Appeals court: Government never promised a library park

The city of Columbus never promised in its 1999 special purpose sales tax campaign to build a 23-acre park behind the new library on Macon Road, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

The unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel affirms the Aug. 29 decision by Muscogee County Superior Court Judge Doug Pullen to throw the case out. After a hearing that extended into the night, Pullen decided that David Rothschild, a former member of the library board, and others had no standing to bring the suit against the city, school board and library board.

That suit, filed July 26, was an attempt to make the government spend $6.1 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money on a park they claim was promised to voters.

"Simply put, the defendants never promised to build a 23-acre park behind the new library and did not designate the park as a SPLOST purpose," Chief Judge Anne Elizabeth Barnes wrote. "The record also shows that the defendants intend to use the remaining $6.1 million in SPLOST funds to landscape around the library and complete library-related projects, including purchasing books. We fail to see how such expenditures violate a SPLOST purpose . . ."

Barnes also states that the plaintiffs erred when they failed to object to some of Pullen's rulings, meaning they couldn't appeal those issues.

Since Pullen's decision, $1.9 million of the $6.1 million has been spent with another $3.5 million outstanding in purchase orders. The money already spent has gone toward computers, printers, books and furniture, said Pam Hodge, the city's finance director.

Attorney Jorge Vega, who represents the Muscogee County School Board, said the ruling means the case is dismissed.

"We're pleased that the court affirmed the trial court's decision," Vega said. "We hope this puts this all to rest. We hope that this will end this chapter."

In their complaint, the plaintiffs pointed to campaign materials and depictions of the library prior to the 1999 SPLOST vote that they said indicate a park was part of the plan. Attorney Josh McKoon, who represents the plaintiffs, said Friday's decision didn't deny commitments weren't made to build the park. He said the decision states legally-enforceable decisions weren't made.

"I think the decision basically affirms this idea," McKoon said.

McKoon hasn't yet had a chance to talk to his clients about the ruling, and he doesn't know if they would appeal. If they were to appeal, the first step would be a review by the full appeals court, not just a three-judge panel.

Whether the full appeals court declines to review another potential appeal, or hears it and doesn't overturn Pullen's decision, the plaintiffs could then appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court.

"That's possible," said City Attorney Clifton Fay of an appeal, "but I hope they would not want to waste any more taxpayer and judicial resources."

Attorney John Sours, who also represents the plaintiffs, said a decision hasn't been made.

"We're extremely disappointed in the actions of the Georgia Court of Appeals," he said. "We are evaluating our options."

Teresa Tomlinson, executive director of MidTown Inc., said lawsuits should always be a final resort. She supports a park at the library, but said she and others realize there was never a promise from the government that one would be built.

That led them to work with the school board in their efforts to get a park, Tomlinson said.

A master plan for city and school projects at the library — including the school district's new administration center, a city service center, a parking deck, natatorium, lake and greenspace — was presented to the school board April 14. Rothschild, who was present at the meeting, said then he loved the plan.

Tomlinson also supports it.

"I hope now we can move forward," she said.