NEW ALBANY — The New Albany City Council ratified its appointments to the Horseshoe Foundation of Floyd County Board Thursday in the midst of a disagreement rooted in political affiliation.
Earlier this month, Council President Pat McLaughlin appointed Democratic Councilman John Gonder and independent Scott Blair to the Horseshoe board, which oversees casino-funded appropriations for various projects.
However in a letter dated Jan. 8, the president of the Horseshoe board and Floyd County Commissioner Mark Seabrook informed McLaughlin that Blair’s appointment would not be recognized.
Seabrook cited the board’s bylaws that the city council must appoint one member from each major political party, and the letter states “(e.g., Republican, Democrat).”
As a Democrat, Gonder meets the requirement of being from one of the two major political parties, but Blair does not, Seabrook stated in the letter.
“The other seat on our board will remain vacant until the council sees fit to appoint a Republican representative as required,” Seabrook said in the letter.
However in a statement provided to the News and Tribune on Jan. 11, Seabrook said the board didn’t ratify any new members including Gonder when it met on Jan. 10.
Instead, the prior members were allowed to vote on official business. Along with two city council members, the Horseshoe board is comprised of the New Albany mayor, a Floyd County commissioner, the general manager of the Horseshoe Casino of Southern Indiana and two of their designees.
The city council has only one Republican member in Kevin Zurschmiede. He and Councilwoman Diane McCartin-Benedetti were the council appointments to the Horseshoe board last year.
Councilman Dan Coffey called for a resolution to ratify McLaughlin’s choices to the board Tuesday, and the measure passed 5-2.
Coffey said “I was absolutely astounded” when he read Seabrook’s letter stating that McLaughlin should make another appointment because Blair would not be recognized by the board.
Though board meetings are supposed to be open to the public, Seabrook’s letter stated that Blair “will be asked to leave the meeting” if he attends a gathering with Gonder.
Coffey said that if McLaughlin’s appointments aren’t recognized by the next meeting, he will contact the Indiana Gaming Commission to investigate the matter.
Coffey said the bylaws are written in a way that the use of Republican and Democrat under the section dedicated to council appointments infers that those two parties were listed as examples, not requirements for selections.
“Our president has to answer to Jerry Finn?,” Coffey asked, as he referred to a portion of Seabrook’s letter that requested McLaughlin notify Horseshoe Foundation Executive Director Jerry Finn when Blair was replaced.
Benedetti and Councilman Bob Caesar voted against Coffey’s ratification resolution. Councilwoman Shirley Baird abstained from voting, and Zurschmiede was absent from the meeting.
“It’s absolutely their choice — we don’t have a choice,” Caesar said of the board’s determination that Blair’s appointment would not be recognized.
Coffey said the Horseshoe board shouldn’t dictate to the city who’s allowed to
represent the council on the body. Coffey even suggested that Caesar could serve “as a witness” for the Horseshoe if he didn’t want to back McLaughlin’s choices.
No member of the Horseshoe board attended the council meeting beyond Gonder and Blair.
Though Seabrook stated in his press release to the News and Tribune last week that the board would continue with 2012 appointments, Coffey’s resolution also stated that Benedetti and Zurschmiede were not to represent the council on the body in the place of Gonder and Blair.
McLaughlin has said he doesn’t intend to replace Blair as his appointment.
$75k for Town Clock Church approved
It took several months to hash out all the details, but the council approved on final reading Thursday a $75,000 appropriation that will go toward the refurbishment of Second Baptist Church in New Albany.
Widely known as the Town Clock Church, the building served as a link in the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. A more than $400,000 price tag has been placed on improving the building in a project that would entail replicating the historic steeple that once topped the circa-19th Century church.
City Attorney Stan Robison, with the approval of the church congregation, filed an easement on the property to protect the city’s investment in the project.
An amendment added to the appropriation before the final ballot established that the $75,000 from the city will not be released until the church has matched the amount in its own fundraising efforts.
The appropriation passed 6-2, with Blair and Councilman Greg Phipps voting against it.
Both Blair and Phipps said the history of the building is important and that they generally liked the project, but they voted against the expenditure for different reasons.
Blair wanted Gonder to amend the appropriation so that the city’s money couldn’t be spent until the church had raised enough to cover the rest of the phase-one costs.
The first phase of the project, which would include the replication of the steeple, is estimated to cost $217,500.
“I just want to make sure there’s enough funds available to complete phase one,” Blair said.
Gonder declined to add the amendment, as he said he didn’t want to “hamstring” the congregation and project by placing the additional fundraising requirement on the city’s commitment.
The church has received a $25,000 grant from the Horseshoe Foundation for the project and is accepting donations for the effort.
Phipps cited his principle of separating church and state affairs as his reason for voting against the measure.