Cowart Mulch filed suit in Cherokee Superior Court on Friday, accusing the county of committing fraud and breach of contract when it declined the company’s $4.2 million lease-purchase offer on the closed-down plant in March.
The offer would have eventually given Cherokee County $6 million in principal plus interest for the facility, for which the county still owes more than $16 million. It would have decreased the $100,000 monthly burden on county taxpayers by about $20,000.
The suit seeks damages in an amount to be determined in count, and asks the company be allowed to move forward with its desires to run the plant. It names the defendants as the Board of Commissioners and the Resource Recovery Development Authority, as well as Commissioners Buzz Ahrens and Harry Johnston and County Manager Jerry Cooper individually.
According to the suit, it was a “fraud on the public” when commissioners voted March 4 to decline the company’s offer on the plant formerly run by resident Jimmy Bobo, after previously voting to move ahead with Cowart Mulch in February. It accuses Ahrens, Johnston and Cooper of looking for other bidders to undermine the company’s offer, after the first approval.
Ahrens said the county was within its rights to reject the offer, but he’d rather not comment further because of the active lawsuit. Cooper didn’t respond to an email requesting comment.
Johnston called the suit “completely frivolous.”
“All we were ever discussing was a letter of interest,” Johnston said Tuesday, noting — in all capital letters — the letter of interest said it wasn’t binding. “It was merely an agreement to try to come to an agreement. Even if it had been approved, there was nothing binding about it.”
Commissioners, with the exception of Brian Poole, voted to turn down Cowart Mulch’s offer, which was characterized as a new offer because the company made changes to the original letter of intent and a corresponding rental agreement. Previously, both the RRDA and Board of Commissioners voted to accept the documents.
Commissioners said at the time they were worried by the changes. They were also candid about other companies showing interest in the property, which the county has been trying to get rid of since Bobo went out of business, leaving taxpayers to pay debt on the facility the county had agreed to back in 2006.
The suit accuses the county manager of leading Cowart Mulch to believe the deal was concrete and allowing the company to enter the property and work toward getting it running, while Cooper, Ahrens and Johnston were seeking new bidders.
The company’s work — cutting the grass, equipment maintenance and cleaning — “unjustly” benefitted the county, and lost Cowart Mulch money and time on the Ball Ground Recycling site, when it could have been readying another property it already owned nearby, the suit says.
Johnston, who was against Cowart Mulch’s offer in the original vote, said he felt no obligation to see the deal through with the company until it became more official.
According to the suit, Cowart Mulch owner Chris Cowart signed the letter of interest the county drafted, but wanted to make small changes — changes he told the county manager about. The suit says Cooper encouraged Cowart to make the changes he saw fit.
“Throughout these conversations, Jerry Cooper did not advise Cowart Mulch at any time that the documents could not be amended,” the suit says. “Jerry Cooper also did not advise Cowart Mulch that after that conversation he would be speaking with Oldcastle Lawn & Garden in an effort to solicit a competing bid.”
The suit alleges Cooper “concealed” the fact Cowart signed the original documents.
According to the lawsuit and county officials’ emails attached as exhibits, the county was talking with resident Tim Crane about other companies possibly interested in taking over the plant and paying more money.
In the emails, Crane implored commissioners not to take Cowart Mulch’s offer, saying “This would be throwing our money away.” He also said suggested starting a “bidding war” for the facility, which would end up making the commissioner look like “heroes.”
The suit notes Crane formerly worked with and is an associate of Bobo repeatedly and nearly every time Crane is referenced.
Johnston said he wasn’t sure what Crane’s relationship with Bobo was, but the commissioner wasn’t concerned with that.
“I don’t care,” Johnston said. “I’m just looking for the best deal we can get for the county. A new party expressed his interest out of his referral. All I’m about is to get the most for the plant we can. I don’t care who that comes from really.”
He added the county is negotiating with a company that may pay more than Cowart Mulch.