Holly Pond mayor responds to social media controversy over denied fundraising event permit

Holly Pond Mayor Carla Hart talks about the decision at Monday’s town council meeting. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

HOLLY POND, Ala. — Holly Pond Mayor Carla Hart on Monday took time to respond to the recent controversy over the town government’s decision to deny permission to Holly Pond resident Jerrett Rollins for a private fundraising softball tournament to be held at the town’s ball field, calling on Town Attorney Dan Willingham to share a legal opinion on the request based on his own recent conversation with the Alabama State Attorney General’s Office. According to Willingham, the Constitution of Alabama does not allow the use of municipal facilities for individuals to host private fundraising events, even if the funds are being raised for worthy causes.

Rollins posted the event on social media under the name Jerrett Dale on Sept. 12, 2023, inviting teams to pay $200 apiece to play in a memorial tournament to raise funds for the family of Holly Pond native Lexi White, who recently lost her life. In the advertisement, he wrote that the event would take place at Holly Pond High School, and at the town’s “Lion Park” (Lions Club Park) if the school’s field was not available. At the time the event was first posted, Rollins had not contacted Holly Pond Town Hall to ask permission. After the school turned him down, Rollins changed the ad to indicate “Lion Park” as the location. When he reached out to Hart, she contacted Willingham and then responded with a denial of the request.

After the initial denial was publicized on a Hanceville-based social media page – by Rollins, according to Hart – and shared by numerous people including a member of the Holly Pond Town Council, the mayor and town came under fire from numerous online commenters. Among the remarks were calls for Hart to be voted out of office and for a petition demanding that the town open the field. A call for the event to move to Hanceville even received a comment thread reply from Hanceville Mayor Kenneth Nail: “I approve it.”

“I’m going to tell you: I hated to say no,” said Hart, addressing the council and audience. “You know, I’m not a ‘no’ person if we can get by doing anything. But I am not, and I wish everyone that has made comments – and I may have to address this in the future – I am not. When I came into this position, [I] said I will not do anything against the law. I’m all about protecting this seat, all y’all’s seats, our community, and I’ll do anything I can as long as it’s the right way, but I am not going to do it if it is not legal.”

Hart told the council that if Willingham or anyone else could find a legal way to hold the event, she would support it. She then turned to Willingham, whom she had requested to take a fresh look at the issue. Willingham read excerpts from legal cases related to private use of municipal facilities, noting a Supreme Court decision and statements he received directly from the Alabama Attorney General’s office that prohibited private individuals from any event on municipal property that did not serve a “government purpose,” provide a “public benefit” or service to the community at large.

Said Willingham, “I was informed by the mayor, ‘Can we make this happen? Is there something we can do legally to make this happen?’ I called the Attorney General’s Office and I said, ‘I know your rules, I’ve read your opinions. Is there anything we can do to make this okay?’ And the answer was ‘Sorry, no.’”

Willingham continued, “My job is, I’ll tell you in all candor, my job is not to tell you what you want to hear. It is to tell you what I think the law is, and I think this is extremely clear that we can’t do it.”

Willingham’s presentation led council and audience members to call into question a number of fundraising events that have been held in Holly Pond and other places, including a local church bake sale held in Holly Pond Town Hall. Willingham said that, despite a history of such events, he would as a general rule say that such events should not be held on municipal property in the future, though he added that each event should be examined on a case by case basis.

Willingham also stated that he did not believe that Lexi White’s family was hoping to benefit from the advertised event, telling the council, “I know the mother, and she didn’t know this was happening. She said, ‘I don’t want the money. If you will – if they gather money and you give it to an organization that’s useful to somebody like the Youth League’ – She said, ‘I don’t want to see it, I don’t want to touch it.’”

Following the lengthy discussion, the council voted unanimously to deny Rollins’ request.

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