ALBANY — City officials aren’t eager to answer uncomfortable questions about one of their own, but as financial woes continue to swirl around Albany City Commissioner Christopher Pike, they may soon find themselves with little choice.
An official with the downtown Hilton Garden Inn said this week Pike had failed to make the first court-ordered payment on the more than $11,000 the business says Pike owes for use of its facilities during the Albany Area Black Expo in April, and a Dougherty County court clerk said Thursday papers filed against the city commissioner by the Albany Civic Center for a bad check in excess of $2,000 were awaiting a judge’s signature.
“I’ve talked with (city attorney) Nathan (Davis) about this situation, and he’s informed me that there is no course of action we can take concerning a commissioner’s personal business,” Albany Mayor Dorothy Hubbard said. “And, to be honest, I’m not comfortable talking about the problems of one of my colleagues who’s going through a tough time right now.
“But at some point I think we’re going to have to look at this situation. I think we may be put in a position where we’re going to have to take a closer look at the way we do things.”
B.J. Fletcher, the events coordinator for the Hilton Garden Inn, said this week she believes Pike is receiving preferential treatment because of his position on the commission. She noted that the hotel had filed papers seeking garnishment of wages from the $15,000 Pike receives as a member of the City Commission, but the city said Pike’s annual salary does not meet minimum statutory requirements for garnishment.
“I’ve got people working for me who make minimum wage, and their checks are garnished all the time,” Fletcher said. “I don’t see how the city can say (Pike) doesn’t meet the requirements for garnishment.”
City Finance Director Kris Newton said the state has a formula used to determine minimum requirements for which money can be taken from an employee’s wages to pay a debt. She said Pike’s salary falls just below the minimum standards.
“According to state guidelines, a person must make more than the total of 30 hours a week at minimum wage,” Newton said. “Currently, that equates to a salary of $217.50 a week, or $11,310 annually. The city pays its commissioners $15,000 a year, but when you take out all the deductions, the amount falls under the state minimum required for garnishment.”
The Hilton Garden Inn filed a garnishment summons against Pike in Magistrate Court on Oct. 26 for the $11,253.33, plus court costs, the hotel said Pike owed for the meeting rooms and food provided by the hotel at the five-day Black Expo. Fletcher said the hotel set up a repayment plan for Pike, but when he did not make a payment as agreed, the court set up its own plan.
“The court worked out a payment plan for him, but he still hasn’t paid on the debt,” Fletcher said. “That’s a substantial amount of money, but there are a lot of larger questions, too. Doesn’t the city have some kind of ethics code in place? And how can people in the city be expected to trust this person, who is one of seven commissioners making decisions on a $100 million budget, when he doesn’t take care of his own finances?”
A sales representative who said she was fired from her job at the Hilton Garden Inn because of Pike’s failure to pay his debt, said this week that Pike promised he’d pay the money owed as soon as he received funding from Black Expo sponsors, which included Procter & Gamble, MillerCoors, Albany State University, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and AT&T, among others.
According to an email sent to the sales rep, who shared her email communications with the stipulation that her name not be used, Pike wrote:
“Sorry for the delay (in paying the debt). The problem is that many of our sponsors like Albany State & Phoebe cannot be invoiced until after the event. Then on top of that it takes 30-45 days to get a payment from them. Our goals was (sic) to get you all a total payment after all monies have collected (sic). However I think a better approach would be to get you all the money as it comes in. Having said that here is our proposal:
Friday May 11th $3,000
Friday May 25th $3,000
Friday June 8th $3,000
Friday June 22nd Balance
“Of course this schedule could be accelerated based on when sponsors deliver payments.”
A person involved in the ongoing situation, who asked that her name not be used because she is not authorized to speak on behalf of one of the event sponsors, said she’d contacted a Black Expo sponsor and had been told that the sponsor had paid Pike $4,000 in sponsorship money.
The sales rep, who said responsibility for booking the Black Expo fell solely on her when the Hilton’s corporate office demanded someone be held accountable, admitted she’s still hurt that someone she trusted based on his position with the city had left her ultimately responsible for his failure to pay the debt.
“Here’s someone who was elected to look out for the best interest of downtown, and because of him a downtown employee lost her job,” she said.
Pike did not respond to phone messages and emails seeking comment.
City Manager James Taylor said that Pike was being dealt with “like any other customer” when the Ward III commissioner’s check paying for usage of the Albany Civic Center was returned for insufficient funds after the American Basketball Association’s Albany Shockwave, for which Pike is the general manager, played its first game. Pike told The Herald at the time he was “clearing up that matter with the city,” and he moved the remainder of the team’s home games to Albany High School.
But Suzanne Davis, who serves as the city’s Parks and Recreation director and as manager of the Civic Center, said Pike had not cleared up the matter in the 10 days required by law after notice of the returned check was given. She said she filed paperwork, as required, with Magistrate’s Court on Dec. 5.
Senior Court Clerk Johanna Bowen said Thursday paperwork had been delivered to the court by Civic Center officials, but no judge had been available during the holidays to sign off on the paperwork.
“We figure it will be Tuesday or Wednesday of next week before a judge is available,” Davis said.
In another issue that surfaced in the ongoing discussion of Pike’s financial situation, three city officials — Hubbard, Taylor and Ward IV Commissioner Roger Marietta — told The Herald they had written Pike checks from their personal accounts in support of the ABA team. The officials were responding to an unsubstantiated claim that they’d used city funds to help finance the venture.
Taylor, meanwhile, said he could not respond to the growing cry of ethics violations from citizens.
“Those kinds of issues are issues that must be addressed by the City Commission,” the city manager said. “When it comes to something like this, an ethics issue, that’s an issue for the city’s policymakers. I’m not trying to duck the bullet; I’m just not the person responsible for making those kinds of decisions.”
Pike had declared in an online response to earlier criticism of his financial issues that he would “immediately resign without hesitation” if “the people in my ward feel as though I can no longer effectively (represent) their needs, concerns and issues at City Hall.”
Hubbard, for one, said she hopes it doesn’t come to that.
“I honestly don’t know how (Pike) is handling all this,” she said. “I’ve talked with him briefly about it, but to be honest he doesn’t appear to be overly concerned. But I’m on his side; I’d really like to see him succeed. He’s a brilliant young man, but at some point he’s going to have to resolve these issues.”