WARNER ROBINS — A mortgage lender that owns property Warner Robins officials once targeted for revitalization has sued the city and several of its leaders on accusations the state Open Records Act was violated.
Atlanta-based Allison Equities Inc. filed the complaint in Houston County Superior Court on Dec. 22. The complaint names as the defendants the city of Warner Robins; former Mayor John Havrilla; former City Council members Clifford Holmes Jr. and Terry Horton; City Council members Tom Simms Jr., John Williams and Bob Wilbanks; Gary Lee, executive director of the Warner Robins Redevelopment Agency; Robert Sisa, director of City Development; Stan Martin, former city clerk and assistant city attorney; and Jim Elliott, city attorney.
The lawsuit accuses the city and its officials of “knowingly and willfully” violating the Open Records Act on seven counts when it failed to provide Allison Equities Inc. access to records it requested under the law.
Elliott did not comment on the lawsuit. Because he likely will be a witness, outside counsel provided by the city’s insurance will take the lead defending the city, Elliott said. Officials planned to meet to discuss the lawsuit Tuesday, he said.
Allison Equities Inc. first requested records regarding its properties at 214, 216 and 218 Tabor Drive through its attorney John S. Smith III on Aug. 4, 2009, according to court documents.
The city previously identified those addresses, among others, as blighted properties it planned to purchase and redevelop using Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The city initially refused to make any documents available to Smith because he was not a Georgia resident, even though the request was made on behalf of his client, a Georgia corporation, court documents show. The city later agreed to let Smith, who lives in Florida, inspect some documents.
Those documents included a draft of the Downtown Redevelopment Plan and the Neighborhood Stabilization Program application, along with two amendments. In addition, he viewed documents relating to seminars about how to apply for the grant and some records from Urban Design Associates, a Pittsburgh-based consulting group charged with designing a master plan for a downtown for the city, Smith said.
The lawsuit accuses the city of withholding other records, which Smith discovered and obtained copies of through other sources, according to court documents.
In addition, the complaint alleges that the city has not responded to any of Smith’s requests to inspect public records within three business days from the date of the request, nor provided a written response, as the law requires.
In a letter to Elliott included in the complaint, Smith writes that the city acted in bad faith for months, not only in regard to compliance with the Open Records Act but also in dealing with Allison Equities Inc. and the Tabor Drive properties.
According to the letter, city officials advised Allison Equities Inc. not to make any improvements to the properties because the city was going to purchase them. Officials then refused to respond to the company’s requests for updates on the status of plans to purchase the properties.
Smith said Tuesday he has not been told the city’s decision regarding the purchase of the Allison Equities Inc. property, vacant apartments and lots that were acquired through foreclosure. The mayor and City Council indicated about a month ago that they had no interest in buying those properties, Elliott said.
The city also has abandoned its plan to use Neighborhood Stabilization Program funds to rehabilitate the property. The city was granted about $622,000 in federal funding for the project in 2009 but has since declined, said Sherri Windham, Warner Robins community development block grants program director.
“We had to tell (the state Department of Community Affairs) that we were unable to comply with the regulations, so we’re not going to move forward with the project,” Windham said. “We were going to buy houses and rehab them and resell them. ... We really couldn’t get into the real estate business because we didn’t have the staff to do it.”
The lawsuit asks the court to require the city of Warner Robins to provide the requested documents, as allowed under the law. It also asks that a city employee be designated to determine what records are in existence and what happened to records that are not, but should be, in existence.
“What my suit is about is just trying to get the records from the city that would allow somebody to tell what’s going on and if there’s a problem,” Smith said.
Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report. To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 256-9705.