Little: judicial center troubling
by Laura Camper
Jul 06, 2011 | 3939 views |  0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Councilman Ben Little has made a point of questioning the way the proposed judicial complex has moved forward at council meetings and ward meetings, but has made no specific allegations nor offered any proof to back up his claims.

Little has said the way the project has been handled has been unethical. In one City Council meeting, he compared the project to laundering money, because the project was turned over to the city’s Public Building Authority.

However, when asked, he declined to elaborate on exactly what might be unethical about the project.

“That’s going to come if it’s passed and when it is challenged,” Little said on Tuesday. “The PBA board knows what has been done and how things have unfolded.”

Little was on the losing side of the vote which set the ceiling on construction costs at $15 million and turned the project over to the authority to manage. The Oct. 12, 2010, vote was 3-2 with councilmen Little and Herbert Palmore voting no. They listed the cost and the project being out of the hands of the City Council as their reasoning for voting no.

The vote hasn’t stopped Little’s objections. Each time the issue is raised in a meeting, he argues against the project. At the June 14 meeting, in a theatrical protest, Little invited Ralph Bradford, his appointee to the authority, to hold a white plastic bag as Little threw away the paperwork for the project in it. Bradford then handed Little a wipe to wash his hands of the deal.

Bradford complained during the June 14 meeting that he didn’t think there had been a vote to accept Merchant Capital as the underwriter for the bond financing for the judicial complex project.

Jim Miller, the chairman of the authority, maintains that everything has been done openly and properly. The authority was not required to request bids for a financial underwriter. That job is exempted from the bid law because it is a professional service, a service which depends on personality, Miller said. The board, though, did ask for bids when it was seeking an underwriter for the DHR building and Merchant Capital was the low bidder. It voted unanimously to accept the company as underwriter for that project.

“Really it would have been a waste of time and resources to go through that whole process again,” Miller said. “The fact is, we did vote to use Merchant Capital as our bonding authority not on any specific project but as our bond investment banker. All we’re doing is continuing to use them.”

The board has not officially voted to accept Merchant Capital as the underwriter for the judicial complex, but has decided to move forward with the intention of using them, Miller said.

Tracy Roberts, deputy general counsel for the Alabama League of Municipalities, said until an official vote is taken, that underwriter would not be authorized by the board to do the work.

“Any person acting on behalf of the board, should not act without the authorization of the board, and authorization of the board comes from a vote,” Roberts said.

The board would have to officially vote for the underwriter before it could enter into a contract with the underwriter, he added.

Miller said the board would meet to officially vote for Merchant Capital as its underwriter.

“It is strictly a matter of details,” Miller said. “We can vote and approve Merchant Capital again. I still contend that we’ve approved them already. We approved them to be our investment banker for our work and that consists of now two projects.”

Additionally, Miller noted that everyone on the board is a volunteer and they are being accused baselessly.

“It looks like I’m going to have to do something some other way to call him to task for it,” Miller said.

In past interviews with The Star, Miller said he might consider a slander suit against Little.

At the last council meeting in June, based on Bradford’s allegation, the City Council requested copies of the authority’s minutes be sent to them. City Clerk Alan Atkinson provided those minutes. Still, Little said, there may be legal challenges if the bond financing is approved by the council members. Those challenges, he believes, would shut down the project.

Little said he believes that before any bonds could be sold for the project, the authority would have to be legally free of lawsuits. Lawsuits are a tactic Little has used before to try to stop projects he has voted against and lost. When the McClellan Development Authority was reformed against his vote, he filed a lawsuit which held up land sales at McClellan for months before it was dismissed.

Little’s arguments however have been centered on the need for other projects in the city, his request for $5 million for his ward, and the judicial center's$15 million price tag, which he believes is excessive.

The only specific charges that Little will level against the judicial complex are that there are other projects he would prefer to do.

“Of all the things that are needed in Ward 3 and within our city, this is a bad investment that we are embarking on,” Little said.

Instead of a $15 million judicial complex, the city could do school related projects, a new city hall, a new park on the site of the current city hall. The city needs to do a complete capital improvements plan, he said.

“We have big infrastructure problems that we’re going to have to deal with,” Little said. “Just to do a buck shot blast at a $15 million jail, is not the way that you address problems that this city – we (are) having major problems. I mean, this community just don’t know.”

Contact staff writer Laura Camper at 256-235-3545.

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