The Augusta Coliseum Authority voted Tuesday to fire its general manager and refund the balance of a $54,000 civic center bill after receiving complaints from organizers of a United Methodist convention held in the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center earlier this month.
Organizers said that during the June 10-14 North Georgia Annual Conference of United Methodists meeting rooms and coliseum space were dirty and littered with trash. Another complaint was that an understaffed catering service had to be assisted by conference volunteers, who helped serve food and beverages during large dining events.
Conference leaders also said bathrooms in the civic center were dirty and sometimes not functional.
"This board has a responsibility to run this center the way it ought to be run," Authority Chairman Bill Maddox said, adding that the Methodist conference was a "complete breakdown" in civic center management.
The conference-related complaints were heard by authority members during a closed-door session, but church officials and board members later divulged some details. The 1 1/2 -hour closed-door meeting was called by Mr. Maddox for the purpose of discussing personnel issues, but blanket service issues - which are not protected by state open-meeting laws - appeared to be the main topic of discussion.
Once the board reconvened in open session, authority members voted unanimously to refund the balance of the church's charges and later voted 6-4 to fire Mr. Williams.
Methodist officials confirmed Monday that their annual conference is scheduled to return to Augusta next year, bringing with it an estimated $2.6 million in economic impact to the area.
But Mr. Maddox said Tuesday the only reason the convention is coming back is because Methodist leaders were told - during a private meeting he held June 14 - that the board would refund their money.
Church officials say they did not ask for the refund but Mr. Maddox offered one as an incentive for their return.
"I guess the best way to put it, he made an offer of some concession, and that offer was, really, as I understood it, unconditional," said Dr. Jane Brooks, the superintendent of the Augusta United Methodist district and chairwoman of the conference's local host committee.
Civic center accountants place in-house charges for rental and equipment fees at $54,558, not including food service or catering costs.
"I don't think the money was a factor," Dr. Brooks said. "I believe that we heard Chairman Maddox and ... others offering assurances that the difficulties we had this year would not happen again."
At least one board member openly criticized Mr. Maddox for promising church officials a full refund before getting board approval, but the motion to reimburse the church over the next two years went unopposed.
The vote to terminate Mr. Williams was taken after extensive questioning by several board members regarding the way civic center staff handled conference problems.
"It's based on poor service and embarrassment," said board member Bonnie Ruben, who made the motion to terminate Mr. Williams.
Mr. Williams said he believed authority members were using complaints from the Methodist conference as an excuse to "do something they wanted to do in the past," and fire him.
"The majority of the board did not support me being here," he said.
He rebutted authority accusations that he and food service managers were unavailable to conference organizers and defended his decision to book a WWE Wrestling event for Sunday night when church officials were scheduled to arrive early Monday. He said the civic center was cleaned in time for the conference's use.
In March, the coliseum authority voted narrowly to oust its private management company and hire Mr. Williams to run the arena. At that time, a committee was formed to negotiate a work agreement with Mr. Williams, but no contract has been drawn up to seal his employment.
Some board members say a one-year verbal contract was agreed to.
After Tuesday's meeting, Mr. Williams said he was considering whether to take legal action against the coliseum authority and that he planned to "go home, go sit and take a moment of quiet."
"This whole thing is so shocking," he said, noting that he was not made aware of most of the conference complaints.
"If it had been of that magnitude, you'd think someone would have come to me and told me."
Several board members said they opposed firing Mr. Williams, especially because he was excluded from the closed-door legal session during which the complaints were aired.
"I disagree with the way this was done," said Joe Scott, the vice chairman of the authority. "This man probably should have been put on probation, and a list of complaints or problems with this building should have been brought to his attention."
Although this is the first complaint of this kind to be taken before the full coliseum board, representatives from the Convention and Visitors' Bureau confirm that at least one other convention has not returned to Augusta because of problems with the civic center.
"Due to the age and availability of the civic center, when we are bringing in large groups, we often look for alternatives other than the civic center," said Peggy Seigler, the director of public relations for the CVB. "We are just having trouble putting big groups in that space."
Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215 or email@example.com.
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