Tension Builds Between Local Officials
Public Works Director Mike Pratt to Keep Position
New Beginnings Full Gospel Baptist Church to Begin Construction Despite Neighborhood Objections
Tuesday night’s city council meeting was a far cry from its ordinary monotony.
The courtroom in the municipal complex was packed to capacity, allowing for standing room only as supporters and naysayers to New Beginnings Full Gospel Baptist Church filed in.
Before the council could address the church’s request to begin construction in a residentially zoned neighborhood, Mayor Robert Smith quickly got down to the business of a recent article that appeared in the weekly publication The Real Story. Smith rattled off a response to the article, saying that while he did approve paving of the apron, he did not, in fact, tell Public Works Director Mike Pratt to pave a driveway at Lavonne Harris’s salon, Von’s Exotic Beauty Salon.
The mayor said, “I would like to take this time to correct some false information that was printed in a local publication called The Real Story on Wednesday, March 7, 2012, concerning illegally paving an apron and asphalt that was used at Von’s Exotic Hair Salon located on Gardner Boulevard.
“In the publication dated March 7, 2012, it stated that I had authorized Mr. Mike Pratt, public works director, to pave an apron and driveway in front of Von’s Exotic Hair Salon illegally,” Smith said. “All the proper procedures were followed with the exception of the extra asphalt that was used in the driveway, which I knew nothing about.
“After talking with Councilman Box, I met with Mr. Pratt and Mr. Kevin Stafford, city engineer, at Von’s Exotic Hair Salon and discussed this issue,” Smith said. “Mr. Pratt was instructed that as long as it was in the city’s right-of-way, it would be OK. It was within the city right-of way. At this time, I’d like to ask Mr. Pratt to come forward and explain the situation.”
Pratt stepped to the podium and was immediately hit with a barrage of questions, specifically from Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens.
The conversation quickly escalated when Mickens questioned Pratt about his reasoning for paving the side area. Smith instructed Mickens to “calm down”, to which Mickens responded, “I am calm.” The two went back and forth with Smith again telling Mickens to “calm down” and Mickens again telling the mayor, “I am calm.” Mickens then asked Pratt if any elected official had asked for the driveway to be paved, to which Pratt responded “No, they did not.”
Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box asked Pratt if dumping excess asphalt was “routine.” Pratt told Box that his workers do dump excess asphalt and the makeshift driveway “is falling apart as we speak.”
Mickens’ frustrations with the issue seemed to mount and he called for Pratt’s resignation. The mayor immediately interrupted the councilman, saying that Pratt’s employment was a personnel issue and should only be discussed in closed executive session. The mayor then excused Pratt and the meeting went about its normal business.
The council had two board appointments on the agenda, one for the planning commission and the other for the Columbus Municipal School Board. Phillip Long had previously served as president of the planning commission but, because of a motion passed at last month’s meeting stating that city appointed board members must live in the county – Long resides in the county – he was ineligible. Quinn Brislin of Brislin Inc. was the only applicant and was unanimously appointed to the board.
The board then moved onto to the next item on the agenda, the matter of appointing a new member to the school board following board member Bruce Hanson’s resignation. Councilman Taylor recused himself from the vote, stating personal ties to the issue. Councilman Karriem made the motion to appoint Spears with Ward 6 Councilman Bill Gavin seconding. In a 5-0 vote, the council appointed Jason Spears, a financial planner, as the newest member of the board.
After board appointments were made, the floor was opened up for citizen’s input.
Sharon Lewis, owner of Sharon’s Boutique and president of the local chapter of the National Action Network, approached the board asking for her business to receive paving “since this is a service the city is now providing.” Lewis had asked for the area surrounding her building to be paved several months ago but, according to Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong, the asphalt was in fair condition and did not need to be paved.
City Attorney Jeff Turnage said, “I agree with Mr. Armstrong, it doesn’t appear to be warranted.”
Mayor Smith then spoke to Lewis, asking her, “Do you understand that if it’s not warranted, there isn’t a need there?” To which Lewis replied that she did. She then told the council that she would be back to revisit the issue.
Next on the agenda was Hilda Fox. Fox was upset about what she claims are numerous potholes in front of her house, as well as that a ditch that runs along the side of her home frequently floods, attracting snakes and washing debris into her yard. She then spoke directly to Councilman Mickens, saying, “I called you and you never called me back. When you told us you were running for councilman, I worked for you and campaigned for you. Now, when I call you, you won’t even answer the phone.” Fox and Mickens quickly got into a back-and-forth, with the councilman telling Fox, “I can report it, but I don’t run the day-to-day”, referring to Pratt.
Councilman Mickens asked Pratt to step back up to the podium and asked him if the two of them had a discussion regarding the potholes in front of Fox’s home. Pratt responded that he and the councilman had indeed had a conversation and he told Mickens that he and his crew would take care of it. Fox claims the potholes have not been taken care of. Fox got back on the subject of Mickens not returning her phone calls, and when the councilman told her that he had received only one call from Fox, she called him a liar. An obviously outraged Councilman Mickens told Fox, “I pray and hope you can live with what you just said.”
