woods was appointed to take Echols’ place on the I-20 board.
The Ouachita Citizen reached out to Echols on Tuesday because the I-20 board voted last week to approve the investment a second time. The second vote was part of an apparent effort to correct the impropriety surrounding the first vote.
Mayo and I-20 board chairman Otis Chisley indicated the I-20 board needed to take a second vote on the Mt. Pleasant investment proposal.
According to Mayo and Chisley, a second vote was needed because the hotel investment was not an item on the board’s meeting agenda when the board first took a vote. Chisley referred to the first vote as “premature.”
During the first vote, Echols and I-20 board member Charles Pritchard voted against the hotel investment.
Mayo clears up
Before calling for the board to vote a second time last week, Mayo sought to clear up any misunderstandings about the prior vote.
“We definitely need to maybe revisit it since it is on the agenda today,” Mayo said. “It wasn’t on the agenda (the first time). I know we came out of executive session and we voted on it, and there were some provisions, some questions, about what was passed. No money was passed along. But there was an amount that was approved subject to. Seems like to me we need to revisit that and probably bring up Ms. Woods to date on what it is.”
In an apparent reference to Echols’ questions, Chisley claimed the information “requested by some board members” was sent the next day or in the following days to the city. Stacey Rowell, Mayo’s director of administration, said she was asked not to share the sales tax revenue projections because Mt. Pleasant considered it proprietary information.
Mt. Pleasant Community Development Corporation also operates housing counseling programs and provides housing management services. Mt. Pleasant says it is operated exclusively for charitable, religious, educational and other non-profit purposes for which the corporation was formed in 1998.
The I-20 board made its $663,000 pledge conditional on whether Mt. Pleasant could secure other investors or financing for the remainder of the project’s total costs. The project’s costs were not disclosed, though the board members’ remarks indicated the project could ultimately cost more than $5 million.
Cedrick Hemphill, with Land 3 Architects, said Mt. Pleasant had not yet secured funding for the project but hoped to lock down more money for the project within 30 days.
“They’ve not received their funding, but they’re very close to it,” Hemphill said. “They’ve had a lot of ups and downs, and thankfully, the ups have been more prevalent than the downs.”
According to Hemphill, Mt. Pleasant sought to secure funding through a partnership with Grambling State University.
“One of the things that they have done is partnering with Grambling University to hire as many students to use the hotel as a practical to help them get more funding, different sources of funding,” Hemphill said.
Based on the I-20 board members’ discussion last week, the meeting minutes recorded by board member Charles Pritchard contained contradictory information indicating that two members voted in opposition to the hotel investment and that the hotel investment was approved unanimously.
Though he does not chair the I-20 board, Mayo exercises significant control over the board in light of his authority to dismiss members from the board at his discretion. In the past, Mayo has not refrained from terminating one board member after another until he was satisfied with the newly appointed members.
Mayo’s authority over members has led to tension when other members voted in opposition to matters that he deemed important. That appeared to be the case last week, too.
“It says motion passed unanimously,” said Mayo, of the I-20 board’s meeting minutes. “I heard one nay. I didn’t hear the other nay.”
“I didn’t hear your nay,” Mayo added, looking at Pritchard.
“Sorry, there were two,” Pritchard said. “My records weren’t very accurate.”
“Pardon?” Mayo said.
“It didn’t pass unanimously,” Pritchard said. “It just passed.”
“What I’m saying is that I didn’t hear the first nay, I just heard the second nay,” Mayo said. “You’re the record keeper.”
“Yes, sir,” Pritchard said. “There were two.”
“There were two,” Mayo said. “So I guess you just didn’t voice it.”
“That’s probably true,” Pritchard said.
“That is true,” Mayo said.
At that time, Mayo directed a critical remark at The Ouachita Citizen for attending the I-20 board’s public meeting.
Later, the vote appeared unanimous until Pritchard’s position on the was questioned once more.
When asked for any opposition, Pritchard indicated he was opposed.
“Yeah, okay, I am. But I have personal reasons for that,” Pritchard said.
“That’s you saying you’re opposed?” Chisley said.
Pritchard indicated Chisley was correct.
Pritchard’s vote did not appear to be enough for Mayo, who pressed Pritchard to disclose his reasons.
“We’re all family, we want to hear about it,” Mayo said.
Pritchard did not elaborate.