– After floating the idea of the Freedom Bridge for some time, the project appears dead in the water for now – and the myriad of reasons given are a case of he said, she said.
The bottom line for the bridge project being put on hold is money, or the lack thereof, according to Lake Havasu City Mayor Mark Nexsen.
“The second bridge it not even on our long-term community improvement plan until 2020,” Nexsen said. “At the earliest.”
Despite the fact that a second bridge is not likely anytime soon, plenty of controversy surrounds the Freedom Bridge Foundation – a non-profit group charged with funding the aesthetic enhancements to the bridge. The controversy begins with a difference of opinion on whether the city sanctioned the group or whether foundation exists solely outside of the city’s auspices.
In 2006, Lake Havasu City officials received a report by the Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team indicating that building a second bridge to the island would bolster the local economy and ease the wear and tear on the London Bridge.
Gary Meyers, one of the members actively involved with the second bridge and the enhancement foundation from the beginning, said the Freedom Bridge Foundation is an offshoot of a city-sanctioned group called the Second Bridge Committee, which he says was formed in the months immediately following the R/UDAT report.
Nexsen disputes that order of events, saying the committees formed after the report came out were “splinter groups” with no official capacity. He said there were other groups of concerned citizens who took the initiative to follow through with the ideas presented in the R/UDAT report.
Jim Salscheider was the co-chairman of the original R/UDAT committee and said he “adamantly disagrees” with the mayor’s version of events. He said the city was intimately involved with the entire project, from the R/UDAT report to the founding of the Freedom Bridge Foundation.
“It amazes me there are two different sides to this,” Salscheider said. “The city was clearly involved from the beginning.”
A PowerPoint presentation called “Connecting Havasu: Post R/UDAT Activities,” lists the steering committee and subcommittee members responsible for implementing the suggestions made in the study. Nexsen and then-City Manager Richard Kaffenberger are listed on the steering committee, and Nexsen is listed as a committee member for the Pima Wash subcommittee. Several other city employees and elected officials also are listed as committee members for the four projects recommended by the R/UDAT team.
When talks first commenced about building a second bridge to the Island, several possibilities were presented, including a public/private partnership to fund the bridge building or the creation of a toll bridge. The actual costs for building the bridge, which estimates put near $20 million, were to be paid for by means that the city had control over.
The city has paid about $3.6 million for land to use as right-of-way for the Freedom Bridge.
The Freedom Bridge Foundation, a 501c3 organization separate from the city’s actual bridge building process, was created for the purpose of raising money to pay for enhancements to the bridge once it was built. Those enhancements included monuments dedicated to Veterans and current freedom fighters. The foundation also wanted to include a Freedom Park at the entrance to the bridge, and already started a Memorial Walkway along the Bridgewater Channel with several hundred engraved bricks.
The Freedom Bridge Foundation was created in the summer of 2007, and spearheaded by Meyers and former City Councilman Brian Wedemeyer. The structure was that of a regular non-profit organization, although Meyers says the bylaws and articles of incorporation fail to mention that the foundation was spawned from the aforementioned subcommittee.
Meyers and Wedemeyer have both since resigned the Freedom Bridge Foundation for various personal reasons.
Meyers, an investment portfolio manager, says the foundation is guilty of ethical, if not illegal, violations of money management by failing to separate funds designated for enhancements from general operating funds. Meyers said he intentionally did not have his name associated with any of the foundation’s financial accounts, tax or legal papers in order to avoid undue scrutiny of the group by outside agencies, which he said would have been a possibility because he is a certified fiduciary trustee with his personal businesses.
The current foundation president, City Councilwoman Margaret Nyberg, said the foundation is not guilty of any such violations and that all of the money the foundation holds is properly accounted for.
Nexsen, a certified public accountant, agrees, saying that he has prepared tax returns for the Freedom Bridge Foundation and has found nothing out of the ordinary.
The 2010 financial report for the Foundation, given to the Independent by Meyers, shows the Foundation had $18,293.76 in total assets for the past three years. Meyers contends the amount is misrepresented because some of the money should have gone into restricted accounts and not into operating funds.
The largest amount of money spent during 2008-2010 was for consulting fees for then-Executive Director Larry Robinson — more than $80,000 for his work. Robinson left the position in January due to personal and medical reasons, he said.
Robinson was initially given a one-month contract for consulting work, and Meyers said he always believed Robinson should have been changed to a commission-type payment based on income generated rather than a fixed salary.
Robinson said the salary could have been renegotiated at any time.
“I worked for the board of directors. My checks always had to get signed. If it was ever a problem … the board never mentioned it,” he said.
