Without enough members to constitute a quorum on the Interstate 20 Economic Development District’s governing board, almost $20 million in projects described as vital to growing the local economy have stalled.
The I-20 board has not had a quorum to conduct business since May 22. Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo and four members of the Monroe City Council – chairman Eddie Clark, Dr. Ray Armstrong, Betty Blakes and Kenneth Wilson – have been at odds over council appointees to the board.
The City Council decided last week during its regular meeting to withdraw four appointments to the I-20 board. There are three members currently serving on the I-20 board including the mayor. The board needs four members present to constitute a quorum to conduct business.
The quarrel between the mayor and the City Council has “two significant repercussions” on the city’s economic development, according to Monroe Chamber of Commerce President Sue Nicholson.
“Businesses like CenturyLink who are trying to recruit people to the community read about the conflicts and have a perception of the community as a dysfunctional one,” Nicholson said.
The longer the dispute between Mayo and City Council continues, the more likely it is to drive away prospective businesses that would deliver new jobs to the I-20 district area, Nicholson said.
“Businesses interested in locating in the I-20 development district or businesses that require action by the I-20 board might consider the option of moving their business to another community or not move here at all,” Nicholson said.
One of the projects stalled by the conflict between Mayo and the City Council includes the $1.1-million project connecting the I-20 Frontage Road from Sparks Nissan Kia to Millhaven Road.
Mayo says completion of the I-20 district’s projects has been jeopardized by the City Council’s decision not to appoint anyone to the I-20 board. A new hotel development has been waiting on the I-20 board to take action, according to Mayo.
“This all started because of the City Council’s wholesale changes on the board,” Mayo said. “They have the authority to do that in terms of appointees, but that is not a practical or prudent thing to come in and make wholesale changes on a board that was working as well as it was since taking off in 2005.”
At last week’s City Council meeting, Clark told Mayo the City Council would not appoint any members to the I-20 board unless Mayo withdrew his lawsuit against the City Council. Mayo sued the City Council over its efforts to thwart Mayo from removing members of the I-20 board. Earlier this year, a 4th Judicial District Court judge issued a temporary restraining order against the City Council, preventing it from interfering with Mayo’s authority to remove I-20 board members. A trial is scheduled for February.
Prior to last week’s City Council meeting, Mayo said the City Council had agreed to move forward with I-20 board appointments if Mayo committed to renovating restrooms at city parks and recreational areas.
“The City Council used that (restroom renovations) as an excuse and now they are using the lawsuit as an excuse,” Mayo said. “They never should have pursued creating a resolution or ordinance trying to limit I-20 board power.”
“After the court rules on the lawsuit, what will be their excuse then?” Mayo added.
Armstrong says the core of the dispute between Mayo and the City Council concerns the mayor’s authority to control the decisions of the I-20 board without any discussion.
“The bylaws allow the mayor to remove anybody for any reason and that is not a board since people should be able to reasonably disagree and find a new solution,” Armstrong said. “I am asking for assurance that my appointee will not be removed.”
The bylaws and articles of incorporation establishing the I-20 board in 1995 gave each City Council member the authority to appoint one board member, but they also gave the mayor the authority to remove members “with or without cause.”
The bylaws were changed in 2005 increasing the number of members from five to seven with the mayor and a City Council member serving on the I-20 board as well.
Armstrong says appointing another person to the I-20 board would constitute a quorum and give “the mayor free reign to handle business as he sees fit.”
“But it takes a full seven members on the I-20 board in order to change the bylaws,” Armstrong said. “The mayor is trying to prevent the board from getting seven full members because they might change the bylaws.”
Mayo says the City Council has ignored the city attorney’s reminders that City Council members have “no jurisdiction over that board.”
“They did not like what they heard and so part of their $150,000 appropriation in city funds is to cover their own legal fees and obtain their own legal counsel,” Mayo said.
Mayo was referring to the City Council’s appropriation in September of $150,000 from the city’s sales tax fund to its council budget to cover the cost of legal fees, professional fees, supplies as well as travel expenses. Out of the $150,000, the City Council assigned $121,000 to cover legal and professional fees.
Of the City Council’s I-20 board appointments, Armstrong says he was advised to “vote in the best interest of the people even if was the wrong thing to do.” Armstrong did not identify who gave him the advice.
“But I do not agree with that,” Armstrong said. “I can understand complaints from people perceiving that I am holding up progress. But I want to ask them, what is progress when it is accompanied by the abuse and poor spending of taxpayer dollars?”
Mayo says the public’s awareness has shifted from noticing new developments in the area to only noticing the drama surrounding the I-20 board, which is “problematic.”
“(The City Council) wants to run things,” Mayo said. “It is clear now they are running things into the ground. They have a separate agenda from my administration.”
Armstrong says he has “no personal agenda” but wants to find a solution to move forward with economic development that does not “waste taxpayer dollars.”
“I am a retired physician and do not need anything, so I do not care if I am ever elected to anything else,” Armstrong said. “I am only interested in restoring the success of the city.”
The I-20 economic development district was established under state law in 1995 as an independent, non-profit corporation.
The board receives state sales tax rebates from economic activity generated within the district. Those funds, now totaling more than $21 million, are used to develop infrastructure to attract other economic interests to the district.