It appears the fate of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority may be sealed.
During a joint meeting Monday at Trotter Convention Center, Lowndes County supervisors and Columbus city councilmen went back and forth for nearly 90 minutes on the CLRA’s future. The bodies, which jointly govern the authority that manages the city-county parks system, failed to agree on how to move forward. However, three county supervisors — President Harry Sanders, Bill Brigham and John Holliman, of districts 1, 2 and 3, respectively — held their positions that the county should split from CLRA and run its own parks system.
Five councilmen present — Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens was absent — and Mayor Robert Smith expressed their opposition to ending the inter-local agreement, as did two supervisors — District 4’s Leroy Brooks and District 5’s Jeff Smith.
However, as Brooks pointed out roughly an hour into the meeting, three supervisors are all it would take to dissolve the CLRA.
“I think from all indications, at least three members on my board — that’s all it takes — have basically stated their strong positions,” he said.
Brooks suggested both entities consider creating a transitional board to oversee the process if Lowndes County and Columbus ultimately end the agreement. Neither board took action Monday, as the meeting was only meant for discussion.
After the meeting, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box said the city will have to determine what steps to take next.
“I think the majority of the city councilmen are not in favor of [splitting],” Box said. “But I think the board of supervisors decided for whatever reason to do this. I think it’s a mistake, but it looks like it’s going to happen. We’re just going to have to regroup and figure out a way to operate better.”
Supervisors initiated the ongoing discussion in June, when they hired Clinton-based RF Consulting for $4,000 to conduct a review of CLRA’s structure and operation. The move sparked fear among city leaders that Lowndes County intended to split from the inter-local agreement.
RF Consulting returned a nine-page report in August that did not recommend whether the county should remain in the agreement. Supervisors voted unanimously on Sept. 6 to issues a one-year notice of intent to withdraw from CLRA’s inter-local agreement.
If a split occurs, Columbus would maintain parks in the city limits, while the county would operate former CLRA outside the city. The only exception could be the county-owned soccer complex in downtown Columbus.
Brigham: ‘My way of restructuring is division’
CLRA Director Greg Lewis said the recreation authority’s parks are seeing high activity. He said some community centers, such as the one in Steens, have vibrant offerings and community participation.
He also pushed back against the idea Sanders raised during the meeting that people are afraid to go to city parks. Lewis said that even if something occurs in the vicinity of a park, nothing has happened in the parks themselves.
Lewis acknowledged additional staff or funding could improve the parks, but he said CLRA is offering a wide range of activities to residents throughout Lowndes County.
“Don’t just pass by the facilities,” he said. “Stop to go inside the door and see what going on.”
Brooks suggested restructuring CLRA, rather than destroying the agreement. He said CLRA has been restructured in the past. His suggestion for a revised organization included an appointed board, a director, a city coordinator and county coordinator.
“I guess my whole point is we don’t have to throw the baby out with the (bathwater) to accomplish what we’re trying to do,” Brooks said. “To split up and have two parks and recreation is just not a good idea.”
Brigham, however, said he believes division is best for both entities.
“My way of restructuring is division,” Brigham said. “I honestly believe ownership gets better results. The city would do a better job without the county trying to influence their decisions. The county would do a better job without the city trying to influence our decisions.
“When you have joint ownership, all you want to do is point the finger at the other partner,” he later added. “It doesn’t work in business (and) it’s hard to make it work in government. It’s hard enough to make one branch in government get along.”
Sanders: ‘I think they want our money’
Near the end of the meeting, Sanders said he wasn’t convinced by the city’s arguments that the county should remain a part of CLRA.
“The city has not given me one good reason why we should stay in. … I think they want our money. We put in $735,000 in parks and rec every year. That’s $80,000 more than the city puts in, and we haven’t gotten anything for our money. I’m upset about that.”
The county cut its contribution for this fiscal year to $690,000.
Smith sharply denied Sanders’ claim that the city only wants county money. However, Smith was skeptical that even matching the county’s contribution to CLRA would be enough to save the agreement.
“If we said we would match what the county puts into parks and recreation, I don’t think that would resolve the issue,” he said.
“We said from the beginning, and the council can speak for themselves, that we were here to reconcile whatever issues there are and hope we can come to conclusions to where we can keep this inter-local agreement together,” Smith added. “But from what I’ve heard, I think we’re just wasting our time.”
A handful of citizens attending Monday’s meeting also voiced their concerns over the split.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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