Councilman questions judge's motives on ruling against city on Ferrell Parkway
Councilman Billy Harrison Tuesday night, disgusted at Circuit Court Judge Patricia West's ruling that the council acted illegally in trying to sell the public's Ferrell Parkway right-of-way, questioned the judge's ruling and, in an aside, questioned her motives, according to one member who overheard the remark.
The comment was directed to City Attorney Les L. Lilley, the source said. Harrison was given an opportunity to respond, but could not reached for comment Wednesday night.
Lilley, however, said that if Harrison did make that statement, "It wasn't made to me. I don't recall any conversation like that," Lilley said. According to sources the comment was overheard by Councilwomen Margaret Eure and Reba McClanan. Neither would comment for the record. Asked if she denied hearing the comment, Eure said, "I don't comment on what goes on in executive session."
The comment, the member said, was made during council's closed session just prior to meeting in public, to vote 7-3 with 1 abstention, to lease the controversial right-of-way, in a pig in a poke deal, to the federal government, in an end run around Judge's West's earlier ruling. The council is also appealing the ruling.
Although councilwomen Eure, McClanan, and Rosemary Wilson voted against the lease and Councilman Louis Jones, with banking interests tied to a portion of the deal, abstained, the lease proposal passed. Under questioning by Eure, City Attorney Lilley, acknowledged the lease would be drafted and executed by the City Manager James K. Spore without council ever seeing its contents. Eure flatly stated, "I don't vote for anything I haven't seen." With the vote, rest of the council abdicated its oversight responsibility and left the details to the bureaucrats to handle anyway they feel is best.
Harrison, a member said, was clearly irritated at the legal setback. He questioned Judge West's ability publicly and speculated she'd be overturned on appeal. Lilley acknowledged Harrison's attitude toward the ruling. "He didn't like that ruling," Lilley said, "and neither did I."
The original plan was to sell the right-of-way, which was acquired for improved access to isolated Sandbridge, to the Fish and Wildlife Service. The sale was linked to acquisition of the near-by Lotus Creek development, in a complex scheme costing about $3.3 million. There were questions as to whether the long dormant development met environmental restrictions under which it was still commercially viable to develop.
Just a day before the city was to close on the deal, Judge West ruled that because the sale was approved 7-3, with Jones abstaining, it was an illegal transaction. Such disposal of public assets, she ruled required a 'super majority' or 9 members approving it to be legal.
Frustrated, the city appealed and one council member speculated Harrison was the 'engineer' behind the plan to 'lease' the same land to the federal agency for $1 a year for 40-years. "This was the council's way of thumbing its nose at the courts," the member said.