DECATUR, Ala. (WHNT) - The Sweetwater Development Project in Decatur that includes a Bass Pro Shop could all be in jeopardy because of a lawsuit that challenges Decatur's form of government. Voters in Decatur elected nearly four years ago to switch to a council-manager form of government. but the city never made the change, saying it would violate the federal Voting Rights Act. Now, a lawsuit that seeks to force the change is threatening the Sweetwater deal and a host of other projects.
Originally city officials didn't seem too concerned about the suit, at least not publicly. But court documents obtained by WHNT News 19 reveal what a headache the lawsuit has become and explains why the city wants a ruling on the matter as quickly as possible.
An affidavit filed in federal court on the behalf of Decatur Mayor Don Kyle says allegations in the lawsuit that the mayor and city council are holding office unlawfully have caused uncertainty among financial institutions, attorneys and others involved in economic development projects. The brief describes the lawsuit as "problematic" with regards to the proposed Sweetwater Development Project. It also says Decatur Utilities has been stopped from using a bank line of credit until the lawsuit is settled.
The mayor also says in the affidavit that day-to-day operations of the city are potentially adversely affected with regards to purchase orders and other lesser contracts the city may execute.
The lawsuit seeks to force the city to change from a mayor-council form of government to a council-manager form, wherein the mayor would become a parttime official and the day-to-day operation of the city would be handled by a city manager. Voters in Decatur approved that change in 2010. But city officials never implemented it saying it would violate the Voting Rights Act by reducing the number of districts from five to three, and eliminate the one predominately black voter district that Decatur currently has.
Mayor Kyle did not yet return our calls, but an attorney for the Alabama League of Municipalities says those doing business with the city should not be overly concerned because "courts typically don't go back and un-do what council members have done in good faith." Still, Lori Lein admits bond attorneys, like those who would be involved in the Sweetwater development, would be skeptical to approve the deal while the city is involved in a lawsuit over who will actually run the city.
Carl Cole, the attorney representing the Decatur man who filed the lawsuit, told WHNT News 19, "I think there's a level of incompetance there about what's going on with this case and how it could affect things. They've gotten some people in now that I think have told them this is a bigger deal than you think."
The city has hired outside attorneys to handle the suit for them, and both sides have filed motions for a summary judgement, that is essentially to have the case decided without a trial. No trial date has been set but a conference hearing has been scheduled for Friday, and on Monday the city council is scheduled to vote on the Sweetwater proposal. Of course, we'll let you know what happens.