Doty: “I have a beer license…I’m fixing to open my store.”
Mayor, Marshal Clash
Gill, Peavey Hired as Deputy Marshals
The Caledonia Board of Aldermen held an action-packed meeting March 6, with Jeff Doty declaring that he plans to sell beer in spite of opposition from the town and a confrontation between Mayor George Gerhart and Marshal Ben Kilgore.
The aldermen also discussed claims that the Water Department performed work on private property without first getting an easement.
The meeting, usually sparsely attended, saw so much public interest that it had to be moved to the community center. [By my count about 30 people came to see the show. Some were clearly only interested in the beer sales issue and left as soon as that discussion was over, but most stayed for the whole thing. – Brian Jones]
Jeff Doty, who plans to reopen the Cal City Grocery, came before the board at their Feb. 7 meeting to ask about cold beer sales. The Cal-City Grocery has been in operation since the 1970s. Due to the fact that it was already selling cold beer when cold beer sales were banned, it was allowed to continue selling under a so-called grandfather clause. Owner Bill Pearrow died in September 2010 and his daughter, Valerie Riley, has since been trying to find someone to take over the business. A leasee was found, but broke the lease and, as a result, the store was closed for two months. When Ms. Riley appeared before the board late last year to question the aldermen about the grandfather clause, she was told that the exemption would be lost if the store ever ceased to operate.
At the Feb. 7 meeting, the board seemed open to the idea of allowing the store to retain its grandfather clause. Doty was told to submit a formal request in writing, and that the board would then act. He did so, and the board held a special meeting Feb. 11 to take up the issue. Although the board initially were going to give Doty until March 1 to open the store, that decision was set aside and the town took the position that the grandfather clause was lost.
Tuesday night Doty appeared again, stating that he had been granted a beer license by the state and intended to proceed with beer sales.
“I’m not up here to start a war,” Doty said. “I’m just trying to do a business. There’s a few things that I have questioned about this February 11 meeting. There was not a clerk here to take the minutes. [Board Attorney] Jeff Smith was here to take the minutes, and I don’t see where that comes under any meeting statutes or guidelines. You have to have a clerk or deputy clerk.
“Also I have a beer license for Cal-City Grocery issued in February by the state of Mississippi,” he said. “According to my attorneys that I’m using and to the state, I can’t see where that can be revoked. There’s another thing in the minutes here that…the way I read it and my attorneys have read it…I’m not on a witch hunt, okay, I’m trying to come to this community and, I promise you, do good things. I really don’t know that the executive session was right. I’m not an attorney. My understanding is that executive session is meant for litigation or personnel. The proposal or the motion it looks to me was made that the grandfather clause should close as of March 1 at 5 p.m. Two voted for it to close at 5 and three voted that it not close. According to what I see the grandfather clause was not in effect. I’m not trying to start trouble, I’m just trying to open a legitimate business. I have a beer permit in my name for Cal-City Grocery. I hate to say it this point-blank, but I’m fixing to open the store.”
Attorney Steve Wallace, who is representing the Pearrow family, also spoke.
“I am here not on behalf of Mr. Doty, I am here for the Pearrow sisters,” Wallace said. “I was hired to probate the estate of their father. In conjunction with that I find myself here. I have two or three points I’m curious about. I’m given to understand that there is an attorney general’s opinion that says that if the store is closed for 24 hours the grandfather clause is revoked. I cannot find such and I would like to get a copy of that. It seems to me that if there was an act of God or of man, if the store burned down or if someone was ill, would the store lose the grandfather clause? I think when the clause was acted on there was not a period of time given to comment.
“Two people voted to revoke the grandfather clause and three people voted not to,” Wallace said. “Where does that leave us? Further, if the grandfather clause was not revoked by the council, and I can’t find any record of a time period that it be closed, then frankly I’m with Mr. Doty. When the former renter turned the store loose, I advised the Pearrow sisters to get a beer license. The store was involuntarily closed, they didn’t want to close it. They went and got a beer license the day their renters were to surrender the store, and unfortunately it was several months before the renters surrendered the store.
“I think we’ve acted hastily,” Wallace said. “I know there’s a lot of public opinion, pro and con, and nobody wants their ox gored. I urge the council to look at this very carefully.”
“What can we do?” Gerhart asked Smith.
“The board can either change their action, affirm their action or do nothing,” Smith said.
“I’ve heard a lot of things about this,” Gerhart said, “about the last meeting and about what came out before the last meeting. I’ve gotten more phone calls that are pro than are con. If it’s the pleasure of the board we’ll leave it like it is and y’all will just have to pursue what you need to do. That’s coming out of my mouth not the attorney’s mouth.”
“I’m going to do what I said I’d do,” Doty said.
“What’s the opinion of the board?” Gerhart asked.
The aldermen were silent.