After Fox returned to her seat, the board moved onto the hotly debated topic of rezoning. New Beginnings Full Gospel Baptist church purchased land off of Highway 69 South nearly 20 years ago. The lot of land that was purchased is in a residentially zoned neighborhood. In order to get to piece of land that the church wants to build on, they would have to use a road that neighbors say is not built for heavy traffic. Jack Burks has lived on his property for over fifty years and claims that the road was originally built so “the owner could feed his cows.” Fellow neighbor Gail Beatty also approached the council to protest a church in that area, saying, “I’m not comfortable with a church with 250 people there all the time.”
According to the church’s pastor, Glenn Jefferson, the church plans to host an after school program as well as a daycare facility. Jefferson, who is also on the three-member board of the Civil Service Commission, says the church wants to be “the best neighbors we can be.”
Jefferson explained to council members that without their approval, the church would be landlocked and stated, “You can’t stop a man from getting to his property. Why would you buy property if you can’t get to it?”
Turnage spoke up and told Jefferson that the issue is “not a simple title search.” According to Turnage, the originally owners of the property, Piedmont LLC, deeded the land to a Mr. Beatty, who then sold it to a man by the last name of White. White, in turn, sold it to the church. The issue lies in the fact that Piedmont may not have had the right to deed to easement to Beatty in the first place. Turnage encouraged Jefferson to further investigate the issue to make sure that the church actually has the right to the roadway.
After Councilman Taylor called for a vote, with Mickens seconding the motion, the city voted to allow the church to move to the location in a 5-0 vote.
In other news, Fire Chief Kenneth Moore petitioned the city for a new fire truck. According to Moore, in order for the city to maintain its level five rating, a new fire truck is a must. A new pumper truck will cost $425,000 to $450,000. City Financial Officer Mike Bernsen informed the council that the price of the truck is well within the city’s budget and the council unanimously voted to approve Moore’s request.
The open portion of the meeting came to an end with the council going in to executive session to discuss three personnel matters and one issue of potential litigation.
According to sources within the city, Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong filed a grievance against Mayor Smith, claiming Smith “bullied” Armstrong on numerous occasions. While Armstrong was presenting his grievance to council members, Smith reportedly brought other department heads into the meeting and specifically asked each one if them if they too felt bullied. While the answers varied, with one reportedly even telling the mayor that his management style was gruff, each denied ever feeling bullied. While in the process of questioning Armstrong about his grievance, Mayor Robert Smith made reference to the gravel issue, and reportedly asked if Armstrong had ever “given information to Sarah Fowler (Columbus Packet reporter).” [Armstrong allegedly denied doing so, and Pratt was brought in as a reported witness to a prior conversation between Smith and Armstrong. Mike Pratt then reportedly told the mayor and council members “Sarah Fowler told me she got her information from Kabir.”] Armstrong’s grievance letter was then produced and the meeting erupted, with some councilmen yelling obscenities so loudly that it could be heard in the hallway by the gathered members of the media. Karriem reportedly called Pratt a liar and left the meeting. The arguing continued for some time after Karriem’s exit, and both Councilman Mickens’ and Smith’s voices echoed throughout the courtroom.
The Packet received what is believed to be a copy of Armstrong’s grievance letter. A portion of that letter is below, stating:
On Thursday, March 15, 2012, at approximately 12:15 PM, Mayor Robert Smith walked into my office, along with Public Works Director Mike Pratt, and asked me point blank: “Did you tell Councilman Karriem I know he told Sarah Fowler I had that paving done at Von’s Salon on Gardner Blvd. for ‘political payback’?”
I told Robert “absolutely not” and that I hadn’t repeated what he said to anyone.
Mayor Smith then stated: “Well I only told you and Mike that Kabir told Sarah this—so one of you had to tell him!”
I then told Robert that I don’t know who or if anyone told Kabir this, but that it definitely wasn’t me. Mike said that it wasn’t him, either. Robert then looked at me and stated: “Someone told me it was you who told Kabir this.”
I then advised the Mayor that I was tired of him constantly accusing me, in private and in front of others, of things like this that are totally false. I asked him who told him this lie about me, but he refused to say.
“I’ll tell you what then,” I said to Robert, “you go get whoever told you this and bring that person with you to my office, and I guarantee he or she won’t repeat that lie in my presence.” The Mayor refused, and he and Mike Pratt then left my office.
[I have never spoken with Mike Pratt about my conversations with any member of the city council, including Councilman Karriem. In researching the story that appeared in last week’s Packet, entitled “Gravelgate”, I spoke with Mayor Smith about his involvement with the section of asphalt placed in front of Von’s Exotic Beauty Salon. Mayor Smith repeatedly asked me to reveal my source, stating over and over, “I know Kabir told you, I know Kabir told you.” I informed the mayor that I had not spoken with the councilman about the issue. I also informed him that I do not and will not reveal my sources to him, or anyone else. SF]
After addressing additional personnel issues within the police department, the executive session came to a close with the council taking no action on Armstrong’s grievance or Pratt’s employment.