According to Dr. Frank Carl, a board member of Augusta’s Ports Authority, the slow-moving eviction of Mobile Marine as the operator of the city’s marina is moving forward.
“It’s in the process,” he says. “It’s just moving a little slower than I would have hoped.”
Part of that slowness is because the marina, which consists of the Riverwalk portion, a dock further downriver and then the warehouse building along with its dock, is owned by three separate entities — the City of Augusta, the Downtown Development Authority and the state-created Ports Authority.
“All of these groups had to get onboard,” Carl says. “Then the Ports Authority voted to have the city’s lawyers represent the Ports Authority as well as the city in the process so that we didn’t have two sets of lawyers doing stuff.”
The DDA recently agreed to deed their small portion of land over to the city.
So on May 20, 2014, city attorneys sent Mobile Marine’s CEO Mike Stacy a Cure Notice threatening to terminate its lease for reasons including failure to provide information about the underground gas tanks needed to comply with EPA reporting requirements and owing rent, utilities and taxes of more than $29,000
Carl says the city acts as the treasurer for the Ports Authority and the rent money is budgeted back to them. Without Mobile Marine’s rent money, the Ports Authority has had to borrow money from the city so it can perform its duties, which include treating weeds in the river.
“It took us a while to notice that he wasn’t paying rent because it’s so indirect,” Carl says. “It goes through the finance department and then the finance department puts it in a budget. They told us, ‘You guys don’t have any money because they’re not paying rent.’”
As for why Mobile Marine isn’t paying rent, Carl says only this: “It’s difficult to get a cogent answer.”
Receiving a clear message from Mobile Marine has been an issue for quite a while. Not only has Mike Stacy been sending representatives to the Ports Authority meetings instead of attending them himself, the reports he submits every two months have become manifestos of complaints against the city, the Ports Authority and the perceived overreach of government.
The June 17, 2014, Marina Report was 57 pages long and alleged among other things a conflict of interest with the Ports Authority and the Savannah Riverkeeper. It also included a random description of the term regulatory capture, defining it as “a form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created in the public interest, instead advances the environmental or special concerns of activists groups that dominate the industry or authority charged with regulating.”
“Our initial relationship between the Ports Authority and Mobile Marine was pretty cordial,” Carl says. “I’m not sure exactly why it went bad, but when you have the contractor sending out emails to large numbers of people that are… I suppose they’re rambling indictments that have a grain of truth in there but are a little bit extreme… we’ve just gotten to the point where we didn’t want to deal with that anymore.”
“We are the victims here,” says dockmaster Steve Daly, who oversees the marina store as well as overall marina operations for Mobile Marine. “We are the victims of government collusion and cronyism and the same old stuff that’s been going on in Augusta forever.”
Daly, who calls himself both an employee and a representative of Mobile Marine, says the harassment has been going on for years and has its roots with former administrator Fred Russell.”
“It’s all on Fred,” Daly says. “Fred started this whole thing. They didn’t want us to have the marina because they wanted to give it to one of their friends, and basically that person is Tonya Bonitatibus from the Savannah Riverkeeper.”
Bonitatibus, who Daly characterizes as Fred Russell’s darling, took over as director of the nonprofit advocacy group when Carl retired in 2009. Both she and Carl are now members of the Ports Authority, which is something Daly claims is self serving.
“The Ports Authority has been infiltrated by the Savannah Riverkeeper, which is a nonprofit environmentalist wacko group, and they have wanted this marina from Day One so they can hold their events out here.”
Bonitatibus flatly denies wanting to take over the marina.
“That’s the last damn thing I want,” she says. “I want to stop taking boats out of the water because he decides he doesn’t want them, but I don’t want to be in charge of them. It falls outside of our mission statement anyway, so it’s not something the Riverkeeper needs to be doing.”
In January, Bonitatibus claimed six boats were cut loose from marina docks, though Daly insists only two went missing.
“There were two boats that got loose,” he says. “They weren’t tied up right. There was one cleat on that dock and they had the lines tied across, so you’ve got a 4,000-pound boat with a dock in the middle that’s going up and down and a line that’s attached to something rigid. One of the ropes did look like it was cut, but it was probably cut from one of those cleats.”
At the time, Bonitatibus told reporters it looked like foul play.
As Riverkeeper, Bonitatibus has taken on the job of recovering lost or abandoned boats like the one currently taking on water across the river from the marina.
