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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Fight over Acadome continues in court

The fight over the name of the arena at Alabama State University has moved from a board meeting at the school to the state Legislature and now to a courtroom.
Current and former top officials with the university were in Montgomery on Thursday for a preliminary hearing for a lawsuit claiming the ASU Board of Trustees violated the Alabama Open Meetings Act at the meeting in which members voted to remove Joe Reed's name from the Acadome.
The officials bickered among themselves before and after the hearing, which was before Judge Truman Hobbs Jr.
Current top ASU officials claim they followed the law when voting to remove the name. They also sought to dismiss any insinuations that there was a conspiracy involving powerful state lawmaker and ASU Executive Vice President John Knight to remove Reed's name.
Reed, who is also a top official with the Alabama Democratic Party and the Alabama Education Association, was a trustee when the name was removed in May 2008.
A witness, Cynthia Williams, who worked for Knight, said he talked to her and another employee, after 5 p.m. and asked them to draft a resolution to remove Reed’s name from the Acadome. She said Knight gave them "bullet points" and she transformed it into a resolution.
"I added the context, the narrative," Williams said.
Knight, Williams said, also talked about "bad press and the media."
The next day, after the meeting and the vote to remove the name, Williams said Knight informed them that no one was supposed to know "in any way that the resolution originated from his office."
Also, the evening Knight called, he asked for contact information for the employee who manages facilities, Williams said.
Shortly after the vote, university employees were at the Acadome removing Reed's name and likeness.
Alabama State attorney Kenneth Thomas said Williams did not know if Knight was reading from a document when he called May 29.
Knight, who was the special assistant to the president of the university at the time, said he received the draft from Thomas and, on Thomas' advice, did not talk about the conversation between them.
Knight said some changes and corrections were made. He said he would not have trusted Williams to draft the document, saying "that is one reason she is no longer an employee."
Knight said he did not give a copy to the president or to board Chairman Elton Dean.
Knight contends he did not draft the resolution and was simply having his staff type the document and print it on stationary.
Trustee Herbert Young said he wrote the resolution about four months before the meeting and only talked with Thomas about his proposal to remove the name. Young said he never discussed the proposal with school administrators or other board members.
Dean said Young told him he had a resolution to present under the "other business" portion of the agenda at the meeting, but that he did not mention what was in the resolution. Dean, who is also chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, said he did not know about the resolution until the May 30 meeting.
Trustees and Williams were asked about the hospitality room reserved for trustees on May 29, 2008, the night before the board meeting in which Reed's name was removed. The hospitality room was at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center, which several people said is the hotel of choice for several trustees and other people who come in to Montgomery for business with ASU.
Four of the trustees stayed at the hotel, according to testimony. Dean also stopped by, but trustees argued they did not have a quorum or discuss the resolution.
Thomas said Williams was not at the Renaissance, did not know who was there and did not have first-hand knowledge.
Williams said she was told who to tell about the hospitality room and Reed, who was on the board at the time, was not included. She said there had been previous meetings they tried to conduct when he could not attend.
"One meeting, they really did not want his presence and told me to find out when he was not available," Williams said on the stand.
Williams was fired from the university on Jan. 2.
She denied Thomas' question about her being a disgruntled former employee.
Thomas said the university has been held hostage by the lawsuit. He said there was not substantive evidence to proceed.
Attorney James Anderson said there were three different stories on Thursday about the drafting of the resolution. He contended business was discussed and a quorum was present outside of the board meeting in violation of the open meetings law.
After the court proceedings, some of the current trustees claimed Reed conducted business in the same way when he was ASU board chairman that he is now claiming violated state open meeting laws.
Hobbs did not rule on Thursday.

-- posted by Sebastian Kitchen

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