Tullahoma Alderman Jenna Amacher accused City Administrator Jennifer Moody of "unilaterally and arbitrarily" stripping one of the city’s downtown bar/restaurant of a special events permit that allowed London's owner Joe Keller to operate an outdoor venue.
The issue stems from actions allegedly taken by City Administrator Jennifer Moody against a local business owner and a motion made by Alderman Rupa Blackwell to pause further discussion on an issue with that business owner.
The issue at hand involves the use of the Wall Street Alley by London’s owner Joseph Keller. Keller, who owns property across the alley from London’s bar, was previously operating a new outdoor venue on a special events permit designed to allow him to temporarily block Wall Street during certain weekend hours.
Keller, whose bar was closed for several months due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, shifted to the use of the outdoor venue in order to comply with restrictions on gatherings and social distancing under Gov. Bill Lee’s executive orders. The special events permit was issued to Keller due to the pandemic to allow him to resume business, according to Amacher.
Moody confirmed the issuance of the permit to allow him to continue operating during the time when Gov. Lee’s executive orders were in effect.
While London’s had the outdoor venue open, metal barrier fencing was placed outside the middle entrance to the bar. Some city officials reported receiving complaints about not being able to cross through the blockaded portion of the alley during the weekends, including Alderman Sernobia McGee.
McGee said she and friends were attempting to pass through the blockade and were stopped by security officials at the barriers, who prevented them from passing.
Additionally, there were some concerns from Daddy Billy’s about whether or not its staff members would be able to use the alley to transport their garbage to the dumpster, which is located across West Lincoln Street.
Keller and the city were attempting to negotiate a lease agreement for the use of the alley, which is owned by the city. He attended a study session after the Sept. 28 board meeting to discuss the particulars of the lease agreement and to present a long-range plan for the outdoor space.
Study sessions are for discussion of items only. No official votes may be taken during study sessions, per state law.
During the study session, Amacher supported negotiating the lease agreement, stating it would be good for both London’s and the city. She highlighted the fact that the lease would be non-exclusive, meaning the lease would not prevent other businesses from using the alley.
While Amacher fully supported the lease agreement, other board members were not so keen on the idea. Mayor Ray Knowis said he would be vehemently against leasing city property to any business, not just London’s. Aldermen Blackwell and Daniel Berry said they wanted London’s to succeed but would like to see a fuller plan before they voted on the item. Alderman Jimmy Blanks said he would only support the agreement if there were specific stipulations regarding when the alley barriers could go up included in the agreement. Aldermen Robin Dunn and McGee were undecided on the matter.
Because the matter was a study session item, no vote was taken on the permit at that time.
At some point before the Sept. 28 meeting, the outdoor venue at London’s was closed and no longer offered. According to Moody, Keller’s permit expired Sunday, Sept. 11.
Amacher, however, claims Moody “unilaterally” and “arbitrarily went against the consensus of the board” and “stripped his special events permit.”
“This is why it’s shut down,” Amacher said of the outdoor seating at London’s.
During a Facebook live video following the Oct. 12 meeting, Amacher said Moody told her Keller’s permit expired on the 11th. However, Amacher said, Moody did not “strip” the permit until after the board study session.
“The day that she stripped it was the day after this board meeting where we’d had a discussion, two weeks ago, September the 30th,” she said. [Editor’s note: The board meeting took place Sept. 28. The day after would be Sept. 29, not Sept. 30]
“I believe that our city administrator made a very poor decision,” she said in the video.
Amacher then claims Moody told her Keller did not ask for an extension of the permit, but she replied that his coming to the study session was him asking for the extension.
According to Amacher, she visited Moody during the day Monday to inquire about the issue, but Moody told her she would not be extending the permit due to the consensus of the board.
Amacher said she disagreed with Moody’s assessment of the board’s consensus, saying the two “weren’t at the same meeting two weeks ago.”
“She said that the board didn’t want to extend the special events permit,” Amacher said, “and we were no longer in negotiations with the lease. I said I just didn’t think that’s what was said.”
Moody said during the study session and later to The News that she thinks the execution of the temporary blockade was “poorly done,” adding that Keller “did not keep to the commitments of the permit that was issued.”
