A newsletter meant to inform residents about Freeport happenings turned into another earful for City Council in the latest exchange of opinions concerning the marina project.
Just about every available seat was occupied at Monday's City Council meeting. The hot topic seemed to be the 14-page brochure, which cost the city about $11,000 and was mailed to residents and businesses last week. It included information about the newly annexed Bryan Beach and efforts to clean the city. But it was the two-page section on the marina project that prompted comments.
"The propaganda in the middle of that brochure should not have been paid for by our tax dollars," Cathy Williams said.
The brochure was intended to clear up misinformation concerning the project, said City Manager Ron Bottoms, later noting positive comments about the newsletter outweighed negative ones.
However, some said the article contained false statements.
Wright Gore III, son of Western Seafood Co.'s president, disputed several statements. He asked for feedback from City Council on questions regarding so-called blighted homes in Freeport and use of eminent domain. But he didn't get answers after City Attorney Wallace Shaw said responding to the inquiries would violate the Open Meetings Act. The newsletter was not an agenda item, and residents' comments came during the public comment part of the meeting.
"It makes us sound as if we were not interested in working with the city," Gore said Tuesday. The company would've been happy to share, but it couldn't do away with property, including a piece that would have blocked shrimp boat access to its packing house, he said.
Unlike what was stated in the article, Gore said the company never indicated they wanted to be a partner in the project. He added Western Seafood didn't file a lawsuit to stop the project as the article mentions. The injunction, Gore said, was to keep docks from being built on their property.
Bottoms, who wrote the bulk of the newsletter, said the evidence proves otherwise. "I stand by what was said," he said Tuesday.
When Bottoms first met with Walker Royall, the developer, Wright Gore II attended the meeting, Bottoms said. Both Gore II and his son attended a later meeting with the developer. "If they were not potential partners, why were they at these meetings?" Bottoms said.
Developers are building the marina, touted as the key to downtown development and revitalization, with a $6 million loan from the city. City officials have said they are prepared to use eminent domain, the power of a government to seize private land at fair market value for public use, to get the land if they cannot work out a deal. That has prompted concern from some residents and business people who fear loss of property.
A federal judge ruled in the city's favor concerning its use of eminent domain after a lawsuit was filed by Western Seafood Co., which could lose some of its property. But the issue isn't dead.
Freeport resident Skip Pratt questioned why the certificates of obligation were issued instead of letting voters decide if they wanted to spend money toward the project.
"It is my thinking that your actions should speak for the city of Freeport," Pratt said at the meeting. "What we want should be for what you want."
But Freeport resident Lila Lloyd said the city needs new businesses and residents. Businesses wouldn't move into Freeport because it was trashy, Lloyd said. Now that the city is trying to do something about its image by telling residents to clean up, people are complaining, she said. It's the same with the marina project, she said.
"I planned to compliment you on the brochure, but I've heard so much negative stuff that my head is heavy," Lloyd said. She suggested the city have a meeting to "shake out the gripe."
Pastor Abel Garcia of First Baptist Church of Freeport said, "I do realize there is a lot of passion in this room and passion is OK. ... My prayer is that the same amount of passion be given to the betterment of this community."
Councilman John Smith III said he didn't expect the newsletter to generate a lot of negative impact. "We know we have had issues with people getting the data," Smith said. "The newsletter was one way we thought would put everyone on the same page." But a few people put a negative spin on what the city does, he said.
Freeport Mayor Jim Barnett said the complaints dominating the meeting weren't representative of the feedback the city has received. "The review has been very positive from many, many other people," he said.
The Facts: www.thefacts.com
By Michael Baker
The U.S. Supreme Court might unknowingly determine the fate of the city’s marina project as its justices decide whether economic development justifies eminent domain.
To this point, city officials have prevailed in a lawsuit filed by Western Seafood Co. as the company tries to hold on to 330 feet of its property that the city wants for the project. Company officials have said losing the property containing docking area would be fatal to its business, but city officials have said the impact would
be minimal on the company. While city officials have tried to negotiate for the land, they also have said they would take it by eminent domain — the power of a government to seize private land at fair market value for public use — if necessary.
The company had tried to block the city’s use of eminent domain, but U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent ruled in August that the city had a right to pursue the proceedings.
The Supreme Court is hearing a similar case filed by New London, Conn., homeowners whose property is wanted by city officials for a riverfront hotel, health club and offices. Wright Gore III, the son of Western Seafood’s president, said the results of that case would override Kent’s decision. "If the Supreme Court rules for the property owners, it would be game over for the city — immediately," Gore said.
Neither City Manager Ron Bottoms nor John Hightower, the attorney representing the city in the Western Seafood lawsuit, could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Freeport Mayor Jim Barnett said the city is moving forward with its plans for the project. He agreed the Supreme Court’s ruling would have an impact, but it wouldn’t matter if the city already had the property, he said.
"I guess timing would be a factor there,” Barnett said.
Gore, who had help with his case from the attorney presenting the Connecticut case to the Supreme Court, said he wasn’t concerned about the timing issue. Western Seafood’s suit has been appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, and Gore expects that to take several months to be heard. However, he said the Supreme Court case should be heard in the next few weeks.
"It’s not going to happen after the fact," he said.
The Facts: www.thefacts.com