By Jim Young
In a city council meeting that will be remembered for the language and accusations between members of Crossville City Council and the city attorney, a vote taken early in the meeting could also spell the end of the Northwest Connector, along with a possible breach of contract.
While the January city council meeting was expected to be contentious, the items expected to create sparks were scheduled near the end of the agenda. However, some of the fireworks came early in the meeting during the consent agenda after Councilman Pete Souza asked that the item to approve the second reading of the Northwest Connector budget amendment be pulled out for a separate vote.
As Souza started the discussion, he tried to characterize Mayor J.H. Graham III as being good at selling projects that aren't always a good deal. He talked about the purchase of the airport property, the purchase of the soccer complex now with possible wetland issues, the purchase of the former bank building for city hall and the purchase of the industrial park near I-40.
A short time into his discussion, Souza left the bench and stood behind the podium in front of the council and began to once again make conflict of interest accusations. Before his comments were over, he had leveled conflict of interest accusations at Councilman George Marlow, Graham and Councilman Danny Wyatt. Suggesting that each man had some aspect of conflict of interest Souza, said that he felt none of those three council members should be allowed to vote on the matter before the council.
Souza suggested to Marlow that, because he owns land along the connector corridor, he should not vote on the matter, even though the part of the road where Marlow's farm property is located is already under construction and was not up for discussion or vote in the meeting.
Souza then started to address Graham, who has his personal P.O. Box listed with his contact information on the city's website. Souza said he looked up that address and found it is also used by several corporations, including the Cotton Patch property that is located along Industrial Drive, part of section 3 of the project. Graham asked city attorney Kenneth Chadwell, who said that an accountant or tax preparer does not have an interest in a company they work for and, therefore, there is no conflict of interest. Graham explained that the annual report information comes to his PO Box address to make it easier for the mayor to file those forms as required on an annual basis and he has no ownership of any kind in the corporations in question.
All members of the city council have their addresses and contact information listed on the city's website.
Souza's concern about Wyatt included the fact that he owes money to Bruce Wyatt, who Souza says owns property along the corridor.
After Chadwell advised the council that none of Souza's claims rose to the level of conflict of interest, Graham moved to approve the budget amendment on second reading and Marlow made the second.
The motion failed, with Souza, Kerley and Wyatt voting against and Graham and Marlow in favor. Wyatt said he was opposed because of the cost combined with the cost of the downtown project.
Wyatt said, “We're going to spend everything we can get a hold of on on this downtown project and it is going to eat our lunch for us.”
Wyatt then turned to Souza and said, “You forgot to mention that one, Mr. Souza.”
With phase one of the project currently being built between Sparta Highway and 70N, it is unclear what the council's action will mean to the remainder of the proposed project. The council had previously approved the contracts with engineers that it has now said it will not fund the payments on, and that could result in the potential for a breach of contract action and the city having to pay for work that has already started since the contract was previously approved.
Sections II and III of the Northwest Connector in question are under an older contract with the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to be funded at a cost share of 80/20. If the contract with TDOT is canceled, the best cost sharing the city could hope for in the future is a 50/50 share. Due to budgetary issues, even a 50/50 share would not be guaranteed if the project were to be resurrected at a later date. The loss in funding could amount to as much as $8 million toward the project. The city's share would be approximately $2 million under the current contract.