3 council members upset when left out of loop
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
A trio of city council members, each of whom opposed the proposed donation of 10 acres of city land at Rivercane for a new hospital, are up in arms after learning of the land swap negotiated last week by Poarch Band of Creek Indians and Escambia County Healthcare Authority.
Under the swap, Poarch traded 10 acres of land along Alabama 21 to the county healthcare authority on which the new hospital will be built. In return, Poarch will take over ownership of the current hospital building and the 10 acres on which it sits.
No date has been announced for final consummation of the deal, but reportedly the land is being surveyed, and lawyers are working on the language for the legal documents that will have to be filed.
The city council members aren’t overly upset that the deal means a new hospital will be built, although each wanted it built closer to town. Each expressed concern, however, over the fact that Mayor Jim Staff was the official who announced the deal, and that they had to learn about it from a source other than the mayor. (Two council members said they learned about the real estate deal from Atmore News.)
“The mayor has yet to call me about it,” Susan Smith, who represents District 4 on the council. Smith said she would like to know why Staff, who informed local and area media of the transaction, was tasked with announcing the land swap to the public.
“Why would the mayor, who was elected by the people of Atmore to represent them, all of a sudden be representing the Escambia County Health Authority, Poarch Creek Indians and the (Atmore) hospital board?” she asked. “I have nothing against any of those organizations, but I have a hard time understanding why one of the other ‘heads’ couldn’t make the announcement instead of the mayor.”
Staff said Smith should take her question to the source.
“She would have to ask Poarch about that,” he said. “I was asked to do it, and I did it.”
Staff admitted Tuesday that he told only District 1’s Webb Nall and District 3’s Chris Walker about the swap, and that was after the July 29 council meeting was cancelled for lack of a quorum. He confirmed that that he had not apprised Smith, District 2’s Jerome Webster or District 5’s Chris Harrison of it.
“I talked with two of them, the ones who were at the meeting,” he said. “But why should I talk to the others? The council had the opportunity to do a land swap for the 10 acres the healthcare folks wanted, but those three weren’t interested in that, either.”
Webster said Monday that the mayor often leaves council members in the dark until after the fact.
“I’m somewhat disappointed because I’ve been talking to the community about this, and once again we find ourselves not knowing what’s going on,” he said. “We (council members) wanted a new hospital; we just didn’t want it out there. It’s not the council’s fault; we didn’t know. We’re elected to help the community, but we constantly don’t know what’s going on unless we read it in the newspaper or see it on Facebook.”
Smith agreed to some degree.
“How did the mayor get all the information he’s gotten without us (council members) being able to get that same information?” she asked.
Staff said he discussed the hospital land issue in depth with each council member at least three times during the several months it was a city issue. Three times the potential Rivercane land deal came before the council, but no action was taken on the matter at any of those sessions.
“They knew about it,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”
Harrison said he had not spoken with Staff about the land swap but noted that he had been in Tennessee at a work-related conference during the time the transaction became public knowledge.
Like Webster, he said he and the majority of his constituents to whom he had talked, like the idea of a new hospital but wanted it kept nearer to the population center.
“I admit that I would like to keep it downtown,” Harrison said. “Of all the calls I’ve gotten from my constituents, nobody — not one person — has been for putting the hospital out there.”
He said the manner in which the land swap came about and how it was made public has led many residents to believe that it was a city council action.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Harrison said. “The way it was handled gives the perception that we (the council) were complicit in this deal. And that’s not the case.”
Poarch officials confirmed that the agreement was reached after former ECHCA chair and present treasurer Nancy Lowrey met with tribal officials and proposed the land swap.
“This was discussed Monday (July 22) at a workshop with Tribal leadership and the Escambia County Healthcare Authority Treasurer, Nancy Lowrey,” said Sharon Delmar, PCI’s public relations liaison. “The Tribe agreed to give the authority land near the casino and in return the authority stated that they would be willing to do a land swap and give the property in Atmore to the Tribe.”
Staff said he was glad the possibility of the community losing its hospital had been eliminated, even if the city council was not a part of it.
“I’m just relieved that we’re not going to lose it,” Staff said. “The city is out of it now, but the main thing is, we won’t be losing our hospital. The council had several chances to act on this, but they didn’t. The folks at Poarch understand that it was move it or lose it, or that’s what the folks (paid consultants) were saying.”
Smith, Harrison and Webster agreed that the city’s elderly residents and those who cannot afford to travel five miles to the new hospital would be most affected by the location of the new hospital.
“The elderly, the poor and the African American citizens of Atmore will be the losers in this trade,” Smith said.