By Curt Yeomans
Jonesboro city leaders are pondering how to deal with renting out the Jonesboro Fire House Museum and Community Center, to civic groups, after a bid by the Clayton County Republican Party to rent the facility for its monthly meetings raised concerns among some members of the city council.
The Jonesboro City Council voted unanimously Monday night to spend the next month having city officials create a policy on rental uses for the community center, which is located on Mill Street, in Jonesboro. The city council was scheduled to vote on a resolution to allow the county's Republican party to rent the community center at a monthly $50 fee that is reserved for city residents, versus a $100 non-resident fee.
During discussions on the matter, however, council members expressed concerns about what approval would mean down the road, when other civic groups want to rent the facility. Some council members were even concerned about how the city's image would be affected by a political party's using a city-owned community center for monthly meetings.
"To go political would really take up a lot of the space for the community use," said City Councilman Wallace Norrington. "The city is a non-partisan city ... I think that's the only way to keep it above the board because some people are republicans, some are democrats and others are independents, and it's hard to keep people happy ...
"Right now, we have a great fire house museum, and the way to keep it is to keep politics out," Norrington added.
The issue of whether the city will allow the Clayton County Republican Party to rent the community center was tabled by the city council until it can vote on a rental policy for the facility, which is expected to take place next month.
"We have got to come up with our policy for civic groups to use it," said Jonesboro Mayor Luther Maddox. "We've got, right now, where residents and non-residents can rent it, but we don't have a civic organization rate, and we are reluctant to reserve it, say, one night a month, for 12 months out, in case some citizen needs it, or wants it ...
"So, we're going to develop a policy about how far in advance you can reserve it, and the rate that we're going to charge," Maddox added.
The council did not come to a consensus on Monday about how a new policy would regulate the use of the community center by civic groups, in terms of which groups would be allowed to meet there, and how much they would have to pay in rental fees. Maddox said the policy would, however, put into writing long-standing verbal rules that prohibit alcohol use and outdoors signs at the facility.
"We're going to make sure its written down and given to everybody that rents it," the mayor said. "When they rent it, they are going to have to sign that policy."
During discussions on renting the community center to the Republican party, council members went back and forth on how to deal with the issue. Many council members said they did not necessarily want to exclude any particular groups from using the community center, but they also did not want to open it up to so much use by those groups that it reduced the opportunity for city residents to rent the facility as well.
"I don't want to get the city involved in politics, but at the same time, I don't think the civic organizations should be excluded from using public buildings," said City Councilman Roger Grider.
City Councilman Joe Compton said he believed the city could put itself in a legal bind if it became selective about who will be allowed to rent the facility. "We've had other -- maybe not political organizations -- but political events there, where people have rented it, and I think we would be opening ourselves up to a lawsuit if we didn't rent to them [the Republican party]," he said.
City Councilwoman Pat Sebo pointed out that allowing one, or two civic or political groups to use the community center would grant access to the facility, to groups that might affect the city's image in some way.
"As long as you grant equal access, if you open it up to the GOP, or you open it up to the Democrats, then you have to open it up to every other group [such as the] ACLU, KKK, whoever wants to rent the building because you cannot deny them rental of the building," Sebo said.
"Is that an avenue the city wants to go down, and perpetuate the perception that people have of the city of Jonesboro, by renting it to organizations?" she asked. "Because, once you open that door, you cannot legally deny these people rental."