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Aquatic Center decision delayed after councilors leave during five-hour meeting

MIKE OWEN

mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, left, with Councilors Evelyn Turner-Pugh, Glenn Davis, Bruce Huff and Judy Thomas at today's council meeting, which ended without a quorum present to conduct business.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, left, with Councilors Evelyn Turner-Pugh, Glenn Davis, Bruce Huff and Judy Thomas at today's council meeting, which ended without a quorum present to conduct business. mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

Columbus Council did not hear a planned presentation Tuesday on options to keep the Columbus Aquatic Center open when, after more than five hours of meeting, it became apparent that they no longer had a quorum present.

Originally, only Councilor Pops Barnes was absent. But over the next five hours, different councilors left until only Judy Thomas, Glenn Davis, Mike Baker and Mayor Pro Tem Evelyn Turner-Pugh remained. By law, the 10-member council must have at least six members present to conduct any official business, even to adjourn. In the absence of a quorum, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson had to declare the meeting adjourned “by edict and decree.”

Parks and Recreation Director James Worsley was scheduled to present options he had come up with to keep the aquatic center open for a full 89 hours, as he had been directed to do at council’s last meeting. At that Jan. 28 meeting, Worsley had made another presentation on the center, but was sent back to the drawing board to come up with what he prepared for Tuesday.

One of the proposed options Worsley had come up with leaked to the public when the Ledger-Enquirer reported that council would hear a proposal to hand the Muscogee County School District’s after-school programs back to the schools. The move would save $300,000, more than half what the city needs to fully fund the facility.

But neither that nor any of the other options were ever heard Tuesday as councilors got bogged down on whether to decide if Parks and Recreation would continue to operate the facility or whether the city would hire a third-party business to run it.

Some councilors said they had heard the center’s patrons are pleased with the city’s operation of it and want it to stay in place. Other councilors said they had heard no such thing, and that the city should go the private sector route.

The center originally was operated by a private company, but that was universally considered a failure. The company eventually was dismissed and Parks and Recreation took over in the interim, until another company could be chosen through city channels.

Another company has been chosen, but not approved as of yet, because that company’s bid to operate for 89 hours a week was about $1.2 million, nearly the same as Worsley said it would cost his department to run it. And council has not voted on which avenue to take.

Because there’s only about $750,000 budgeted for the facility for the fiscal year, that money wouldn’t last until the new fiscal year. Worsley has told councilors he can keep the facility fully open, as far as hours are concerned, but there will be no programming because there are no employees to run programs.

In addition to that, keeping the facility fully open means Worsley’s deputy director and finance director are both working about 80 hours a week, ostensibly at two jobs apiece. Worsley has told council he considers it unfair to expect them to keep that up indefinitely.

Late in Tuesday’s meeting, both City Manager Isaiah Hugley and Tomlinson pointed out that the administration is getting mixed signals from councilors when they need clear marching orders. And by that point, they pointed out, many of the councilors who disagreed with each other on how to proceed had already left.

“This presentation is involving what we were directed by council to do, which was to go into the parks and rec budget and see what cuts could be made,” Tomlinson said. “Then council can make a choice whether they want a private company or parks and rec, council can make a choice as to how many hours they would like to run it, and then council can make a choice as to what cuts they would like to make, if any, to fund anything above 45 hours.”

Hugley suggested that because there was no quorum, the presentation be postponed, and any decision on how the administration should proceed, for two weeks.

Tomlinson said she hated to do that but there was no choice because some councilors are “vehement” about opposing approaches. She said it would be one thing if the disagreements had been mild at past meetings.

“But it’s another thing when you’ve got a councilor saying, ‘Over my dead body this,’ and another saying, ‘Over my dead body that,’” Tomlinson said. “We obviously need some direction at that point.”

Council’s next scheduled meeting is set for Tuesday, Feb. 23, at 5:30 p.m. in Council Chambers at the City Services Center, next door to the aquatic center.

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