“The damn thing is sunk and on its side and clearly the owner’s gone,” she says. “But we’re having trouble being able to move it because it still has its registration.”
If there is any common ground between the marina operator and the Riverkeeper, it lies with their assessment of the poor condition of some of the boats docked at the marina.
“A lot of these boats down here have been down here 20 years,” Daly says. “They’re old houseboats, they never leave the dock and they don’t run anymore. There are some boats out there that every time it rains, if they don’t get pumped out, they’re going to sink.”
After that, though, the common ground evaporates quickly.
In January 2013, Stacy accused Ports Authority Chairman Wayne Hawkins and board member Paul Muckenfuss of burglary when the two were found at the marina building in what Daly now calls an attempted hostile takeover.
“They tried to come in the back door,” he says. “What they were after was all of our client lists. They were going to call all of the clients and tell them we were out and start sending checks to us. That’s what they were thinking.”
Though Daly says his tenants are happy with their service and certainly there are boat owners who are quick to praise Mobile Marine, Carl says there is a flipside.
“We’ve had several complaints from boat owners and we’ve heard from boat owners who have actually left the marina because of the marina operator,” he says.
In turn, Daly says the controversies have hurt the marina’s business.
“Right now, we’ve got 89 customers,” he says. “We had up to 140 at one point. I’m including the customers in the warehouse because they’re my responsibility, too.”
Things between Mobile Marine and Ports Authority members came to a head most recently on Saturday, June 14, when the Savannah Riverkeeper hosted GatorFest, an open water swim event that started with swimmers jumping into the Savannah from the marina docks.
According to Daly, event organizers hadn’t signed the Riverfront Marina’s special event agreement, so he put a padlock on the gate to the dock, preventing them from using it.”
“She put Mobile Marine at risk and the taxpayers of Richmond County and the City of Augusta would be liable if someone had been out on that dock and gotten hurt,” Daly says. “It’s criminal and it’s arrogant and they just think they can do whatever they want.”
“There was a little bit of mishandling there, I think,” Carl says. “GatorFest should have checked in with the marina operator to tell them they needed to use the docks. I don’t know if the marina operator would have tried to charge them for it or not, but I don’t think that ever happened.”
After a dockside altercation, the other gate was opened and participants accessed the dock from there.
Carl’s past relationship with the Riverkeeper organization and Bonitatibus’ current position as director bother Daly, but Carl dismisses the concern, saying it just makes sense.
“That’s almost a self-fulfilling process,” he says. “You get people who are interested in the river, you’re going to get people who are interested in being on any authority or board that has any relevance to the river. Tonya and I are probably two people who know more about the river than 99.999 percent of the people in Augusta. That’s what we do.”
With both sides moving toward what seems like an inevitable courtroom showdown, it could still be a long time before anyone sees any changes. Mobile Marine will continue to operate the marina throughout the eviction process, though Carl says there is a temporary operator ready to step in until a permanent operator can be found.
The strangest thing about the entire story may just be the fact that, according to city attorneys, Mobile Marine may not even have a valid lease.
In a letter dated November 6, 2012, city attorney Kenneth Bray sent a memorandum to Fred Russell indicating Mobile Marine’s operator’s agreement may have expired on December 31, 2011.
“I have not been able to locate any proof that Mobile Marine Inc. exercised its option to renew the Marina Operator Agreement on or before the expiration date,” he wrote.
In addition, Bray found the lease agreement for the Old Georgia Ports Authority Building appeared to be void on its face, since the lease agreement was executed under the name Mobile Marine Service, Inc., which according to the Secretary of State’s database was “Administratively Dissolved” on November 9, 2002.
And all that is independent of the question of whether all the landowners properly signed the original lease in the first place.
In the end, Carl says patience is required.
“I think that it will pan out that he will be evicted and we will bring somebody else in,” Carl says. “We think we have our bases covered to make it as painless for the boat owners and slip lessees. Our job is to look out for them and to make sure they don’t get hurt in the process.”
Daly says Mobile Marine is looking forward to having its day in court.
“We are the victims” he says. “Leases work two ways, and this lease they’ve been operating on, they’ve been violating since Day One,”
THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME MOBILE MARINE HAS BEEN IN THE NEWS. CHECK OUT THIS CLASSIC STORY FROM JUNE, 2006.