Robinson said he was given a 1099 for each year her worked and paid income tax on his salary.
One of the projects Robinson was tasked with was selling bricks for the Memorial Walkway that runs along the Bridgewater Channel. The financial reports show that while the brick project was profitable, it also was costly, and in three years made the Foundation a total profit of only $52,698.
Salscheider, who is no longer affiliated with the foundation or the second bridge project, said he wonders where money raised from brick sales went. As an example, he cited a $20,000 sale of bricks to the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe — a sale he said he helped broker.
“How long do they have to wait for their bricks? Where’s their $20,000?” he asked. “I feel responsible for this. I want to either get their money back or their bricks.”
Nyberg said the foundation and the Chemehuevi tribe have a positive relationship and there will be a special brick for the tribe on the walkway.
The brick walkway project is still underway, according to Nyberg, although the foundation currently does not have any plans to do any brick installing in the near future.
“When we get orders for 400 or 500 bricks, we will do more ceremonies,” Nyberg said.
Freedom Bridge Ale
Another revenue generating source involved sales of a Freedom Bridge Ale — brewed by Barley Brothers in Lake Havasu City. A portion of every beer sold was donated to the Freedom Bridge Foundation, although the way the money was accounted for is another source of contention and disagreement.
Meyers asserts that the money for all of the beer sales was to be placed into a separate account and not to be used for operating money — in the same way he said the income from the brick sales should have been accounted for. However, he said, a separate account for the designated funds was not created for several months, an act Meyers says violated the agreement he created with Tim Shugrue, owner of Barley Brothers, when the beer sales donations were first agreed upon.
A letter written to Meyers by Bill McMahon, spokesman for the Freedom Bridge Foundation Board of Directors, says that the money from beer sales from 2008-2010 were placed into a money market account which is separate from the operating account of the foundation.
“The truth is that all contributions from Barley Brothers Brewery received during 2010 amounting to $2,055.50 have been regularly deposited into a money market account designated for future enhancements to the walkway and Freedom Park,” the letter, dated Feb. 3, 2011, says.
As of that date there was $12,090.80 in the money market, the letter says.
Meyers also is at odds with the current leadership of the foundation over a copyright and trademark of the logo used in foundation correspondence as well as used for the Freedom Bridge Ale. Meyers said the logo is a compilation of several designs which were submitted by several members.
Tim Hodge, web designer and graphic artist for the foundation, says the design is his creation and he owns the copyright to the logo. Meyers, however, obtained a trademark for the logo for the express use of beer commerce.
According to the United States Patent and Trademark office, “a trademark is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others,” while a copyright protects and original artistic or literary work.
Meyers wrote a cease and desist letter to the Freedom Bridge Foundation board to prevent them from using the logo, and threatens possible legal action if the foundation fails to comply. Hodge and Nyberg said as the foundation changes and evolves, the logo will be changed.
Nyberg, who has been on the foundation board since its inception, said the foundation is moving toward changing its stated purpose and name to no longer reflect the second bridge project. She said the name will be changed to Havasu Freedom Foundation — an organization dedicated to serving the Veterans of Lake Havasu City.
As of press time, the name change had not been submitted to the Arizona Corporation Commission.
Nyberg said the foundation plans to continue on with the park project as a way to honor Veterans as well as join with other veterans groups to ensure Lake Havasu City retains its honorary title as “America’s Most Patriotic City,” and plans to continue selling bricks and completing the Memorial Walkway.
Meyers said he believes the city already has many other groups dedicated to serving Veterans and that the Freedom Bridge Foundation should remain an entity with mission to enhance the second bridge when it is built. He also recently sent an email to Nyberg and other foundation members saying the current condition of the walkway “looks like a terrible insult to our Vets.”
Nyberg and Nexsen both said the foundation has offered to release the rights to the name to Meyers so he may continue raising money for the bridge.
“We’re not honoring our Veterans if we’re bickering,” Nexsen said. “If there is still an interest in creating a Freedom Bridge project, I welcome it.”
Meyers, for his part, said he was no longer interested in pursuing the project or creating another foundation for the enhancements. He said he and his wife have consulted attorneys over what he billed as harassment by Nyberg, Robinson and others.
“I will not pursue the Freedom Bridge Foundation when the city doesn’t want me to,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Arizona Independent owner Malcolm Graham and Publisher Brian Wedemeyer are former board members on the Freedom Bridge Foundation. Heather Smathers, who normally covers the Bullhead City and Mohave Valley areas, was assigned to this story.