On the heels of a controversial Public Building Authority (PBA) decision to change its bylaws to increase Manchester’s representation on its board, the Coffee County Legislative Committee has voted to ask the authority to refrain from making any new appointments until the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) reviews the situation.
The seven-member PBA board oversees the operations of the Manchester-Coffee County Conference Center. On Sept. 14, the authority voted to revise its bylaws to give Manchester City an extra seat on the board at the expense of county representation.
Before that vote, the City of Manchester, the City of Tullahoma and rural Coffee County were represented with two members each. The seventh member was designated at-large.
Under the new bylaws, three members, appointed by the Manchester Board of Mayor and Aldermen, would represent Manchester. The rest, appointed by the Coffee County Commission, could be selected from anywhere within the county.
Effectively, the new rule means that Tullahoma would no longer have guaranteed representation on the board, which Tullahoma representative Greg Sandlin believes it should.
Sandlin opposed the change, claiming it would be unfair for the county to lose a seat, and has questioned whether PBA has authority to change its bylaws at all. To settle the question, Coffee County Mayor Gary Cordell has asked CTAS to review all relevant documents.
CTAS provides technical consulting and training to assist officials in all areas of county government operations.
According to Sandlin, PBA should postpone any membership change until CTAS has determined whether the revised bylaws are lawful and consistent with the authority’s charter and certificate of incorporation – documents that do not reference the authority’s agreement to split conference center operating losses equally between the county and the City of Manchester.
That agreement, Sandlin said, is at the heart of the authority’s decision to shift voting representation on the board.
Legislative committee agrees
The county legislative committee appears to share Sandlin’s concern. The committee voted Oct. 22 to ask the PBA to refrain from taking any actions based on the recent change until the CTAS review is complete.
“PBA members can’t just arbitrarily decide, ‘We don’t want a rural person anymore; now we want a Manchester person.’” Coffee County Commissioner Margaret Cunningham said. “It’s not their decision to decide, it’s the county commission’s. Who has the official responsibility for appointing members of the PBA? That’s all we are asking.”
Commissioner Helen Debellis echoed Cunningham’s opinion.
“We want to clear that with CTAS,” Debellis said. “We just want an unbiased opinion.”
The committee agreed the county should ask the PBA not to make any appointments until CTAS makes its determination.
“We are not really stopping PBA from doing business,” Debellis said. “We are just stopping them from electing the new person [on the board].”
However, according to Sandlin, the PBA has already appointed someone to the seat.
The terms of Coffee County representative Vernon Sherrill and Tullahoma representative Stan Teal both expired Sept. 8.
Sherrill was not seeking reappointment. After the PBA changed its bylaws in September, the Manchester Board of Mayor and Alderman appointed Jewel Noblitt to fill his seat – as a representative of Manchester.
“This appointment would replace a rural Coffee County seat with a Manchester seat,” Sandlin said. “At our Oct. 18 PBA meeting, Mrs. Noblett was introduced by Chairman [Patricia] Pinegar as the newest PBA director.”
Teal, on the other hand, is seeking reappointment. The county commission has not yet voted on that appointment.
The conference center, which has operated in the red, losing millions, since it opened its doors in 2002, has been a heated issue for some time.
In the last four years alone, the center has suffered operating losses of more than $1.5 million: $301,329 in FY15, $407,178 in FY16, $505,975 in FY17 and more than $350,000 in FY18. Those losses are split equally between the county and the city of Manchester.
The only control either entity has over the center’s operations is through the members of the PBA.
Elena Cawley may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.