“Well, good luck,” Gerhart said to Doty.
The board took no action.
Jim and Pam Robertson reappeared before the board regarding damage they claim was done to their property by the Water Department.
The Robertsons met with the board in an executive session Feb. 7. They alleged that Water Superintendent Benny Coleman did work on their land without first getting an easement. They claimed that they have attempted to work with Coleman over several months to get the damage repaired, but that he has been unresponsive. The Robertsons claim that repairing their property will cost around $10,000.
In February the board decided to have a second estimate of the damages done. The second opinion has not been acquired, and the board is trying to decide how to handle the repairs.
“At our Feb. 7 meeting the Robertsons met with us and made a presentation that their property had been damaged without a proper easement,” Gerhart said. “They gave the town a copy of some repairs that came to about $10,000, and I haven’t been able to meet with anybody to get a second estimate. I don’t really understand…if this is damages toward us, why do we have to have two prices?” “You don’t have to have two,” Smith said. “I think the board wanted another opinion.”
“If we go in and fix this up, are they then going to give us an easement?” Gerhart asked.
“The way the board left it, based on the minutes, is that there would be a second estimate provided, and then when it was fixed to [the Robertsons’] satisfaction they would sign an easement,” Smith said.
“I don’t see anything on here that the Water Department can’t do,” said Alderwoman Brenda Willis. “It’s $10,557 for dirt, dozer work, sod, fence…I think they should do it.”
“I agree,” Robertson said. “That’s why we went to [Coleman] in August, September, November, December and January. Then he went to the courthouse and filed a water user’s agreement from 1984, which was 10 years before we owned the property, he filed in it in the courthouse as though it were a true easement. That took it to another level for me.”
“We are responsible for being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money,” Willis said.
“So you’re changing your mind from the last board meeting?” Robertson asked.
“I think it needs to be repaired,” Willis said. “But I don’t think it’s $10,000.”
“It has to be fixed, and it’ll come out of Water Department funds, not the town’s,” Gerhart said.
“I think the Water Department should go in and fix it,” Willis said. “They need to come back and clean this up.”
“That was an option for six months,” Robertson said. “After the way I was treated like I was stupid, I really don’t want [Coleman] doing it. He had six months to repair the damage, and other than what I fixed it’s exactly like it was when he left.”
“Let’s just get the second opinion,” Savage said, “and go from there.”
“I’ll try to have something by next month,” Gerhart said. “Y’all need to think about where the funds are going to come from. I don’t think the Water Department consumers should have to pay for this. [Coleman] crossed the property without and easement.”
“So we’re leaving it exactly like we did last month?” Robertson asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gerhart said.
[Water Department employee Trey Robertson, who is Pam Robertson’s son, was also on the agenda. Trey Robertson alleges that Mr. Coleman has denied him a pay raise that he is owed for getting an operator’s certification. He has appeared before the board numerous times over the past several months in executive session to attempt to resolve the issue, but the board has taken no action. Mr. Robertson was listed on the agenda Tuesday night as appearing with attorney Carrie Jourdan, but Ms. Jourdan was not present. – Brian Jones]
Kilgore v Gerhart
The marshal’s section of the meeting began with Marshal Ben Kilgore asking for board approval to hire two new marshals to replace Steve Hatcher and Larry Swearengen, both of whom are Lowndes County Sheriff’s Department deputies and who have both recently resigned from the force.
Kilgore asked to hire Ben Gill and John Peavey, who retired from the Columbus Police Department last year. [Mr. Peavey retired May 31, 2011 with the rank of lieutenant. He had 33 years in service. – Brian Jones] Peavey and Gill were unanimously hired. They will be paid $12 an hour and work 47.5 hours per week.
Tension began to mount as Gerhart read a letter of resignation from Swearengen, who resigned Feb. 29, effective at the end of his shift.
[What follows is as much as I could get down of Mr. Swearengen’s resignation letter. Mr. Gerhart read it at a rapid clip and so I missed parts of it, and I apologize in advance if I inadvertently butcher parts of it. The aldermen do not allow recording of their meetings, so I’m unable to transcribe it as is my custom. – Brian Jones] “ ‘I have enjoyed working for the town of Caledonia since 2003,’ ” Gerhart read. “ ‘I have made numerous friends during my time with the town. I have nothing but respect for the mayor and the board and wish each and every one of you success in your upcoming endeavors. I love being a law enforcement officer because it’s a profession where you get to help people under all kinds of circumstances. Recently my role in law enforcement has changed directions and I am able to help officers better themselves through training. My current role has me being out of town and spending time away from family. To me family is more important and when I’m home I would rather be spending time with them.’
“I won’t go on and read this other because—” Gerhart said.
“I’d prefer you read the whole thing,” Kilgore said.
