Some Memphis City Council members said they did not meet behind closed doors to form the March resolution that gave the Memphis Zoo control of much of the Overton Park Greensward, as was laid out in a lawsuit filed this week.
The Greensward resolution appeared suddenly Tuesday morning on the March 1 agenda for the city council’s regular meeting that day. It had 10 sponsors, though it had never been formally discussed in front of the public. The resolution was placed on the calendar for the council’s executive session that afternoon but the council sent it on to the full council meeting without any discussion.
The council barely discussed the matter during its regular meeting that evening, either. Though, council member Patrice Robinson asked the city council’s attorney Allan Wade to briefly explain the resolution to a full house of interested citizens at Memphis City Hall.
Dozens of citizens took to the microphone, imploring council members to postpone the vote on the matter. They didn’t. The council approved the resolution with a vote of 11-1, with Martavius Jones filing the only vote against it.
The law suit was filed in Chancery Court Tuesday and says that the council and Wade violated the state's Open Meetings Act while developing the resolution and garnering votes for it.
It states that "on for before March 1, 2016, the members of the city council directly and/or through city council [Attorney] Allan Wade with input from [the Memphis Zoological Society] held discussions and deliberations outside of public view and without public notice on the Greensward controversy and developed a plan and resolution for action to be taken on the Greensward controversy by the Memphis City Council.”
Read more about the suit from our Tuesday story
“I think [the lawsuit] is bogus,” said council member Kemp Conrad. “I would expect attorneys to be accurate when they file things like that. But they, for one, said I was one of the sponsors, which isn’t even true.
“When something like that is inaccurate on something as serious as a lawsuit, it causes me to question the whole thing. I’m surprised that a firm like that would have such a shoddy workmanship.”
Council member Worth Morgan said the council had a closed-door, attorney/client meeting with Wade when the Memphis Zoo sued the city in January, hoping to win a declaratory judgment for control of the Greensward. Though, Morgan said he had no yet read the new new lawsuit and would not comment on it until he had spoken with Wade.
Council member Phillip Spinosa also refused to comment on the suit until after speaking with Wade.
Council member Berlin Boyd said he thought everything regarding the Greensward resolution “was done ethically and above board.” He said “I’m in kind of shock and awe” about citizens’ passion about the issue, and hoped that some of that energy could be spent on larger city issues like poverty, blight, crime, and creating jobs.
Boyd was told that many in Memphis feel the similar “shock and awe” that the council passed the resolution without much public input and without much prior notice. Here’s what he said:
“It’s not necessarily…you have to understand two-fold. We have information as it pertains to…you have to understand, this body created [Overton Park Conservancy]. This body voted to put the Overton Park Conservancy in place.
“Therefore, now for us to have the…we’re dealing with other issues in this city, possible budget issues, how we’re going to have a balanced budget and now to deal with the concerns of an economic catalyst, and engine, which generates over $90 million to our local economy, parking on the Greensward 60 days out of the year, I think it’s ridiculous.
“Therefore, it’s one of those things where the zoo has always in my knowledge and my research, had in their overall plan that part of the Greensward, was assigned to the zoo. They’re coming back, OPC came back, and questioned it, whether or not that was actual, legal document. So, as far as I know, the city council has the right to rename, reassign parks across the city of Memphis.
“I think everything was done ethically and above board. Everyone has an opinion on it as to the way the general public sees it but in documents that I’ve read an researched, the zoo has always had the autonomy and the authority to have that particular space.”