Mayor Hardie Davis’ latest effort to work a deal to put an arena at Regency Mall hit a snag Tuesday when several Augusta commissioners walked out of a closed-door meeting.
Commissioners also put the brakes on another proposal, Commissioner Bill Fennoy’s attempt to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, by agreeing to seek input from area judges and law enforcement first.
For several months, Davis has pushed to replace the downtown James Brown Arena with a new facility at the blighted former Regency Mall on Gordon Highway as a way to spur redevelopment in south Augusta. In August, the Augusta-Richmond County Coliseum Authority voted 4-2 to build the yet-unfunded facility at the mall, buoyed by a term sheet addressed to Davis from mall owner Alan Cardinale.
On Tuesday, the authority’s Chairman, Cedrick Johnson, and Vice Chairman Brad Usry, appeared at the start of the commission’s standing called legal session, saying they’d been “summoned” by the mayor to attend.
Their appearance with authority attorney Ed Enoch caught several commissioners off guard and as many as five of the 10 commissioners walked out, voiding the six-member quorum needed to keep the meeting going and keep it closed.
Mayor Pro Tem Mary Davis said the mayor added the arena discussion to the agenda without her or others’ knowledge. “It’s such an important topic but such a divisive topic,” that for now remains with the “coliseum authority to make the final decision,” she said.
Mary Davis and commissioners Sean Frantom and Ben Hasan left the meeting when Usry, Johnson and Enoch were called in. Williams and Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle left through another entrance, Commissioner Grady Smith said.
“It looked like they wanted to discuss Regency Mall, and I just don’t think we’re at that place now,” Hasan said. “The commission is not in the midst of a conversation with Cardinale.”
Enoch, Hardie Davis’ campaign manager who has negotiated on behalf of the authority with Cardinale, said he obtained a new detail Monday from the mall owner but did not elaborate.
As of last week, Cardinale had offered the authority a long-term lease, the sale or a gift of part of the property to the authority in exchange for long-term tax abatements, free parking lot improvements, maintenance and other expenses, in addition to the authority building a $110 million-plus arena at the site and providing Cardinale low-income financing to redevelop the area around it.
Frantom said there was no reason for a closed-session discussion of a private property that’s the subject of negotiations between the authority and Cardinale, not the commission.
“There was no reason for us to have the discussion,” he said.
Smith said he chose not to leave the meeting. “It’s my duty to the public to sit there and listen to both sides,” he said.
His colleagues – some of whom have voiced support for the site choice – are losing patience with the mayor’s proposal, Smith said.
Davis has “gone about it all wrong and it’s backfired in his face,” Smith said.
“I think he was trying to figure out where everybody is now, and today, nobody was into it,” he said.
IN OTHER ACTION
On Fennoy’s item, he said reducing the penalty to $75 for possession of small amounts of marijuana would “free up the court’s time” and make it “easier for that person to move forward.”
Augusta General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie said the city can easily amend a short code provision that makes it illegal to possess marijuana, as well as a list of other items, and alter the penalties for possession.
The change won’t impact state law, which prosecutors routinely use to prosecute offenders, MacKenzie said.
Commissioner Sammie Sias said he preferred seeking opinions about the change from local judges and the sheriff’s office before drafting a change in the law.
His motion to that effect passed the city public safety committee, on which Fennoy does not serve, 4-0.
Reach Susan McCord at (706) 823-3215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.