“Okay,” Gerhart said, and then continued. “ ‘As for the department I worked under, I can no longer fulfill my obligations. I know what it requires to run a department in a proficient manner due to the fact that I do it on a daily basis with my full time job. The way the current leadership is headed is a way that I will not and cannot go down. Due to the fact that I have lost all respect for the department head, I can no longer be affiliated with the Caledonia Marshal’s Department.”
The board unanimously accepted Swearengen’s resignation, and Kilgore asked to discuss a complaint that he filed against Gerhart. The mayor attempted to move the meeting behind closed doors, but was stymied by the board.
“We’re going to go into executive session to talk about a personnel matter,” Gerhart announced, and called for a motion to hold a closed determination hearing, which is the first step in going into executive session. Nobody made the motion, and so Gerhart told Kilgore to proceed.
“I wrote a memo Feb. 29 and gave it to the mayor,” Kilgore said. “It was not supposed to be given to this employee. I was going to give it to him when he got his paycheck, and cut his hours back so that we can work other officers. He wasn’t fulfilling his duties. He told me part of it was his time working at the sheriff’s department as a lieutenant down there. I fully understand that. But the man has got a responsibility to be up here. If he’s on the schedule for 4:30 in the afternoon, that’s when I expect him to be in the town of Caledonia. He called me at 4:34 to tell me he’s just leaving Meridian. That goes on the whole month. He was one and half to two and a half hours late every day. I don’t know how he got this report before I wanted him to have it. Somehow on Feb. 29 he came into work at five minutes until five and he checked out at eight o’clock. In that time he’d been with the mayor, getting things done behind my back, which I don’t appreciate. I talked to the mayor on March 1 and he pointed his finger and me and told me that Benny Coleman had run off four people and I’ve run off two. I haven’t run anybody off. If they’re not going to do what’s expected of them, they need to find something else to do.”
Kilgore alleged that Swearengen had taken stolen property for his own use.
“We had a red bicycle that was stolen property we had confiscated and the man took it home for his personal use,” Kilgore said.
“Who let him have it?” Gerhart asked.
“I asked the other deputy that is no longer here what happened to it,” Kilgore said, referring to Steve Hatcher. “He said [Swearengen] took it home with him to ride back and forth to his shooting house.”
Gerhart started to laugh, and Kilgore said, “If that bicycle were sitting at my house, you wouldn’t be sitting there laughing about it. You’d be wanting to fire me.”
[Mr. Kilgore also alleged that Mr. Swearengen had lost or misplaced a radio belonging to the town, but it was unclear if the radio had been destroyed when Mr. Swearengen’s house burned down some time ago. The mayor agreed to ask Mr. Swearengen to submit a written report about the status of that radio; the radio was purchased with grant funds, and, if lost, must be accounted for. – Brian Jones] Kilgore alleged that Gerhart had been telling people outside the town government and the town itself that he was going to fire Kilgore.
“Yesterday morning I heard through the grapevine that you were going to suspend me tonight,” Kilgore said.
“Oh really?” Gerhart said.
“That’s right,” Kilgore said. “Last night I got another piece of information from another source that you were going to suspend me tonight. I want to know why you’re talking about personal issues about me all over town.”
“Ben, I hate to tell you this, but somebody told you a lie,” Gerhart said. “If they haven’t got the guts to come to me face to face, I don’t pay no attention to rumors in this town.”
Kilgore called on Lance Luckey, who, in addition to being a deputy marshal, is a patrolman with the Columbus Police Department.
“I was approached by Carroll Culpepper at the police department, and he said that he had heard it by talking to [Gerhart],” Luckey said.
“He told a lie,” Gerhart said. “Period. You can put that in the You Heard the Rest of the Story, Mr. St. John. I don’t know Carroll Culpepper.” [There was much laughter and clapping at this. – Brian Jones] “He said he’s known you for years,” Luckey responded.
“I wouldn’t know him if he walked in that door,” Gerhart said. “I’ve never said anything to anybody about it. Is he still with the po-lice department in Columbus? I don’t know where he is! I don’t know him! He told a lie. If he can’t show up here and tell me that I’m telling a lie then he can stay in Columbus. And I’m sure he’ll get the word of that.”
Alderman Quinn Parham broke in, making a motion to approve the marshal’s report. [The room dissolved into laughter and applause. – Brian Jones]
In other business, the board took another step toward building a municipal center.
“I’d like to have the engineer do a study on that land across from the Water Department and see what we need to do to prep that site,” Parham said.
“We’re in the process of trying to build a new municipal complex,” Gerhart explained to the crowd. “We want to put all our ducks in one building. The Water Department, the mayor and town clerk’s office and possibly a bank, if one don’t get here before we get this built. Right now we’ve got $75,000, we’re going to invest $50,000 more and maybe by the next administration after this one we’ll have enough to build a new building.”
The board unanimously approved engaging the engineer and putting back the additional $50,000.