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Opinion issued

Walker, Staff cleared to vote on hospital land donation

News Staff Writer

The Alabama Ethics Commission has removed the final hurdle that has prevented Atmore City Council members from making a final decision on whether or not to donate municipal land for a new hospital.
City Clerk Becca Smith confirmed Monday, March 4, that City Attorney Larry Wettermark had received an informal opinion from state ethics officials, who determined that a vote by District 3 Councilman Chris Walker on the controversial issue would not create a conflict, nor would any tie-breaker vote by Mayor Jim Staff, if such a vote were needed to finalize the matter.
“If I understand your scenario correctly, you have two public officials who are deciding whether to vote on a resolution which could benefit the family member of one, and a business with which the other is associated,” said AEC Executive Director Thomas B. Albritton in a letter sent to Wettermark, a copy of which was provided upon request by Atmore News. “The resolution you have sent does not, if I’m reading it correctly, guarantee that either of those occurrences will come to pass. It is merely a statement of the city’s intent to aid the (Escambia County Healthcare Authority) in the event it decides to proceed and (that) it is theoretically possible that either could benefit.
“Therefore, as presented both of these members could vote on what you have sent me.”
Caution urged
Despite the favorable opinion, Albritton warned both Walker and Staff that each should be careful in making any decisions related to the hospital land issue.
“As you recognize, as it progresses, situations could arise where a conflict exists for either of them and they should handle those situations accordingly,” the state ethics executive wrote. “If it is understood at this point that they will, in fact, benefit their family or business through this vote, then my answer would be different.”
Walker is a vice-president at United Bank. The bank’s parent company, United Bancorporation of Alabama, is the only lending institution headquartered within the state that handles New Market Tax Credits. Availability of the credits has been cited on numerous occasions as the “make or break” component of the proposed medical facility’s anticipated $32 million financing package.
UB Community Development, also owned by United Bancorporation of Alabama, is described as an “economic development partner of United Bank.” UBCD uses New Market Tax Credits to help fund loans to small businesses and finance projects related to education, healthcare, manufacturing, hospitality, non-profits and community centers.
NMTC funds make it attractive for investors to sink private capital into low-income communities by permitting individuals and corporations to earn federal income tax credits of up to 39 percent of the initial investment in exchange for making equity investments in Community Development Entities. The credit is claimed over a period of seven years — 5 percent in each of the first three years; 6 percent in each of the last four years.
The mayor’s wife, Myrtle Staff, is a registered nurse who works in Atmore Community Hospital’s Outpatient Department. Wettermark pointed out in his informal-opinion request that the mayor’s spouse “is not an administrator, nor does she have any involvement in any discussions, planning or decisions made with regard to the potential project.”
More advice offered
The AEC’s executive director added another caveat, this one a two-part warning.
Albritton reminded Wettermark that state law prohibits an elected or appointed official from voting on any matter in which the official or a family member has any financial gain or interest, and it prohibits the official from using confidential information for another’s benefit.
“Again, your facts don’t indicate that this has occurred up to this point in time, but both of these individuals should be mindful of these prohibitions now and moving forward,” he wrote. “A violation of (Alabama Code Section 36-25-8) could occur, for example, if the council member relayed confidential information about the project to his employer. This issue is, of course, separate from whether he can vote on the resolution itself.”
The issue at hand — the donation of 10 acres in the municipality’s Rivercane economic development park — has already come before the city council twice.
The first appearance was last October and resulted in the council’s failure to introduce the motion required to generate a vote. The second and most recent came on January 14, when Walker and Staff announced prior to discussion of the matter that they had requested the informal opinion from the ethics commission.
According to the date on the emailed correspondence, the ethics opinion was rendered and emailed to the city’s legal counsel at 2:20 p.m. on February 20.
Wettermark did not respond to an emailed request for information on the decision, nor did he explain why he had not notified Staff and Walker of the decision as of Monday, March 4.