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Councilman, mayor seek AG opinion on hospital land vote

Both officials trying to avoid possible conflict of interest

News Staff Writer

For the second time in three months, members of Atmore City Council failed to make a decision on whether or not the city would donate 10 acres of Rivercane land for construction of a new hospital.
The first time the issue came before the council, in October 2018, it died for lack of a motion to put the question to a vote. The matter again came before the council at its Monday, January 14, meeting, and again there was no decision from the panel.
After a brief public hearing — at which there was no public comment — to close the north side of Jackson Street to accommodate the expansion of Pilger Chevrolet’s dealership and an outlining of this weekend’s Martin Luther King holiday events, the hospital land donation was next on the meeting agenda.
As Mayor Jim Staff introduced the item, District 3 representative Chris Walker asked to speak. Walker is an assistant vice president at United Bank, the only area financial institution that handles New Market Tax Credits, which are vital to the financing of the planned $32 million medical center.
“I have requested an informal Attorney General opinion on whether I should vote or abstain,” Walker said. “This opinion is probably going to take a week or two weeks to come back in a letter saying what I should do.
“With that being said, I would like this particular item to be tabled or revisited, at which time I receive that letter back informing me as to what I should do as far as the voting.”
Walker later said he asked for the delay to “make sure there is no public misperception” about his vote or non-vote.
Staff pointed out that the request included his situation. The mayor’s wife, Myrtle, is an RN at Atmore Community Hospital.
“I would also like to mention that my wife was put in there (the letter) because she’s an employee of the hospital,” Staff said. “She said she’s ready to quit anyhow; she’s supposed to retire in June.”
District 1’s Webb Nall made the motion to table the issue; District 2’s Jerome Webster seconded it. Nall, Webster and Walker then voted in favor of holding off on the vote, while District 4’s Susan Smith and District 5’s Chris Harrison voted against the delay.
After the meeting, Staff said he doesn’t think there is a conflict in his familial relationship or Walker’s business relationship.
“Our attorney says there ain’t nothing to it, but we did this just to be on the safe side,” he explained. “He (Walker) still can’t make the decision (on granting the tax credits), but it’s a matter of public perception.”
Nancy Lowrey, who chairs the Escambia County Healthcare Authority, and ECHA member Chris Griffin, who is also administrator of D.W. McMillan Hospital in Brewton and a trustee of the Alabama Hospital Association, attended the council meeting.
Lowrey gave a brief statement to reporters after the meeting.
“I don’t know if I would say I’m surprised,” she said. “But I am disappointed.”