09-13 complex-01

Controversy over the Palestine Athletic Complex, which city council closed and a local judge re-opened this week, demonstrates how dysfunctional city government has become. 

Perhaps the best that can be said about Palestine's elected and appointed leaders – and we're speaking generally here – is that they aren't crooks. No high-ranking city official appears to be on the take. That's a blessing. Gross incompetence, however, can undermine and taint a community just as surely, and quickly, as malfeasance.

Unhappily, this week's debacle over the Palestine Athletic Complex showed just how incompetent and dysfunctional our city government has become. It also highlighted some of the city's poor decisions, misplaced priorities, and extravagances.

Past failures that led to this mishap continue to hurt the community, as do some of the officials responsible for them.

It's true that, by the time city council members, under threat of a lawsuit, voted 6-0 Monday to close the Palestine Athletic Complex, they probably had little choice. The complex doesn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2010; council members said they couldn't afford to make it conform to federal law.

Closing the Athletic Complex would have sidelined hundreds of local kids, ages 3-15, who use it for league football and other team sports and activities. For the city's young people, who already lack positive activities, it would have been a hard blow to the solar plexus.

We're certain council members felt bad about that; we suspect some of them, behind closed doors, expressed regrets and reservations. In the end, however, the decision was unanimous.

Thankfully, the problem appears to be resolved – for now. On Thursday, local Judge James Westley granted Carey McKinney, president of the Anderson County Football League, a writ ordering the Palestine Athletic Complex to re-open. Westley ruled city council members acted without due process.

Applause for McKinney and Westley.

New city council member Dana Goolsby was quick to blame “previous leadership” for the Athletic Complex closing. Current council members, however, including Goolsby, must take responsibility for handling the matter in such a ham-handed and opaque way.

By acting in closed session, practically without notice, council members caught the community off guard and left it without a voice. Even the youth organizations directly affected by the shutdown were blindsided. In fact, McKinney said, the ACFL on Monday – the day before council members closed the facility – paid the city more than $900 to use it.

Nor did the city's official notice for Monday night's meeting tip off the community. So much for the city's much-touted transparency.

Truth be told, city officials probably could have averted this showdown by meeting with plaintiff Michael Ivy in August of 2018, when Ivy requested a sit-down to talk about how to make the stadium more accessible and lawful.

By all available evidence, former City Manager Michael Hornes, who declined to comment this week, simply blew Ivy off.

Too, the city had almost a decade to chip away at this problem. Mayor Steve Presley's explanation this week was jaw-dropping: “Everyone thought (the complex) was grandfathered in, and changes didn't need to be made,” he told the Herald-Press.

Translation: The city acted – or, more accurately, failed to act – based on nothing but an assumption. Next time, Mr. Mayor, ask.

Finally, if the city really is too strapped to fix the complex – and no one has estimated what that would cost – city council members and administrators, past and present, share the blame.

Earlier this year, for instance, the city was ordered to pay Lone Star Equipment more than $500,000 for breach of contract, after the city in 2014 failed to pay the contractor for an access road. Taking this dispute to civil court was a costly mistake for city officials, who foolishly believed the case would be a “slam dunk” for them.

In another costly entanglement, the city reportedly spent nearly $350,000 in legal fees, over the last three years, to pursue an ill-advised lawsuit against local businessman Jerry “Lawnmower” Laza.

City Council members also authorized an annual salary of $150,000 for a former city manager who spent nearly 40 percent of his time away. On top of that, they granted Mike Alexander a one-year consulting contract, effective Oct. 1, 2017, for $100,000.

Does anyone in Palestine know what Alexander did for that money?

All that, and a lot more, is in the city's rear-view mirror. The immediate task is keeping the Athletic Complex open, while working with the plaintiff to make it more accessible to people with disabilities. To preserve youth sports, the city also must consider contingencies and alternatives, such as leasing the YMCA's soccer fields.

However the saga of the Athletic Complex ends, Palestine voters and taxpayers should regard this week as a wakeup call. They must shoulder some of the blame for the state of their city.

Participation rates in local elections are abysmal. More taxpayers must pay attention to what happens at City Hall; more residents must get engaged in their community.

If the people don't watch their local representatives, they can, and will, act without accountability. Until the voters elect competent leaders – and hold them accountable – this city will continue to falter and bounce from crisis to crisis.

It's time for the people of Palestine to demand better – from their leaders and from themselves.  

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