Keller admitted his communication failures at the study session, taking responsibility for McGee’s being prevented from crossing one weekend and other “necessary matters,” according to Moody.
At this point, she said, it was clear that Keller’s idea was not working and was time for Keller and the city to look at new options.
“I do not regret the actions that have been taken by the city to offer flexibility and a willingness to partner in new ways in order to support a local business,” she said in an email to The News.
However, Moody said, after witnessing the multiple issues with Keller’s operation of his special events permit, it is clear to the city that the arrangement “is not working as intended.”
“It’s simply time to stop and consider other options,” she said.
Adding to the agenda
At the Oct. 12 meeting, the proposed lease agreement between the city and London’s was not on the agenda for discussion. This prompted Amacher to request to add two items to the agenda in regards to the London’s situation during her alderman’s report. In her words, she wanted to get a vote “on the record” to show where each alderman stood “in this debacle.”
“I think the man deserves an answer as to why or what he needs to do to move forward, especially when it means it could be the end of London’s,” she said in her Oct. 12 video.
First, she sought to extend the special events permit Keller was operating with so he could continue to utilize his outdoor space. Second, she sought to approve a memorandum of right of occupancy to allow London’s a non-exclusive use of the alleyway.
According to Amacher, she and Keller came up with a potential agreement: the city would grant him an eight-week use of the alleyway by extending his permit with the promise that he would “go the right route” in the spring. Keller would be required to carry a $1 million insurance policy and be allowed to put up the alley barriers starting at 8:30 p.m. on the weekends. In return, Keller would agree to lease the use of his private parking area for public use again.
“We know that we need parking,” she said in the video. She called it “kind of like a tit for tat” to allow the temporary usage to continue in exchange for the free parking.
Tabling the motion
Amacher’s motion did not get far, however, as it was superseded by a motion to table discussion until the Oct. 26 meeting from Blackwell. Blackwell’s motion to table passed 5-2 (Amacher and Berry opposing), rendering Amacher’s motion moot.
Amacher also took issue with Blackwell’s motion to table her original motion, saying it went against a local business’s best interest.
“Alderman Rupa Blackwell said that she felt like it was only fair to table it for another two weeks,” she said in the video. “Well, we’re talking about two of eight weeks that we’re talking about operating. That’s going to be two more weeks that he can’t operate outside. We’re talking about the fair weather weeks. The further out it gets, the less fair weather we have. I just feel like you messed with a man’s business.”
During the meeting, Blackwell said she would like to have time for the public to see the items on the agenda and discuss them with city officials and come to the next meeting to speak on them. Amacher countered by saying there were interested parties at the Monday meeting ready to discuss it.
In her video, Amacher said tabling the motion was “a complete injustice” to the downtown area, the citizens and the community and was “in violation of what we as city leaders need to be doing.”
She then promised that the items would be on the agenda in two weeks, saying she would “make sure of that.” Amacher also encouraged the community to attend the Oct. 26 meeting.
At the tail end of her video, Amacher also explained that she was working on adding accountability measures for the city administrator and city attorney positions in the interest of transparency. She specifically singled out Moody, who she claimed said she did not need Amacher’s support, and the two did not have to be friends, but did have to work together.
“Today I was told that she did not need my support, that we did not have to be friends; we only had to work together,” she said. “I understand that. We don’t have to be friends. We do have to work together, but she does need my support. And to get my support, you cannot go against the wishes of the board, so there needs to be some accountability. She is hired by the board. That also means that she could be terminated by the board.”
Amacher said she is in the minority when it comes to terminating Moody and she would not vote for that to happen anyway. However, she said, “accountability measures need to be put into place.”
She said both Moody and City Attorney Steve Worsham were aware of her plans to get an evaluation system in place for their positions.
“They need to be evaluated by the board as a whole, and they have to meet a certain threshold to retain employment by our city,” she said.
While elected officials are held accountable at the polls, Amacher said, she felt certain nonelected positions, like a city administrator or city attorney, did not have the same accountability measures in place. This applied not only to Tullahoma, but to nonelected positions in cities across the country, she added.